Enlarging the Family

In times of war and global trade, interpreters who help people of different cultures and languages communicate and understand each other are much in demand. The same need for cultural interpreters exists within the rapidly changing population of the United States. American Family, a new drama series on PBS, is such a translator, bridging the gap of understanding between the Latino community and America at large.

American Family is the story of the Gonzalezes, a large family living in East Los Angeles. They are Latinos, but for the Gonzalezes—like many people of Latin American origin in the United States—even the question of identity is very controversial. Although part of the same family, each character in the series may choose to describe themselves as "Latino," "Hispanic," "Chicano," or "Mexican American." In the first episode, Jess (Edward James Olmos as the Gonzalez' conservative patriarch) even insists that he is "Spanish"—much to the embarrassment of his family.

Jess' interpretation of his own identity tells a lot about his character in the series. "Spanish" was the blanket label applied to many Latinos of Jess' generation who struggled to assimilate into post-war America. Like many of that era, Jess' politics are conservative, flag-waving, and occasionally reactionary. Jess is a tortilla-eating Archie Bunker hell-bent on upsetting the liberal stereotypes some PBS viewers may have of Latinos. Olmos, a Hollywood veteran (Zoot Suit, Stand and Deliver, Mi Familia, Selena), does an excellent job expressing the complexity of a character like Jess Gonzalez, not just conveying the outrageousness of his opinions but also hinting at the deep pain and struggle someone like Jess had to endure to reach these views.

Jess and his wife, Berta (Sonia Braga), have five children: Conrado, a doctor; Vangie, a boutique owner who lives with her non-Latino husband across town in exclusive Brentwood; Nina, a young progressive attorney; Esteban, a parolee just out of prison; and Cisco, a techno-crazed teen-ager who documents the life of his family on his Web site (you can check it out at www.pbs.org/americanfamily/index.html). Next door to the Gonzalezes live Aunt Dora and her daughter Christy, a single mother. Dora is a middle-aged, life-long aspiring actress played by Rachel Welch (yes, she's Latina!) who brings a mix of daffy flamboyance and tragic loneliness to the Gonzalez household.

Berta dies suddenly in the first episode but reappears in subsequent shows as an apparition bearing the memories of the Gonzalez family in times past, flashbacks that help develop the history of each character. Because of Berta's death, their youngest daughter, Nina (Constance Marie), turns down her dream job as a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., to stay home and take custody of Pablito, the young son of Esteban and his drug-addicted former girlfriend, who are struggling to keep their lives together.

The first episode of the show sets up a tension between conservative Jess and his progressive daughter, which is likely to be key to the series and serves to highlight the political diversity of the Latino community in general.

IT'S HARD TO believe that this series is the first-ever Latino television drama. It comes at a time when every major city in America has a substantial Latino presence, pop music has been hit by a Latin explosion, Latin ballplayers fill the line-ups of America's favorite pastime, Latin stars increasingly appear in key television and movie roles, there are growing numbers of Latinos in government, and salsa outsells ketchup. So what took television so long?

The networks have long claimed that the lack of shows with significant minority characters was because programming decisions were based on the quality of the show, not race or ethnicity. It's hard to make that argument with a powerful drama like American Family, which is able to hold its own with any of those on the networks. The real question seems to be if America is ready for a prime-time Latino drama. Although I Love Lucy, one of the defining shows of early television, featured an interracial marriage between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, TV has never kept up the pace with material that challenges racial and ethnic assumptions and stereotypes. Even the African-American community—which in terms of public visibility and civil rights is more established than the Latino community—still has a long way to go before it is appropriately represented on American television.

CBS, which spent $1 million to produce the pilot for American Family, rejected the series and it ended up at PBS. One great thing about this: Now we can see each episode commercial-free, and PBS doesn't have the burden of finding advertisers that perhaps gave CBS cold feet. However, airing American Family on PBS limits its viewer potential, drastically cuts the show's budget, and feeds into the perception that a Latino drama isn't quite ready for network television.

The series creator and director, Gregory Nava (El Norte, Mi Familia, Selena), has taken the more cautious route and made a show with mainstream appeal. American Family isn't a "message" series, says Nava, but "a show that will make the audience laugh and cry as it chronicles the daily struggles and triumphs of a family. American Family is about everyone's family." In doing so, Nava gently challenges public perceptions of Latinos, who too long have been cast primarily as drug dealers, criminals, and immigrants. American Family shows Latinos as a community that is fully part of multicultural America with all its inherent struggles.

Yet, away from the TV screen, poverty among Latinos remains among the worst in the United States. While the Gonzalez family has three professional children and can consider the option of moving aging parents out of the old neighborhood, this isn't the case for most Latinos. In this regard, American Family has about as much to do with the life of U.S. Latinos as The Cosby Show represented African-American reality. While American Family certainly translates a segment of Latino culture for mainstream America, the perspective the series has offered so far doesn't tell the whole story.

The legacy of "translators"—in Mexican history—isn't always a positive one. Among Mexicans and Chicanos, an Aztec woman named Malinche is well known as the translator and mistress of Hernando Cortez, the 16th-century conqueror of the Aztecs, and is infamous for using her skills in translation and other arts to sell out her people to the Spanish. There is a danger that American Family could sell out the Latino community by trying too hard to portray them as middle-class Americans (which some certainly are) and allow people in the United States to forget the suffering of those who pick their food, clean their offices, wash their dishes, and take care of their children.

Certainly, Latinos shouldn't only be portrayed as poor people, but neither should they take the appearance of every other TV family. For too long, the poor of every race and ethnicity have been all but segregated from American TV. We don't see their faces, we don't hear their voices, and we don't know their struggles. American Family, a brilliant, complex series, now has a prime-time opportunity to change this. Stay tuned to see if they take advantage of it.

Aaron McCarroll Gallegos, a Sojourners contributing writer living in Toronto, grew up in East Los Angeles.

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