Latino TV shows struggle
to get beyond tired, worn stereotypes
By Guillermo I. Martinez, Columnist
Sun-Sentinel (January 19, 2012)
Once again, television networks are attempting to integrate Latinos into their prime time television lineup; and once again they are failing miserably.
Instead of incorporating Latinos into the story line in a legitimate manner, the attempts so far this season are more of the same tried and failed programs that are full of casting and plot stereotypes that may be funny to some, but are offensive to many.
The first one to go on and off the air this year was ABC's show "Work It," in which Amaury Nolasco, weighing his employment opportunities, said: "I'm Puerto Rican. I'm really good at selling drugs."
"Work It" became a damaged brand as was quickly taken off the air.
Last week, it was CBS that tried its hand at bridging the culture gap with Latinos on English language television. Its new show "Rob" was described by About.com - TV Comedies as "yet another lazy obvious CBS sitcom, an outdated culture-clash premise and one-dimensional characters."
In the show, the lead character played by Rob Schneider marries a much younger Mexican woman, named Maggie, played by Claudia Bassols, and encounters Maggie's very large extended family. That is the first of many stereotypes. Jokes about guacamole follow as do comments about what Hispanics, in this case Mexicans, do while they are having a siesta. Maggie's family is the a stereotypical Latino family and Rob's insensitive comments about Mexicans are supposed to be funny.
What Josh Bell, a comedy reviewer for the Las Vegas Weekly, posted in About.com - TV Comedies could not have been more on the mark. He said: "It's heartening to see a network sitcom with an almost entirely Latino cast, and this show is in a unique position to explore a perspective that is rarely seen on network TV (and hasn't fueled a sitcom since George López was canceled). Unfortunately, it squanders that opportunity in favor of obvious, stereotypical jokes and tired retreads of themes from other shows."
It's a pity. But mainstream television networks insist on portraying Latinos in stereotypical fashion. Recently a police detective show on one of the networks had a throw-away line about the dangers of the Cuban mafia.
Of course, there are exceptions. Sofia Vergara, the Colombian star, is marvelous in the show "Desperate Housewives." These successes, however, are few and far between. For the most part, TV studios don't seem to know what to do with Latinos.
Why can't Hollywood find its groove with Latinos? I remember "The Jeffersons" with George Jefferson playing a funny rich owner of several dry cleaners, and his family. The show was funny, real funny, as was the Bill Cosby show.
Three decades ago, PBS in South Florida did a series of episodes of the hopes and fears of three generations of Cubans adapting to life in America. The show was sensational and, in fact, it still is in re-runs in many stations throughout the country.
The difference between that show and the recent attempts at incorporating Latinos into the prime-time television scene is that "¿Que Pasa USA?" was the trials and tribulations of a family adapting to file in a new country. It was bi-lingual and truly funny. It showed how grandparents born in Cuba and spoke only Spanish, tried and failed to understand the life of the two grandchildren, who spoke English predominantly and couldn't understand the restrictions their grandparents and parents tried to impose on them.
It was a comedy about the successes and challenges of a Latino family fitting into this country - something that has happened to many families. It was funny to watch, not because the show made fun of them, but because the situations they put themselves in were funny in any language and in any community.
Rob Schneider is in real-life married to a Mexican woman with a large extended family. One can only wonder why his presumably real life experiences couldn't be translated into a television show that went beyond the shallow stereotypes.
Guillermo I. Martínez on Twitter at @g_martinez123, or email him at Guimar123@gmail.com.
NJ Voices Guest blog
ABC's 'Work It' demeaned
Puerto Ricans, among others
By Ed Morales, Guest Columnist
Star-Ledger (Thursday, January 19, 2012)
The short-lived ABC sitcom "Work It" caused outrage in our area's Puerto Rican community, prompting two protest rallies and a demand by advocacy groups for an apology from the network, before its cancellation last week.
What caused the furor? A line of dialog, delivered by Puerto Rican actor Amaury Nolasco, about his skill set for a job at a pharmaceutical company: "I'm Puerto Rican - I'd be great at selling drugs."
The line, delivered in jest, was used to set up the awkward premise that the show is based on: The economy has tanked so badly that unemployed men will do anything - including dressing up as women - to get a job. This unfortunate punch line has the demeaning effect of creating a stereotype of Puerto Ricans as drug dealers, touching on the island's recent woes as a point for narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean.
Over the past several decades, Puerto Rican characters have not played a big part in network television. To suddenly be smeared this way has touched a nerve among a prideful community.
There has been some skepticism about the protest over the show in some quarters, even doubts that there should be indignation. However, drug-related violence is getting out of control in Puerto Rico. And a 2011 report issued by the Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center asserted that the nation's spiraling drug problem has been caused by shifting trafficking routes used by Colombian and Venezuelan narcotraffickers to the Eastern Caribbean to avoid Drug Enforcement Agency operations in the Dominican Republic.
Puerto Rico, which has no voting representation in Congress and whose economy is an appendage of the United States' economy, is suffering through a recession that began many years ago. Its staggeringly high unemployment rate throws fuel on the fire caused by the rapid influx of drugs bound for points north. The island commonwealth is arguably a casualty of the United States' decades-old war on drugs.
For those who say the Puerto Rican community protests too much, I would suggest otherwise. This is not something that can be compared to Mary Louise Parker's portrayal of a drug-dealing white suburban mother in Showtime's "Weeds." For every Mary Louise Parker, there are hundreds of white, middle-class sitcom characters who are not great at selling drugs. As someone who can deal drugs and stay out of prison, Mary Louise Parker is a shining example of American exceptionalism. For Puerto Ricans, there's Amaury Nolasco and ... no exceptions.
That being said, "Work It" was an equal-opportunity offender. Its condescending depictions raised criticism from many corners - including the transgendered community (though the characters were not transgendered, only dressing as women to gain an employment advantage).
But perhaps the most offensive thing about "Work It" was that it treated the Great Recession as a big joke. After losing jobs, pension plans, health insurance and huge chunks of personal wealth, middle- and working-class Americans hardly deserve being the object of this show's strained and tasteless humor.
Ed Morales, a frequent Star-Ledger music contributor, is author of "Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America" (St. Martin's Griffin).