DENVER — Reggaeton is booming, thanks to artists like Bad Bunny and Calle 13’s Resīdɛntə who continue to enhance the genre’s appeal with their focus on political and social change. Netflix’s new comedy series Neon is set to star Puerto Rican actor Tyler Dean Flores as a would-be reggaetonero taking on the Miami scene. The series is set to begin production in Puerto Rico from February to April.
Neon is the brainchild of Shea Serrano, the first Mexican American to become a three-time New York Times best-selling author, whose titles include The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed (Abrams Image, 2015) with Max Searle serving as showrunner. To hear that a Netflix show about the genre is in the works wasn’t shocking, but what is strange to hear is that behind the camera — producing roles, consultants, and the writers’ room — were void of the much-needed Boricua voice. Puerto Rican filmmakers, writers, and comedians are understandably upset and are not only questioning the new comedy’s authenticity but also how its impact can continue to perpetuate the archaic idea that Latiné experiences, stories, and people are interchangeable.
In the late 1980s, Panamanians fused Jamaican beats with Spanish lyrics to create a unique sound, reggae en español, but by the early ’90s its influence began to spread to the Puerto Rican music scene. The new genre, Reggaeton or reggae de Puerto Rico, synthesized Spanish reggae from Panama and hip-hop with Latin American and Caribbean rhythms. In the early ’90s the Puerto Rican police launched a campaign against it, confiscating cassette tapes from music stores under penal obscenity codes, levying fines, and demonizing rappers in the media as “irresponsible corrupters of the public order.” Underground cassettes were eventually sold openly in music stores and clubs, gaining acceptance as an integral part of Puerto Rican popular culture. The new genre eventually found its way to the mainland thanks to the continued diaspora due to conflicts between the US government and the island.
For Puerto Ricans, writing a Reggaeton series without them is not only a slap in the face, it’s pretty impossible if you’re looking for an authentic storyline that has their popularized signature sazón. Puerto Ricans close to the production who have asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs all have one sentiment in common: To save face, show creators have been saying it’s a show about the music and not Puerto Rican culture, but the two cannot be separated. One anonymous Puerto Rican filmmaker shared their concerns about showrunner Max Searle also not being Puerto Rican or Latiné (Searle is a top-level executive producer who has creative and management authority and is typically the head writer, script, and story editor), saying, “This to me is even more problematic. He can’t share perspectives on the culture or our experiences. This would’ve been a great opportunity for inclusion in this space and they missed the mark.”
Entertainment journalist Cristina Escobar, who first broke the story with Latino Rebels, told Hyperallergic: “I became an entertainment journalist to advance Latinx representation. Our creatives aren’t getting their due in terms of press coverage and thoughtful reviews, so I set out to better cover our community. Our communities also have specific needs that aren’t well understood in Hollywood so they aren’t getting addressed. Neon not having any Puerto Rican writers hits both of those spots — it’s an important chance to tell a Latinx story to a wide audience, with Latinxs at the helm. As one of my sources said in my article, ‘Latinos are not interchangeable.’ To have a Puerto Rican protagonist in a story about reggaeton and have no Boricua voices crafting that story is an injustice.”
One source close to the production said, “I was approached about the show but they refused to meet with me. They had their writers in mind from the beginning and those writers have even admitted that they know nothing about our culture. It’s not authentic if our people aren’t part of the creative process.”
Escobar, who created LatinaMedia.Co nearly five years ago to uplift Latina and femme Latinx perspectives in media, explores solutions to the gatekeeping. “I think we need to push as audience members, creatives, and journalists for more representation that thoughtfully and meaningfully expands how we and outsiders understand Latinx communities,” she said. “We need more and more diverse representation at all levels in Hollywood. I’m talking in front of the camera, behind it (as writers, directors, executives, etc.) and as cultural gatekeepers (aka critics, entertainment journalists, and influencers). To make that happen, we have to be loud and organized, pushing for more power at all levels.”
Blacklisting is a major roadblock for many as they discuss their concerns about the project. “Hollywood’s blacklisting game is strong,” Escobar said. “It’s an industry where they don’t post jobs, you have to be nominated by someone already involved in the project. That makes hiring as much about someone’s reputation as their credentials.”
“So when someone steps out of what is deemed acceptable behavior — and here ‘acceptable’ is defined by the White power structure — they get punished for it,” Escobar continued. “Add to that the fact that Hollywood is quick to throw out people of color, Latinxs, and women, and you have a very narrow path to success for marginalized communities. Blacklisting makes it harder for us to have meaningful conversations about what’s working and what’s not in the entertainment industry. It ties our hands and slows progress. And it’s very, very real.”
Netflix declined to provide an official statement in response to the allegations in this article. Serrano could not be reached for comment.