Writers on the Line

On the Line
Representation Matters: Latinx and Middle Eastern Writers on the Line
National Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off at Amazon, the WGA lobbies CalPERS to pressure the studios, and Middle Eastern writers on how the strike can bring real change
Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Si Se Puede! A Picket for National Hispanic Heritage Month

Dancing the day away at the National Hispanic Heritage Month picket at Amazon. Photo by J.W. Hendricks.

Writers celebrated the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month Monday at Amazon Studios, a picket that included speeches, sweet bread, live Latin music, and a whole lotta solidarity dancing.
National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15. The picket kicked off with a few words from civil rights leader and Pastor William D. Smart Jr., President and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California.
“You have to continue to fight it out,” Smart Jr. told the crowd. “Because what the studios don’t understand is that the masses of American people are on the side of the Writers Guild.”
Following Smart Jr. were speakers from WGAW’s Latinx Writers Committee, who reminded everyone that, concurrent to the strike, a different battle is being waged. 
“The fight for Latino representation in front and behind the camera will continue for us,” WGAW Board Member and showrunner Dailyn Rodriguez told the crowd. “Although we have made some strides, we are far from achieving representation equal to our presence in this country.”
Despite Latinos making up 19 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of the Los Angeles population, they only make up nine percent of TV writers and three percent of screenwriters.
“That is a very small amount. It is very insignificant,” said WGAW member and event co-organizer Linda Dillon Moya. “When you look at who turned up today, and you look at the dancing and the culture, that is how representative it should be in the writers’ room.”
Though there is more to win, Al Septién, a WGAW member of 30 years, emphasized that there have been positive changes in the community since the WGA strike in 2007-08.
“The big difference is the Latino faces on these strike lines,” Septién told the crowd. “Latinos have stepped up, and they are fighting the fight alongside the rest of our union members.
After the round of impassioned speeches ending in a “Si se puede!” chant, the audience broke out in dance with help from Cuban band San Miguel.
“Incorporating a live band was a deliberate nod to the essence of National Hispanic Heritage Month, offering a respectful tribute to the rich and diverse tapestry of our various cultures and traditions,” Dillion Moya said. “It possesses a profound ability to forge connections and foster unity, and its inclusion in the special picket was aimed at nurturing a heightened sense of community.”
The theme of the event was clear: Latino stories matter, and writers are committed to helping them get told.
“See us, have faith in us,” said Dillon. “Know that we are capable, and that we can write just as well as any other person.”
Agreed Rodriguez, “When we can show all the layers and facets of the Latino community, then we can change hearts and minds of who we are and show how we are integral to the fabric of American society.”

(L-R) WGAW members Nancy De Los Santos, Al Septién, WGAW Board member Dailyn Rodriguez, and Linda Dillon Moya at the National Hispanic Heritage Month picket at Amazon. Photo by J.W. Hendricks. 

WGA in Sacramento at CalPERS

(L-R) WGAW members Jeane Wong and Marla Kanelos, CA Chief Deputy Treasurer Patrick Henning from State Treasurer Fiona Ma's office and WGAW member Sal Calleros. 

Urging administrators of the state retirement system to put pressure on media companies to do the right thing, WGA writers brought their message to the Board of Directors of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) in Sacramento. WGAW members Sal Calleros and Jeane Wong spoke alongside union siblings from the Teamsters, LiUna, IBEW, UNITE HERE, UFCW, and Sheetmetal Workers addressing the CalPERS Investment Committee at CalPERS headquarters Monday.
Legacy studios such as Disney, Comcast NBCUniversal and Paramount are investors in CalPERS. Guild members contend that by refusing to make a deal with the WGA, the studios are causing damage both to the health of CalPERS and to the local economy.
Calleros, a WGAW member since 2007, noted that he has a personal connection to CalPERS. His sister works for the City of San Fernando and will depend on the health of the system for her retirement.
“So I’d like to commend CalPERS for your leadership in centering Labor Principles in your governance and investment guidelines,” Calleros told the board. “Through these revisions, it’s clear that CalPERS has recognized the strong alignment between the fiduciary interests of the fund and of workers in its portfolio companies.”
He urged the board to continue to be good stewards by encouraging the Hollywood CEOs to be more fiscally responsible by doing everything in their power to end the strike.
“These CEOs have cost California $5 billion to date according to the Milken Institute. That means they are putting your money at risk,” Calleros said. “They are putting at risk every pension for every participant in CalPERS who depend on it for their future, like my sister.”
Wong offered similar testimony, providing the board with news of the strike that updates the information delivered by WGAW members Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz and Gabe Garza at the CalPERS July meeting in La Jolla.
The studios, Wong told the board, have given only one inadequate counteroffer to the WGA’s reasonable proposals since the strike began. As the strike continues, the damage has been extensive, both in $5 billion in revenue to the local economy and in the loss of an estimated 17,000 jobs nationwide. Warner Bros. Discovery expects the strike to cost them $300-$500 million in profits.
“The companies’ risky decision to prolong this labor dispute leads to risks and harm in CalPERS’ portfolio, your portfolio – and everyone here as fiduciaries – should be very concerned,” Wong said. “We ask that you re-double your efforts in urging these media companies to negotiate a fair deal that ensures stability for their workforce, the industry, and the long-term financial health of their companies and thus your pension fund.”
Watch video of the remarks here.

Representatives from multiple unions in Sacramento to address the CalPERS Investment Committee.

Mini-Rooms Keep Middle Eastern Writers Stuck in the Middle


This story is part of a series of conversations between WGAW writers of color. We ask two writers to consider the challenges they face within the industry and discuss ways to bring about meaningful change.
According to Mano Agapion, vice chair of WGAW's Middle Eastern Writers Committee (MEWC), writers of Middle Eastern descent make up less than one percent of working writers. This figure, reported in the WGA’s 2022 Inclusion and Equity Report, is something the MEWC is committed to changing and fixing the problems of television writing is key.
The Arab American Institute estimates that nearly 3.7 million Americans trace their roots back to Middle Eastern countries, that is 0.5 percent  of the total population. However, only 0.3 percent are represented in writers’ room.
One of the reasons for the disparity in the numbers is the propagation of Middle Eastern stereotypes in the writers’ room, according to Agapion.
“The most popular stories told about Middle Easterners are stories about terrorism… Americans against the Middle East. We are trying to challenge these two-dimensional portrayals,” said Agapion.
The proliferation of mini-rooms is one of the biggest challenges to Middle Eastern writers breaking down these stereotypes and advancing in the industry, according to Agapion.
“The way rooms have been cast in the last couple of years BIPOC writers are cherry picked and tokenized. Mainstream writers are just seen for their skillset, and Middle Eastern Writers are not,” he said.
Daria Polatin, another Middle Eastern writer and WGAW member, agrees with Agapion’s assessment, saying opportunities for writers in the business are contracting, a trend which she believes will more than likely continue.
“The appetite for risk taking on non-traditional stories and protagonists is becoming smaller as the companies are making what they consider safer choices,” said Polatin.

“It’s really precarious right now, and I think it might get worse before it gets better,” she continued. “It just means we have to work harder on championing writers and storytellers of underrepresented backgrounds.”
During a recent Zoom conversation, the two WGAW members discussed what elements of the strike and the Guild's proposals they view as critical to helping Middle Eastern writers achieve job security, and in what ways have some of these issues affected or impacted them personally.
Agapion is a comedy writer who began his career in the sketch comedy world. A performer and teacher at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, he also sold a pilot to Freeform. Polatin is the creator-showrunner on the Netflix series Devil in Ohio and a former writer and producer on Jack Ryan, Castle Rock, and Hunters
Agopian says that while Middle Eastern writers have the capacity to write authentic stories about the American experience, they are often only asked to write stories about racial or ethnic identity.
“It is impossible to work against that,” said Agapion. “BIPOC writers have to authenticate or validate reasons for existing in the room in a way mainstream, white writers have never been asked. They are allowed to participate in the room in a way BIPOC writers should be allowed.”
Polatin sees writers’ rooms trending toward using one showrunner and a few assistants. But if the companies continue to run rooms in this way, she believes the voices of underrepresented people will be at stake. Writers need to stay on during production and post-production, thereby learning the complete package of what it means to tell stories on television, she says.
“Mini-rooms to me is the most important issue that we face in writing,” said Polatin.
“Small rooms lead to tokenism,” agreed Agapion. “I’ve been the Brown and/or the Gay. It is incredibly demoralizing as a writer, and it is impossible to feel your self-worth in those situations.”
Agapion contends that marginalized groups grow up participating and investing in pop culture experiences, even when those experiences are based in whiteness and straightness.
“I’m always trying to invite people in by saying, ‘your stories are our stories,’” said Agapion. “Just because something is led by a woman, a Brown person, or a queer person doesn’t mean the show’s not for you.”
He says this problematic power struggle creates artificial competition between BIPOC writers leading to fewer opportunities for Middle Eastern writers.

“The system has kept me towards the bottom,” Agapion said. “It’s easy to get into a room as an inclusive voice because they can have us for incredibly cheap. But growing our careers is challenged because we are no longer cheap as we continue to build our careers.”
Polatin has also dealt with some of the same biases in her staffing experience, biases which she says still exist at the showrunner level. Although she is not Muslim, she has been tapped to write for Muslim voices. She will often refer those opportunities to writers who are Muslim.
Polatin previously ran a mock writers' room sponsored by the MEWC for writers who have been staffed, so they could gain more experience in the room. She has also read scripts by new writers with the possibility of staffing them on her series.
“I’ve been really grateful for the Middle Eastern Writers Committee, and the community it’s been providing,” said Polatin. “I really enjoy my engagement with the group and use it to an advantage, as a collective.”

Series creator-showrunner Daria Polatin with WGAW members on the picket line at Paramount