Felicia Montenegro, wife of Maestro Leonard Berstein
Courtesy of the Library of Congress Music Division/Latin Times

As the curtains rise on Netflix with the much-anticipated release of Bradley Cooper's 'Maestro,' the decision to cast British actress Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montenegro, the Latina wife of legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, strikes another dissonant chord in the ongoing conversation about Latino representation in Hollywood.

This film, now accessible to a global audience, reignites crucial questions about the industry's commitment to authentic and diverse storytelling. The casting choice illustrates a larger, systemic issue in Hollywood: the consistent underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Latino characters.

It's a painful throwback to the original version of West Side Story in 1961, which was Berstein's first foray into film. That movie featured several Anglo actors with brown makeup to portray the Puerto Rican characters.

Felicia Montenegro, a character of significant cultural and historical importance, represents more than just a role in the biopic. She embodies the richness of Latino heritage, a narrative that deserves to be portrayed with authenticity and respect. The decision to cast an Anglo actor in this role raises critical questions about the opportunities available to Latino talent in Hollywood

A Pattern of Latino Misrepresentation in Hollywood

The story of Latino representation in Hollywood is fraught with missed opportunities and stereotypical portrayals. According to the latest reports, Latinos still comprise only a minuscule fraction of speaking roles in major films despite representing a significant portion of the U.S. population and the movie-going audience.

The sixth annual report by the non-profit Latino Donor Collaborative (LDC) in 2023 shows that only 3.3% of leads in TV shows are Latinos, while Latinos make up about 19.1% of the U.S. population.

The casting of Mulligan as Felicia Montenegro is not an isolated case. Hollywood's history is riddled with examples of Latino characters being played by non-Latino actors. From Marlon Brando's portrayal of Emiliano Zapata in 'Viva Zapata!' to Al Pacino's role as Tony Montana in 'Scarface,' the industry has repeatedly sidelined Latino talent. These casting choices, while sometimes acclaimed for their artistic merit, overlook the cultural nuances and lived experiences that Latino actors could bring to these roles.

The impact of such casting decisions extends beyond the film industry. It perpetuates a cycle of invisibility for Latino actors and diminishes the cultural authenticity of the stories being told. This underrepresentation also has broader societal implications, shaping public perceptions and reinforcing stereotypes about the Latino community.

The reaction to Mulligan's casting in 'Maestro' has been mixed, with some industry insiders defending it as a purely artistic choice, while others, particularly within the Latino community, view it as a step back in the fight for representation.

Upon the release of the "Maestro" trailer, attention was drawn to Bradley Cooper's transformation into Leonard Bernstein, notably his use of a prominent prosthetic nose. This aspect stirred discussions about the portrayal of the iconic composer-conductor, with some critics suggesting it leaned towards a stereotypical depiction of Jewish identity. In contrast, the decision for Carey Mulligan to dye her hair black in her portrayal of Felicia Montealegre garnered zero attention in the mainstream U.S. media.

The incredible Felicia Cohn Montealegre

Felicia Montealegre, born Felicia María Josefa de Jesús Cohn Montealegre, was a notable figure in the arts and a prominent social activist. Her early years were marked by a multicultural upbringing.

Born in Costa Rica, she moved with her family to Santiago, Chile, where her father took a leadership role at an American mining company. Raised in a bilingual household, she spoke both English and Spanish fluently.

Montealegre's career was diverse and impactful. She was an accomplished actress, known for her appearances in television shows like "The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre," "Goodyear Playhouse," and "Studio One."

Her theatrical endeavors were equally impressive, including performances in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage," alongside Charlton Heston. Montealegre also made her mark on Broadway, debuting in "Swan Song" and appearing in productions like "Poor Murderer."

Beyond her artistic achievements, Montealegre was deeply involved in social activism. She was the first chair of the Women's Division of the New York Civil Liberties Union, focusing on educational programs and fundraising events. She supported anti-war campaigns and was notably arrested in an antiwar protest in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps most famously, Montealegre hosted a fundraiser in 1970 to support the families of members of the Black Panther Party who were jailed, an event that drew considerable media attention and controversy.

Her personal life was equally noteworthy. Montealegre met Leonard Bernstein in 1946 at a party hosted by Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau. Their relationship had its complexities, including a broken engagement and a temporary separation, reflecting the challenges they faced, particularly with Bernstein's sexuality. Despite these challenges, they married in 1951 and had three children.

Montealegre's life was a blend of artistic achievement and committed activism, marked by her resilience and adaptability in the face of personal and societal challenges​​​​​​.

The casting controversy in 'Maestro' highlights a persistent issue in Hollywood: the need for authentic representation of the Latino community. It's a call to action for the industry to reflect, reconsider, and reshape its approach to diversity and inclusion. As we move forward, it's crucial that Hollywood listens to the voices calling for change and takes meaningful steps towards a more inclusive and representative cinematic landscape.

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