Ushering Latinos into the Spotlight

(left to right) Emanuel Nuñez, Helen Hernandez, and Tom Cruise at the 24th annual Imagen Awards in 2009, where Nuñez was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him at the event by Cruise.

Alongside an increasing number of opportunities both on-screen and behind the camera for Latinos in the United States, there are dozens of Latinos in high-level executive positions in the entertainment industry today—a stark change from as little as 15 years ago. Much of this advancement is thanks to The Imagen Foundation. Founded by television producer Norman Lear and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Imagen Awards competition was created in 1985. In 1995, Imagen became a standalone organization—The Imagen Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission was to encourage the positive portrayal of Latinos in all aspects of the entertainment industry, foster career opportunities for Latinos in entertainment, and to reward those who do both. Helen Hernandez, president and founder, takes a break from her busy schedule to chat with Hispanic Executive about the foundation’s success and the legacy it hopes to leave behind.

How did you get started working in entertainment?
I was a labor-union organizer and I met someone working for Norman Lear. He was looking for a person to work in the public-affairs department to provide interaction between the company and the community at large. I applied and was offered the job. Everything we do contributes to the community and creates partnerships between the community and the industry.

The Imagen Awards competition is celebrating its 27th year. How did it get off the ground?  
We came up with the idea in a meeting Norman and I had back in 1985 with the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice). Then in 1995, they asked if we would be interested in taking it over entirely. That’s when we created The Imagen Foundation.

We received seed money from Capital Cities/ABC that first year, and we gave out three awards, honoring people for their positive image of Latinos in television and film, including Cap Cities/ABC for their support. In 1996, we made it a black-tie event and shifted it from a luncheon to a dinner. Then in 1998, we looked at the process of selecting who we’re going to honor and realized we needed to create a mechanism so that Latinos could submit their body of work for consideration. That was a huge milestone for Imagen. Today, foundation sponsors include CBS, Disney, NBCUniversal, Sony, ABC, FOX, HBO, and MTV Networks.

Imagen is very involved in education. Tell me about your efforts in this area. 
In 1996, we hosted the Annual Entertainment Industry Job Fair and Career Conference and  created an opportunity for powerful, influential Latinos to meet. That had never happened before. Last year, we realized the job fair wasn’t appropriate anymore, since people were submitting applications online and building a LinkedIn page. We no longer needed the job fair, but people still wanted information and needed help. So we worked with the studios and networks to put together workshops and created a career conference, which runs on a Saturday, and anyone interested in the industry can attend. We also launched a supplier-diversity and procurement division to provide information to small-business owners on how to get contracts with the studios and networks.

In 2007, Imagen launched its ranking of the Most Powerful and Influential Latinos in Entertainment. What was behind that idea?
We wanted to increase Latino participation in the mainstream entertainment industry, and in doing so, also help the community. We thought it would be great to look at Latinos in significant positions in the industry—not actors and creative persons, but executives and management—positions of influence, where high-level decisions were being made. To date, we have recognized more than 100 Latino executives in entertainment. The list is announced annually in Beverly Hills during Hispanic Heritage Month and provides a networking opportunity for attendees.

How would you like to see the foundation grow over the next 10 years? 
I have a vision. We already have well over 2,500 projects in our library and every year when we have submissions, I would like to allow students to come in and screen projects and have classes come in, like [being] on a field trip. For someone wanting to study the Latino experience, this is a great opportunity and it’s my dream to have some kind of a center, which could be a resource for the community and anyone wanting to learn more about the Latino experience in the United States.