Where were the Latinos at South by Southwest?

Popular Latino musicians like Café Tacvba didn’t make an appearance. Ruy Landa/Flickr, CC BY-SA

In March, artists, media industry executives and new media experts gathered in Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival to discuss the future of music, film and interactive media.

Since 1987, SXSW has featured musicians and filmmakers, showcasing rising talent across a variety of genres and mediums. At the same time, SXSW is meant to signal the latest innovations in emerging technology by promoting new websites, video games and start-ups. According to the event’s own planners, SXSW “has become the place to preview the technology of tomorrow today.”

Conspicuously absent in the hype of this year’s SXSW was the contingent of rising Latino talent, which includes Oaxacan rapper Mare and San Francisco-based filmmaker Aurora Guerrero. Nor were there any special appearances by established Latino artists like Café Tacvba.

Someone attending the festival may have gotten the sense that Latinos are merely incidental to technological and cultural change in the US.

In fact, they’re central to it.

New Latinos: new consumers for new media

According to the Pew Research Center, the median age for US Latinos is 27, which is ten years younger than the median age for non-Latinos. The disparities are even greater among viewers of broadcast television, where the average age is 51.

Because of their growing numbers and overall youth, Latinos ought to be an appealing target for television networks and the advertisers who subsidize those networks; they should figure prominently in how media executives imagine their audience of the future.

Additionally, Latinos wield significant buying power, estimated by the Selig Center for Economic Growth to be $1.2 trillion. According to the market research company IBIS World, the increased numbers of Latino youth will have a disproportionate influence in retail and financial services, along with the automotive and entertainment industries.

There’s also a better chance than ever before that a person downloading music, watching a movie and sharing images will be Latino. And because many Latinos speak Spanish either as a first or second language, they’re likely to consume content in Spanish.

In my own research on the television industry, I found that executives are enthusiastic about what they call the “new Latino” – young, bicultural consumers who are proficient with emerging technologies. According to Nielsen, Latinos are comfortable with consuming content in a variety of mediums; compared to non-Latino whites, they spend 68% more time watching video online and 20% more time watching video on their mobile phones.

A gaping Latino media gap

But excitement hasn’t translated into a greater presence of Latinos in media, and the exclusion of Latino artists, filmmakers and entrepreneurs highlights the disparities between those who consume media and those who produce it. In an editorial written for The Hollywood Reporter, comedian Chris Rock issued a scathing critique of the Los Angeles film industry, describing it as “a Mexican-slave state.” Pointing out these disparities, Rock wrote:

You’re in L.A. You’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans… You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true?

Rock’s argument is not without merit. In a 2014 study report titled The Latino Media Gap, scholars at Columbia University found that from 2010 to 2012 Latinos comprised none of the top 10 TV show creators, while making up only 1.1% of producers, 2% of writers and 4.1% of directors. Among top ten movies, Latinos accounted for 2.3% of directors, 2.2% of producers, and 6% of writers. No Latinos currently serve as studio heads, network presidents, CEOs or owners. The report also found that there was only one Latina among the top 53 executives at the studios and in all of English-language broadcasting.

The lack of Latinos in creative and executive positions corresponds to their poor representation in television and film. The authors of the study also found that while the 50 million-plus Latinos in the US make up 16% of the population, there were no leading roles for Latino actors among the top 10 movies and scripted network TV shows in all of 2013.

Furthermore, Latinos continue to be represented primarily as criminals, law enforcers and cheap labor. According to the report, from 2012 to 2013, 17.7% of Latino film characters and 24.2% of TV characters were linked to crime (even more jarring, in 1994 that figure was only 6%). Meanwhile, 69% of maids featured in film and television since 1996 are Latina.

These numbers are especially notable, given that media executives are faced with the challenge of appealing to new viewers, as their current television audiences have grown older and whiter, relative to the rest of the population.

Stagnant industry practices

But Rock was speaking about Hollywood. SXSW is supposed to represent something different. Sure, like Comic-Con and Coachella, SXSW is beginning to look less like a grass-roots movement and more like a corporate event. But in the weeks leading up to SXSW15, the city of Austin was actually promoted as an alternative to Hollywood – an incubator for innovative ideas and risk-taking. In a report on the Austin film industry, BBC’s Christian Blauvelt rhapsodized:

There (in Hollywood) it’s a top down model, where the latest trends are driven by industry executives, film schools and critics. Here in Austin, the film community is powered largely by the fans who patronize movie institutions.

Blauvent’s claim doesn’t quite ring true. In a city where Latinos make up 35% of the population, the inability for SXSW’s planners to find and promote ample Latino talent speaks to conservative nature of the industry.

In a city that’s 35% Latino, it’s surprising that more attention wasn’t given to discussing ways to appeal to this growing – and active – group of media consumers. Julia Robinson/Reuters

What’s taking the industry so long to respond appropriately with content, products and personalities geared towards this growing, young segment of the population?

For one, despite all their claims about innovation, the media industry is remarkably adept at replicating itself. In his discussion of television industry practices, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that industry practitioners are incredibly like-minded. After years of uniform education and training, media executives begin to implement not only the same professional practices, but also possess the same tastes and worldview.

It’s perhaps for this reason that media executives continue to see Latinos as a niche – not part of mainstream culture. And this perception, in turn, has a profound effects on the content produced by the industry. As influential gate-keepers, industry executives ensure that Latino talent remains invisible. In doing so, they ensure that the industry will produce nothing truly transformative.

Instead, we simply get more of the same.