Imagen Awards Celebrates 30 Years Honoring Latinos in Media

“You get more with honey than with vinegar,” iconic television producer Norman Lear said during a mid-1980s meeting where Helen Hernandez was among the attendees. Hernandez was part of a task force seeking a way to bring more awareness to the portrayal of Latinos in the media.

The honey Lear was suggesting, in this case, was an awards program celebrating Latinos, which he offered to fund and help staff. Hernandez, who at the time worked for Lear as VP of public affairs for his Embassy Communications (currently Sony Pictures Entertainment), was put at the helm of the new venture, and the Imagen Awards was born.

Now in its 30th year, the Imagen Awards has grown from a modest luncheon with 75 people and just three awards to a black-tie gala featuring an array of categories and 600 attendees. (The late actress Carmen Zapata came up with the name Imagen—“image” in Spanish. “That is what we were doing, changing images,” said Hernandez, the awards’ founder and president.)

“At the beginning, it was a struggle,” Hernandez added. “In 1985, there really weren’t [many Latinos] on television, so we were really struggling to find projects that were positive images.”

The two-hour awards program airs as an hour-long show on PBS on more than 70% of its stations. While Hernandez is keen on expanding Imagen’s footprint, there are no current plans for carriage on cable or broadcast nets.

The host for this year’s awards on Aug. 21 was still being determined at presstime, but the event has a track record of choosing up-and-comers who have risen to stardom.

“We use [the awards] as a platform to show the entertainment industry and the community the type of talent that exists,” Hernandez said. Nominees this year range from films including McFarland and The Book of Life to TV shows airing on ABC, NBC, The CW, HBO, Nickelodeon, ABC Family and Hulu.

This year’s event also marks a change in venue, from the Beverly Hilton Hotel to the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown L.A. “We really wanted to be in the center of arts and culture,” Hernandez said.

It’s not just the change in format and content that has evolved over the past three decades. The Imagen Awards was initially part of the National Conference of Christians and Jews—now the National Conference for Community and Justice, or NCCJ—a human relations organization that promotes understanding and respect among cultures, races and religions.

After a management change in 1995, the NCCJ wanted to eliminate the event, but Hernandez and her team saw its value and asked to take over responsibility. With financial backing from ABC, they were able to set up a nonprofit corporation.

“ABC had always been very supportive and helpful in terms of incorporating positive images and hiring Latinos,” Hernandez said. “They really believed in what we were all about, so they gave us seed money.”

During this transitional time, the awards selection process was tweaked to be more like that of the Oscars and Emmys. Early on, Imagen selected the entities or individuals who received the awards; now people can enter submissions for consideration. Several categories have been added, ranging from best director and best young actor/actress to best on-air advertising and best local informational programming.

While the awards now feature many nominees, Hernandez can remember when this wasn’t the case. One of the most striking moments in the awards’ 30-year history was in 1987, when only one award was given to talent.

“David Picker, then the CEO of Columbia Pictures and Imagen event cochair that year, delivered a speech with a very strong message to the industry saying how unfortunate it was that we could not find any project of value to give an award,” Hernandez said. “It was phenomenal.”

Hernandez believes that although Latinos have come a long way since then, citing The CW’s Jane the Virgin and ABC’s now-canceled Cristela, there is still a long way to go.

“We’re seeing more opportunities,” Hernandez said. “Are we seeing more projects? Not really.”

Hernandez contends that in order to produce entertainment that successfully represents Latinos, “you really need inclusion at all levels,” with talent and creative teams that are Latino working together. “That experience [of being a Latino] is not transferable.”

And that experience will be center stage Aug. 21 on a night that Hernandez promises to be full of entertainment and fresh talent.

“The mission we all have in producing the show is to assure the Latino community has a platform where we can celebrate our accomplishments. Maybe we can’t do it at the Emmys or the Oscars…but we can certainly do it at Imagen,” Hernandez said.