Brown at Last: ‘Gentefied’ and Latino Families on TV
From ‘I Love Lucy’ to the new ‘Party of Five’
Netflix’s new show about gentrification in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Gentefied, debuts today as only the most recent TV show in the last year about a Latinx family struggling with shifts in the culture.
That’s a recent luxury for Latino viewers. If the past decade of television has been about ushering in this golden peak era of quality production, writing, acting, and (to a lesser extent) distribution, some may have missed the halo effect of all this great new TV. Whereas you couldn’t find one decent television show with strong Latino (or Latinx, or Hispanic) leads for many years, there are now so many that I don’t even have time to watch them all.
We can choose from Vida and On My Block and the much-browner Party of Five reboot. My kids’ favorite channels feature Victor and Valentino and Casagrandes. The Hispanicized One Day at a Time will soon return after fan outrage at its cancelation. TV, particularly broadcast networks, still underrepresent Latinos, but the landscape has grown large enough to indulge us with multiple shows that couldn’t have existed together even 15 years ago.
All of them touch on the complexities of Latinx life, often in the context of family connections. In case you haven’t heard, most Latinos are pretty devoted to their families. Yes, it’s a stereotype, but one that largely holds true.
How did we get here? When did the shift happen? It’s worth looking back at the history of how TV has portrayed these families:
I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
It seems a little shocking that in the early 1950s, CBS featured a megahit show about a wacky white lady married to a macho (and super high-strung) Cuban bandleader. You would expect the show to be super cringeworthy today, with Ricky Ricardo yelling at Lucy in a string of super-fast Spanish. But the show, just in featuring an interracial marriage and allowing Ricky to be the successful, beloved celebrity in the fictional world of the show, proved surprisingly progressive for its time and has not aged as badly as you might expect. The portrayal of this family could have been much, much worse. What else was on TV around that era? Oh yeah, Speedy Gonzales.
Chico and the Man (1974-1978)
No conversation about Latinos on television is complete without some mention of Chico and the Man. It wasn’t a family sitcom, but it was about a family of sorts; the relationship between a young, hip Latino and an older proprietor of an auto garage. It filled a long (too long) gap between lead characters of Hispanic origin on TV. We practically didn’t exist on television in the 1960s, and in the ‘70s; only the little-known PBS series ¿Qué Pasa, USA? Really counts. Chico and the Man was popular enough to make Freddie Prinze a star before his death and could have run for many more seasons if not for that tragedy.
a.k.a. Pablo (1984) and Condo (1983)
As a young boy and voracious consumer of television comedy, these are the only two shows from the 1980s that I remember having Latino lead characters. a.k.a. Pablo made a national celebrity out of comedian Paul Rodriguez in Hispanic communities even though it only lasted six episodes. (And, surprisingly, it came from Norman freakin’ Lear!) Condo lasted even less time, only five episodes, and was about the culture clash between a white and Hispanic family living as neighbors. It wasn’t a good show, with the kind of broad jokes about Mexican food you’d expect, but I remember seeing commercials for the series and being thrilled that even existed.
Dora the Explorer (1999-2019)
The 1990s, like the 1960s, were weirdly absent of major shows featuring Latino lead characters or families. It was this animated show on Nickelodeon that probably did more to promote acceptance of Spanish among kids than any other show besides, maybe, Sesame Street. Dora Márquez remains one of the most recognizable characters in animation history and her family was always portrayed in positive, loving ways. You can also trace the influence of Dora on more modern animated series including Cartoon Network’s Victor and Valentino and Casagrandes (both from 2019).
The George Lopez Show (2002-2007)
The first of three series starring comedian George Lopez–the others were Saint George (2014) and a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style show called Lopez (2016) – this series ran for a staggering 120 episodes on ABC. It’s not particularly beloved these days, even among Latinos; Lopez has become very cantankerous as he’s gotten older and the TV show didn’t much rise above standard sitcom fare in its portrayal of Latino family life. You had your overbearing mom/abuela character, your overly macho dad character, your canned laughs. But you could argue that without Lopez we might not have gotten sitcoms like Cristela (2014-2015), Luis (2003), Greetings from Tucson, (2002-2003) and Mr. Iglesias (2019)
Ugly Betty (2006-2010)
What was supposed to be a broad and colorful telenovela adaptation became so much more on the strength of Silvio Horta’s showrunning and brilliant performances from America Ferrera and a ringer cast of scene stealers. Of note was that even with all the crazy soap-opera plot twists, the core family unit for Betty Suarez with always rock solid, with her wonderfully warm dad Ignacio (Tony Plana), supportive sister Hilda (Ana Ortiz) and little brother Justin (Mark Indelicato). The show’s most lasting legacy may be its very sensitive portrayal of Justin’s coming out, which historically has been a very sensitive issue in Latino families. The success of Ugly Betty led to a string of telenovela-inspired shows including Devious Maids and the sitcom Telenovela, but none were as influential as this one.
One Day at a Time (2017-present)
Today’s gold standard of how to tell stories about Latino families on TV is probably Gloria Calderon Kellett and Norman Lear’s unlikely reboot of the 1970s series, which puts at its center the great Justina Machado as a military vet dealing with many, many social issues. Beloved by critics, weirdly canceled by Netflix, and costarring the amazing Rita Moreno, it will return in March on the POP network. We are lucky to have it.
Party of Five (Reboot, 2020)
If you want to ugly cry for the better part of an hour, you could do worse than the recently rebooted series on Freeform. The creators of the original ‘90s FOX teen drama reconfigure the show to make immigration its central issue; instead of a group of siblings grappling with the death of their parent, the members of the Acosta family have parents who the government has deported to Mexico. The drama of a family living in America suddenly broken up and dealing with financial obligations and childcare fuels the plot, but the push and pull of characters with their own lives coming at it from different angles lifts the material up from soapy melodrama. Even in a melodramatic Freeform show about Family Struggles, their brownness and citizenship status don’t get to define these Latinx characters.
3 thoughts on “Brown at Last: ‘Gentefied’ and Latino Families on TV”
Surprised that the article simply erased “East Los High” (2013-2017) as part of this history: 60 episodes, 6 Emmy Nominations, amazing Latina and Latino writers, a new generation of actors and sold in 30 countries.
I think “erased” is a bit strong. Maybe “omitted”?
This was an error of it honestly was being on my radar — I didn’t have Hulu until around 2019 and that’s one that just didn’t come up as I was putting my list together. (And I was looking more for family-themed shows than ensemble dramas/comedies, though you could argue that Ugly Betty is a workplace show and Dora is more educational than family-themed).
We also didn’t include a few other significant shows such as “Cristela,” “On My Block,” “Devious Maids,” and “Jane the Virgin.” The list was not meant to be completely comprehensive.
Thank you for suggesting it, I’m going to go back and watch “East Los High.”