Steven Canals has only been a show co-creator and co-executive producer for about three years now, but those three years have had a tremendous, outsized impact on TV and culture at large. As the man who brought Pose to the world (alongside, of course, creative mavericks Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk) Canals has been instrumental in making conversations about trans awareness and trans rights mainstream.
Cherished for its depiction of gay and trans people forming a family in New York City days-gone-by, Pose also performs the rarer-still-for-TV act of putting Latinx people at the heart of the story. Through its characters Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore), and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), viewers see Puerto Rican and Afro-Latinx people shaping ballroom culture and pop culture at large. Himself an Afro-Latin man from NYC, Canals shaped his show to reflect the reality he knew growing up -- one where Black and Latinx people co-existed and formed thick bonds. There aren't many shows on TV about Latinx people, and fewer still about Afro-Latinx folks, and those are some of the holes Canals hopes to continue filling as he creates more shows. As part of an ongoing series throughout Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month (Sept. 15 - Oct. 15), TV Guide is speaking to some of the most prominent Hispanic and Latinx voices in TV today, from actors to producers, writers, and other creatives, to dig into the state of the industry and more. Here's what Steven Canals had to say.
You've been a major mover and shaker and Hollywood for a few years now. From your own perspective and experience, why are there so few Latinx/Hispanic people, either on-screen or behind the scenes? What is the problem?
Steven Canals: That's such a big question. I wish I had a really nuanced answer for it. You know, I think that question needs to be asked of the gatekeepers. The question for me that comes to mind is, "Why do we not value the voices and these experiences?" For me, this goes beyond the Latinx community. As much as folks may want to say Black people are doing so much better now -- and I don't like playing oppression Olympics; I don't like positioning historically marginalized communities against each other -- I think the struggle for Black folks in this industry is very similar to the struggle of the Latin community and to Asians.
I think we're all sort of in the same place -- kind of behind the gate fighting to get in. And so to that, I say I think that there just has to be a deeper reckoning for the gatekeepers. Why have we not continued to elevate folks of color? It just hasn't been asked directly and because it hasn't been asked, and it's never going to be addressed. Why is it that if you're Puerto Rican, or if you're Dominican, or if you're Haitian, Jamaican, why is that you can't find content on television for yourself? Especially right now; it's just content everywhere. The number of friends of mine who are Latin, Afro-Latinx, and Black who I've talked to during this quarantine, who have had a difficult time getting into rooms to pitch projects, who have had projects turned down, who had things that were in development. And then in the midst of the development were told, "I don't know if we should move forward with this, because we already have a project that centers people with this identity." Do white folks hear those things? I doubt it. Those are the kinds of systemic issues that continue to get perpetuated. It's exhausting. And we're constantly having to combat [it].
You've talked a lot about the specific Afro-Latinx experience, which is probably even less represented than non-Black Latinx people. Yet we often see pushback on the Afro-Latinx experience, like for example the ways Cardi B has had to defend her Blackness. Why do you think just asserting Afro-Latinx identity causes so much confusion or issues with some people?
Canals: The easiest way to synthesize it is to say there isn't one monolithic way to be Latin. And in addition to that, you have all of these different nationalities within Latinx. There's an immense amount of pride for where you come from, so geography plays a large part in some of these fractures. But specifically not white-passing Puerto Rican, Black Puerto Rican, that experience is different. It shades how people see you.
Specifically growing up in New York City in the '80s and early '90s, the area of the Bronx I grew up in was populated by primarily Puerto Ricans, some Dominicans, and Blacks. I think the reason why [Cardi B] has been able to navigate her career in a way where some people are questioning her identity has everything to do with place -- with her growing up in New York. I never really had to think about my identity, how I identified, and how I navigated space specifically as the product of an Afro-Latina because in my household, those weren't conversations that we had to have. I grew up in a household that was Puerto Rican that was made up of white-passing Puerto Ricans, Black Puerto Ricans, and then Black people. We had people who check all three boxes.
Um, that sounds like it would be a lot of fun! A very rich environment.
Canals: It was incredible. We had everything, everything under the sun, it was great. One of my aunts by marriage grew up in the South. So she was cooking Southern cuisine. But then you had my grandmothers who were born in Puerto Rico who were cooking Puerto Rican food. I mean, it was a mix of everything. I was always told "You're a Puerto Rican." And so that was always how I identified.
It never occurred to me to think about my own Blackness until my mom and my uncle did one of those genealogy tests and when it came back, the results were 50% sub-Saharan African. And it really opened up some really interesting conversations within my family. And so that's when I started to adopt Afro-Latinx or Afro-Latin and more recently, I've started using Afro-Puerto Rican just because so far that feels specific. I have issues with the word Latinx -- all these terms Latin, Hispanic, like, what do they really mean? Where do they come from? And who exactly do they represent? I've now decided Afro-Puerto Rican feels much more accurate to my experience.
I've read that you didn't really see representations of your identity on TV growing up. Is that true? How did that affect you?
Canals: For me, it was less about identity and it was more about how a person looked. For example, growing up, I loved The Cosby Show. I loved A Different World. I think some people would probably argue it's interesting that those shows spoke to you because that wasn't your experience, the Huxtables were upper-middle-class -- they were doing really well, and I grew up in housing projects in the Bronx. So my lived experience couldn't be any more different, but the reality that there were members of my family like, one of my aunts to me looks so much like Phylicia Rashad, who played Clair. So to me there's a connect to what I'm seeing on screen because they look like people in my family. I wasn't specifically thinking, "Oh, this is a show that centers Black people."
It's a little more nuanced now that I'm older. So an actor like Jharrel Jerome, for example, you know, who's Afro-Latin, whose family is from the Dominican Republic, like it would have been so critically important for me as a kid to see someone like [him] centered on a television show. Someone like Naya Rivera, when she was on Glee -- that was really incredible. I was in my late 20s, early 30s, when Glee came out, but that was still really important to me. That has always been at the heart of the kind of work that I want to put out into the world. I grew up in a household where my grandmother, my abuelita, used to watch us Telemundo and she loved all the telenovelas. And the reality is, even today, the vast majority of the women on those shows tend to be white-passing. So like, what exactly then are you saying? Not just in terms of the types of people that you value who also who we are as the community? Where are the women who look like my mom, and my aunties? That has always has been very confusing to me. Whether you use the term Hispanic or Latinx, within the diaspora, that needs to be wrestled with. When we're talking about Latinas, there's a very specific look that we tend to center. It's like, the darkest we're gonna go with is Jennifer Lopez or Eva Longoria. It kind of ends there. What does that say about what we value in this culture, but also, what does that say about the community as a whole?
You've said you're excited to bring that representation to your forthcoming projects. I was wondering, what kind of roles or perhaps characters are missing that you're excited to bring to the screen? Beyond just skin color and ethnicity -- is it doctors, astronauts? What are you eager to show of Latinx people?
Canals: Well, I can tell you about the show that just got announced. [In the End, for ABC]. And so my character, Mariana Cortez, is a working single mom. She is a breast cancer survivor, who in the course of the series will find out that her cancer returned. And she's a woman who was formerly incarcerated. And I think that having a main character who's Latina, who is working as a house cleaner, and a waitress, so right there -- on the surface that feels like stereotypes. And now I've added on that this is a woman who was formerly incarcerated. But those are very intentional choices that I'm making with this character because outside of the fact that I want to use my art to create more empathy, I want my work to encourage discourse. But more than that, I think that there are certain narratives that just have never been questioned. So in the same way that on Pose with the character of Angel, she's a trans sex worker, and there was hesitation at first about that choice. We thought, "Well, you know, we've seen trans people, sex workers, historically, you know, so do we really want to kind of perpetuate that again?" But we knew that we were going to be subversive in our storytelling.
And I think similarly with Mariana, there's an opportunity for me to take what we have seen before and has been used as a stereotype and has been weaponized as a way to disenfranchise Latin people. So I can say, "Wait -- there's a whole other part of the story that you all have ignored." And so, here's an opportunity to course correct and actually show the truth of what it means to hold these identities and to live this kind of life. We're in this era where we're wanting to be woke and we're wanting to do everything right. I think what's important is that are not being so aspirational that we leave people behind. Because the reality is like when I go back to the Bronx, there are still people who are struggling. I don't want every story to have to be someone who's downtrodden, but I don't want to project out in the world that Black and brown people are all doing great, and have no issues at all. That's not the truth. Some of us are doing really well, and others are not. And I think it's important that there's a balance in terms of the content that we see out in the world. If anything, I would argue those are the stories that truly need to be centered, so that we can have a little more empathy and create more equity and equality for folks.
That is all very well put. I don't think I ever watched Pose and thought any of the characters were a stereotype -- or for that matter, explicitly Latinx. They're not speaking Spanish, or say, waving Puerto Rican flags. I don't mean to be facetious -- I just mean that they're not written as overly ethnic. Why'd you write those characters that way?
Canals: It's an interesting question because I think that, for me, it raises the question of, when does a show qualify as being a Latinx show? Is it because you have Latinx people populating the show? I think that's a really fascinating question. You know, in the case of Pose specifically, I would say the only episode we have that is overtly Latin is in the first season, the fifth episode, and it's when Blanca's mother dies. And she goes to see her sister, and then she goes to the mom's funeral, and then obviously she goes home to her childhood home. And that episode is obviously very, very Latin.
But I don't think that the people who watch Pose, particularly our Black and our brown audience, are ever really thinking about the fact that they're watching a mixed family. Papi is Dominican, and then you have both Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore are both Black, Puerto Rican. It isn't a Black show or isn't a Latinx show. In my mind is it's both. But I think the reason why it doesn't feel like something we're beating the audience over the head with, conversations about identity, is because in our everyday lives, that's just not how we talk. We don't spend all day every day talking about it. There are other aspects to who I am. And I think that that's embedded in the show, for all of our characters. They're not just one thing, and I think we've worked really hard to make sure that anyone coming in wouldn't see them as just being trans or just being queer, or just being brown or just being Latinx. They're all of those things.
Pose Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Netflix.