8 Hispanic People Who Revolutionized the Film Industry

Hispanic roots run deep in the United States film industry. Since the time of silent films, Hispanic actors, directors, producers, and filmmakers have been a part of Hollywood, and they continue to shape its present and future. 

However, according to last year’s Hollywood diversity report, Latino actors show up in only 7% of film leads. Another report found that the underrepresentation is even worse behind the camera, where Latinos represented just 3.5% of screenwriters and 2.6% of directors. 

National Hispanic Heritage Month kicked off on September 15. To commemorate, let’s take a moment to celebrate the contribution of some of the most influential Hispanic and Latino directors and filmmakers throughout history. From today’s household names to the little-known artists of the past, here are eight Hispanic icons who pushed boundaries and shaped the film industry we know today.

1. Guillermo del Toro

A film legend like Guillermo del Toro needs no introduction. As one of the most recognized Hispanic people in the film industry, this Guadalajara native has directed dozens of iconic horror and fantasy movies from the past few decades, including Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth

His 2017 film The Shape of Water was met with sweeping acclaim, including 13 Oscar nominations and wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score. Today, he continues to make waves in the film industry as he works on a live-action version of his 2022 film Pinocchio and develops new projects with Netflix. 

2. Roberto Galvadón

Roberto Galvadón made his name in the 1930s, during what’s known as the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. While he began his career working as an extra in Hollywood, he later returned to Mexico to produce some of the biggest films of the era, starring some of Mexico’s biggest talents. 

While most of his films were produced and released in Mexico, he also broke boundaries in the American film industry. In 1960, his film Macario became the first Mexican film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. 

3. Patricia Cardoso 

Hailing from Bogota, Colombia, Patricia Cardoso had an unexpected start as a filmmaker. She started out studying anthropology in her home country before becoming a film student at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1996, she became the first Hispanic woman to win a Student Academy Award for her short film. 

Her biggest milestone came in 2002 when she produced her most broadly known piece of work: Real Women Have Curves. This coming-of-age film focuses on a Mexican-American woman (played by America Ferrera in her big-screen debut) as she navigates womanhood, from family relationships to body image. This landmark film broke the conventions of traditional Hollywood filmmaking and inspired body positivity in the generations to come. 

After the movie’s success, Cardoso became the first Latina director to receive a Sundance Audience Award. She also became the first Latina director to have a film included in the National Film Registry after it was selected by the Library of Congress in 2019. 

4. Rodrigo Prieto

Mexican native Rodrigo Prieto is known for his award-winning cinematography in both Mexico and the United States. Throughout his career, his work can be seen in films of prominent directors like Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu. 

After graduating from one of the best film schools in Mexico, he rose through the Mexican film industry with hits like Amores Perros. It wasn’t until his work on the 2003 international feature 21 Grams that he was introduced to the American film audience. 

Where he received the most acclaim, however, was his work on the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain. His stunning cinematography and emotional shooting style captivated audiences and critics alike. While Brokeback Mountain was his first breakout success, it was far from his last — his most recent CV includes 2023’s Barbie and the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon

5. Emilia Saleny 

Emilia Saleny was an Argentinian director who began her career as an actress in the early 1900s. In the 1910s, she founded one of the first film schools in South America, and in 1917, she directed two silent films of her own, starring students from her academy and making her the first woman film director in Argentina. 

While we know more about Saleny’s early life, details about her later career are scarce. She may have had a role in directing and producing a number of films in Argentina, but her exact credits are unknown. What isn’t in question, however, is her impact on the growing film industry in Latin America and beyond. Despite the disagreement among scholars over her exact filmography, Saleny cemented her role as a trailblazing female filmmaker and teacher. 

6. María Luisa Bemberg 

María Luisa Bemberg is considered one of the most revolutionary female directors in Argentina. While her most well-known films came out in the 1980s and 1990s, her vast legacy continues today.

Despite the backdrop of oppressive military regimes in the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s, Bemberg ventured into feminist theatre to portray the struggles of upper-class Argentinian women. In the 1970s, she wrote two films, Crónica de una señora and Triangle of Four. When her next film was censored by the military regime, she traveled to New York to study acting and work on her craft. 

Her third and most recognized film, Camila, came in 1984 and portrays a woman challenging the authority of family, church, and state — making a powerful statement about women’s empowerment at the time. The movie was a success, going on to become the biggest box-office hit in Argentina’s history. 

7. J. A. Bayona 

Juan Antonio García Bayona, better known as J. A. Bayona, is a Spanish film director with more than one big hit under his belt. His debut feature in 2007 — with Guillermo del Toro as executive producer — was the horror film The Orphanage

In the wake of that success, he went on to direct The Impossible, about a Spanish family fighting to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The movie landed the best opening in Spanish box-office history, grossing $8.6 million in its first weekend. The film received nominations for best actress at the Oscars and Golden Globe Awards for Naomi Watts, along with 14 nominations at the Goya Awards and a National Film Award. 

Since then, he’s gone on to direct the fantasy drama A Monster Calls and the adventure film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Most recently, he directed the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

8. Robert Rodriguez 

Born in San Antonio to Mexican parents, Robert Rodriguez had to work his way into the industry. After being rejected from his school’s film program, Rodriguez shot his own action and horror short films on video. It wasn’t until he won a local film contest that he earned a spot in the university’s film program. While there, he made his award-winning short film Bedhead in 1991. 

His big break came a year later, shooting the action flick El Mariachi with a budget of only $7,000. The film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was later picked up by Columbia Pictures for distribution. After El Mariachi, Rodriguez continued to create films that pushed the limits of what Hispanic stories could look like on screen. With films like the Spy Kids franchise and Machete, he made an effort to portray Hispanic characters in ways that challenged stereotypes. Many of his projects have served as a platform for Hispanic and Latino talent, like Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas in his film Desperado.

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