Code Switch
6:38 am
Fri September 5, 2014

Does It Matter That Rosie Perez Is The First Latina Co-Host Of 'The View'?

The View just made history in naming Rosie Perez as a new co-host of ABC's daytime chat show.

ABC revealed Wednesday that Perez would join former GOP strategist Nicolle Wallace, teaming with stars Rosie O'Donnell and Whoopi Goldberg when The View's new season debuts Sept. 15.

In hiring Perez, a Brooklyn-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents, ABC did something new: It named the first Latina as a regular co-host in The View's 17-year history.

Which raises an important question: Will it matter?

For those of us who think representation is important, the answer is: lots.

I've written before about how much of the underrepresentation of people of color on television can be traced to a severe lack of Latinos and Hispanics in prominent roles. The fact that The View — which had two African-American co-hosts for the past several seasons — took so long to add a Latina to its permanent roster of co-hosts is telling.

Likewise, The View's biggest rival, CBS's daytime show The Talk, also has featured no permanent Latina co-hosts in its four-year history, though three of the show's five co-hosts are nonwhite, including two African-Americans.

On some level, the co-host panels on these shows are supposed to look like the audience, offering a wide range of people with whom viewers can identify and see as their TV friends.

So what did it say to Latino and Hispanic viewers when no one from their culture was hired as a permanent part of these shows, but America's other nonwhite demographics were represented?

Ultimately, I believe that voters picking candidates, business owners hiring job seekers, renters seeking tenants and police officers enforcing the law learn a little bit about what to think of different kinds of people by the images they absorb from media.

A recent study found 91 percent of white Americans' social networks — the people they discuss important matters with — were also white. Among black people, that number dipped to a still-high 83 percent. So if a talk show can present a TV friend who is Latina, how might that resonate with people who have no real-life nonwhite friends in their social networks?

This has real consequence outside the entertainment world. These study results prove that, despite international attention to incidents like the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin shootings, we don't talk across race about important issues very often.

Perez is also important because she's not just an Oscar-nominated actress but an activist on causes involving rights for Puerto Rico, arts education in urban communities and fighting HIV/AIDS transmission. She may have played Latina sexpots in her early acting career, but her off-screen work reveals a personality that challenges typical stereotypes about Hispanic women.

For those of us who felt a little queasy watching Sofía Vergara, who was snubbed for an Emmy nomination, get put on a pedestal to be ogled during the award show's broadcast last week, Perez's hire means something.

Seeing a Latina performer with a history of speaking out on serious issues get a platform like The View is an encouraging sign — even as some of us critics wonder if the show is on its last legs, following the departure of founder Barbara Walters.

Of course, Perez can't be a proxy for all Latino ideas on the show. And since she's so closely identified with New York, I think there's room in daytime talk for a Latina with roots in the Southwest or West Coast (hey Los Angeles-based The Talk, are you paying attention?).

So here's hoping Rosie Perez's joining The View is the start of a trend in the opposite direction — including people often left out of America's discussions in a way that just might make for some great television, too.

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