SNL has hired their first Latina cast member, Melissa Villaseñor, and with that seemingly comes a pressure for her to represent descendants of the Incan, Mayan, and Olmec empires collectively and beyond. SNL remains notorious for its diversity problem, and when someone non-white beats all competition to become part of the solution, they then face an additional challenge to transcend tokenism. If America loves them, they can end up with movie deals and subsequent articles about their racial trailblazing. Since Villaseñor’s racial responsibilities appear more extensive than her white cohort, let’s pause before we burden her shoulders with the “First Latina” sash and contextualize the challenges that lie ahead by looking back on the scant but loaded history of Latinos on SNL.
I started by scanning through SNL’s online digital archive for original Latino characters—so you don’t have to. The archive does not include everything, but it seems to include every sketch either notable or recurring. Before SNL added its first Latino cast member in 1998 with Chilean-born Horatio Sanz, only a handful of Hispanic characters recurred. This included Latina talk show hosts Chi Chi and Consuela, played by white girls Mary Gross and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and bumbling Mexico City crime photographer Mike Mendoza, played by Dan Ackroyd. Don’t let that ethnic name fool you, he’s white. Ackroyd also appears as “Mexican” in one of SNL’s earliest classics, the “South American Killer Bees” sketch which either satirized stereotypes or perpetuated them depending on who you ask.
The bees and other Latino-related sketches indicated that a lack of Latino actors did not/does not keep SNL from creating Latino characters. We’ve seen this more recently with Cecily Strong, who is not a Latina but plays them on TV. SNL Performers, particularly those with any kind of ethnic ambiguity, have always managed to get involved with cross-racial or “colorblind” casting on the show. Blackface remains taboo, at least the most taboo, yet it seems other types of color crossing remain of lesser issue. Thus last year L.A. Weekly declared that SNL had a “Latino Problem” exhibited by too few Latin hosts and way too few Latin cast members.
The skill and readiness of potential players has been the show’s go-to-excuse for their cast’s lack of diversity. Since performer candidates need the ability to gel with the show’s pre-existing style, producers have always kept its talent searches relatively domestic. I say “relatively” because cast members have come from Canada; America’s other neighbors need not apply. SNL will never be as diverse as say, a New York baseball team. Recent findings show that SNL’s familiar talent pools within New York, LA, and Chicago’s comedy scenes reflect a mostly white population, so if SNL wants diversity they need to find an outlier. That was the case In 1998 when they found Horatio Sanz in the Chicago Improv Scene and filled a Latino vacancy that had lasted the show’s entire 23 years.
Sanz is arguably the “most Latino” person in SNL’s performer history. He was born in Chile, speaks Spanish, and even has that very Latin name. Horatio. Sanz. Being the first Latino, his very existence was in a way remarkable. He now just had to stay on the show. It’s no secret that an SNL performer keeps his contract as long as they hustle for themselves—finding writers that can write for them and characters they can turn into household names. Sanz had friends from Chicago already working on the show when he joined, so he started with a relatively welcoming group.
Sanz hardly became “the Latin guy.” He almost never spoke Spanish, but he did play plenty of Latin characters con acento. These opportunities seemed to not materialize very frequently, so to expand his stage time he would engage in the same colorblind casting as his cast mates. For instance, he played Chinese actor Sammo Hung and Elton John. That’s right: yellowface and whiteface on a brownface. His trademark gut was the key factor in many of his castings since the show seemingly doesn’t believe in anything like thinface —a term I made up to mean trying to pass a fat guy for a thin guy.
An SNL performer can strike gold when the stars align for them, like Tina Fey with Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, the Latin and fat and popular stars rarely aligned for Sanz though that largely the result of our culture. Statistically, Latinos in the U.S. were/are underrepresented in media and SNL’s model relies on pop culture to remain relevant and thus profitable. If only Pablo Escobar had still been alive or Carson Daly had been fat.
Sanz’s characters never became the household names that make up the typical “Best of” DVD, yet he is a role model for diverse achievements. He would be the first and still only Latino to host Weekend Update, when Tina Fey spent half a season on maternity leave. He’d also be the first cast member ever to perform and coin a new holiday standard, 2000’s “I Wish it Was Christmas Today.” This could arguably be his greatest legacy. Otherwise, he’ll most likely be known as a consistent supporting player in many now classic sketches. He’s the straight man in Debbie Downer. He’s giggling lines in “More Cowbell.” Sanz supported the seasons that launched Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, and Jimmy Fallon among others. Fallon and Sanz had actually joined the cast together and while Fallon’s post-SNL legacy remains obvious, Sanz’s remains less conspicuous. He often pops up as a guest star though you might not recognize him since he lost the weight.
When Fred Armisen joined the cast in 2002, SNL reached its Latino peak. Two performers! And during what you might call the Washington Heights Renaissance, several “Latin-centric” sketches, both parodies of Spanish TV, found recurring success including their novella parody, “Besos y Lagrimas,” and the talk shows, “What’s the Word? Ah Yes, Show,” and, “¡Showbiz Grande Explosion!” The latter had been in Armisen’s audition. There was a whole culture out there! Your favorite Latino parodies didn’t need to come from Mind of Mencia!
Armisen often utilized his Venezuelan, German, and Japanese heritages to stretch SNL’s looseness with colorblind casting to new limits. He carved out a niche for himself as a master of accents and impressions and thus the go-to “foreign guy.” He played middle eastern, asian, and even black characters. He even played Barack Obama until Jay Pharaoh joined the show.
played by a non-black actor points at a trend at SNL this article touched on before: if you can get away with it then get away with it. And if you are a person of color you are particularly poised to play most any color you can feasibly fit. Maya Rudolph as Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez. Nasim Pedrad as Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez.
But sometimes Jennifer Lopez is Jennifer Lopez. The musician/actress is one of the 12 hosts of Hispanic Heritage to grace the SNL stage. The line starts with Desi Arnaz and ends with Armisen and Louis CK, most recently. Those latter performers are arguably “not positioned as Latino,” a description that the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts used to describe Armisen when petitioning Michaels for more Latin inclusion in 2014. They also reference Noel Wells, who claimed 1/4 Latin heritage but whose position as such was hardly identifiable. This gets at how non-recognizable Latinos, or more cynically, white passing Latinos, account for most of an already short list of those invited on SNL. I mean, Cameron Diaz is on there. As are the Sheens. Remember that one of them kept it real and remained Esteves? Emilio! When Latinos do host, they most often do so with the same paleness as the majority of the cast.
Appreciation for America’s fastest growing minority group was largely called into question last year when Lorne Michaels invited Donald Trump to host the program. The invitation sparked a large outcry and spurred many of the articles about Latinos and SNL that informed this one. Major petitions were organized. Boycotts occurred. They went forward with what many considered a callous grab at ratings including a sketch where Beck Bennett, white, plays the President of Mexico handing Trump a check for the wall. This episode further exposed SNL’s diversity problem and colored perceptions of the show even after its air date. With negative press mounting, Lorne vowed to fix his show’s Latino Problem.
And it looks like he’s kept that promise. Earlier this year, SNL’s production company Broadway Video along with Sanz and Armisen, launched a Latino-centered YouTube Channel called Mas Mejor to help cull and train Latino talent. No, the videos are not in Spanish. Melissa Villaseñor was herself very active on the channel, so apparently that process works. In addition to Villaseñor, they’ve hired El Salvador native Julio Torres to write for the show.
Many comedians build their lives around a dream of getting on Saturday Night Live, and these latest additions were presumably no exception. While some will watch Villaseñor to be her generation’s Rita Moreno, it may serve her better to frame her not just as a Latina performer but as simply a performer since history makes it clear that race at SNL is only as restrictive of one’s versatility. That idea has its own issues, but for better or worse, it’s the reality of SNL that Villaseñor has been thrust into. So, while Villaseñor is not stuck just playing Jennifer Lopez, it’s handy that she does do an incredible impression.
Robert Salazar is an actor, comedian, and musician living in Chicago. He currently stars in the stage novella Los Secretos de Santa Monica and releases music as Boo Baby.