SNL gets Latina cast member – are diversity moves enough?

The NBC comedy has taken steps to improve cast diversity in recent years, but critics question what has taken the program so long.

NBC
Melissa Villaseñor joins the cast 'Saturday Night Live' for the 2016-17 season.

"Saturday Night Live" will premiere its 42nd season on Oct.1 with three new cast members, Melissa Villaseñor, Alex Moffat, and Mikey Day. The show's freshman class typically gets little airtime and attention in the first few episodes of each season. But, this year, Ms. Villaseñor has already drawn attention, as one of the comedic institution's first Latina cast members.

Bringing on Villaseñor may be the latest effort by those behind the scenes at "SNL" to improve the diversity of the cast. The demographic makeup of the cast has become a thorny issue for the show's executives in recent years. The hiring of Sasheer Zamata in 2014 was seen as a direct response to criticism that the show hadn't had a black woman in the cast since Ellen Cleghorne left the show in 1995. Leslie Jones of "Ghostbusters" and LaKendra Tookes, who are both African-American, came on the program as writers around the same time and Ms. Jones later became a cast member. 

The show has had several Hispanic cast members over the years, including Horatio Sanz, who appeared on "SNL" from 1998 to 2006, and Fred Armisen, who was on the show from 2002 to 2013. But prior to Villaseñor's hiring, the show had only ever had one Latina cast member: Noël Wells, who was on the program from 2013 to 2014, is a quarter Hispanic and identifies as Latina.

While many seem to agree that hiring Villaseñor is a step forward, was it too long in coming?

"The hiring of Villaseñor is cause for celebration for the Hispanic community," Guardian writer Luis Miguel Echegaray wrote following the announcement. "...As a viewer, my interest in 'SNL' had faded through the years as the lack of diversity (both on stage and in the writer's room) had become a turn-off and I don't think they did themselves any favors by not rehiring the multi-talented [Jay] Pharoah. But now, given the relatively recent additions of African American female talent, including the unstoppable Leslie Jones, seeing a Latina perform at Studio 8H for the very first time means 'SNL' has won me back." 

And National Hispanic Media Coalition Alex Nogales was pleased but cautious when interviewed by L.A. Weekly. "I could not be more pleased," Mr. Nogales said. "…[But] this can't be a one-shot deal. We've accomplished nothing if that's what it was."

Villaseñor has previously appeared on the NBC reality program "America's Got Talent."

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