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The Latin Factor

Hollywood plugs into a burgeoning — and profitable — ethnic market

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Even though she had sold close to 3 million albums, the singer Selena was known to few non-Latino-Americans before she was gunned down more than a month ago. But the tragedy had an unexpected side effect: It focused national attention on a formidable Latino talent pool — and a vast potential audience — that the entertainment business has barely begun to tap.

The industry has long tended to treat Latinos as colorful exotics — think of Desi Arnaz and Ricardo Montalban — or to virtually ignore their existence. But lately the situation has shown signs of change, not only in music but in movies, television, and publishing as well. ”It’s not a matter of political correctness,” says Latina producer Nely Galán, whose production company has helped Fox TV develop Latino programming. ”It’s a matter of economics.”

There are 26.6 million Latinos in the U.S., a figure that’s expected to increase to 40.5 million by the year 2010. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, Latinos now buy as many movie tickets as African-Americans (12 percent of the national total), even though blacks represent a larger proportion of the population (12 percent versus 10 percent). The bottom line: Latino acts have a bigger chance than ever of breaking through, and entertainment purveyors are taking steps to attract Latino consumers. Here’s how:

MUSIC Aside from Gloria Estefan, Los Lobos, Jon Secada, and most recently Mexican balladeer Luis Miguel, painfully few Latinos in the past decade have achieved crossover success. But record producer Jellybean Benitez, who’s worked his magic for Madonna and Whitney Houston, hopes his new, as-yet-unnamed bilingual music label will give Latinos what Motown gave blacks — a hit factory. And the Wall Street investment bank of Wasserstein Perella was so impressed by Benitez that it loaned him $15 million to start a separate music publishing company.

BOOKS With works like Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban making best-seller lists in recent years, Latino-American literature has become a hot genre. But equally big news is the growing U.S. market for books in Spanish. Spanish-language translations of American titles were once available only after a time lag, usually arriving via South American publishers. But Dell published Danielle Steel’s The Gift in both English and Spanish simultaneously. John Grisham’s The Chamber (Doubleday) got similar treatment — as will new novels by Laura Esquivel (whose 1992 Like Water for Chocolate cemented the trend by selling a whopping 80,000 Spanish hardcover copies), Gabriel García Márquez, and Isabel Allende.

MOVIES Never before have so many Latinos stood on both sides of the camera. Actors like Andy Garcia, Antonio Banderas, and Rosie Perez have become bankable stars. John Leguizamo has leading roles in both A Pyromaniac’s Love Story and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The 1994 movie When a Man Loves a Woman was directed by a Mexican, Luis Mandoki. Peruvian Luis Llosa helmed The Specialist. This summer, Robert Rodriguez will release Desperado, an English-language sequel to El Mariachi, starring Banderas as a roaming guitarist/ gunslinger. And Gregory Nava’s My Family, starring Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales, was just released.