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.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2002
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