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We need to stop rebooting white TV shows with Latino casts. Here's why

·15 min read
The original "One Day at a Time," the reboot, "Vida," "Jane the Virgen," "Los Espookys"
Hollywood is pummeling Latino audiences with reboots — but these can be a trap. Seen here: characters from "One Day at a Time,""Vida," "Jane the Virgin" and "Los Espookys." (Evan Solano / For The Times; The CW; Kat Marcinowski / Starz; HBO; Getty Images)

Pop quiz!

Name five Mexican states, four Mexican wrestlers and three telenovelas starring Thalía. Now dance convincingly to a remix of "El Chaca Chaca," identify Mexican candies while blindfolded and juggle a soccer ball like Chucky Lozano. For extra credit, belt out a reverberant grito.

Aced it? Congratulations! You now have the great privilege of calling yourself Mexican.

Don't worry if you failed. This is not a real test.

It's a tongue-in-cheek plot point from the Netflix comedy series "Gentefied." In the third episode of the series, which debuted last year, aspiring chef Chris Morales (played by the affable Carlos Santos) has his Mexican bona fides challenged by a fellow cook after he informs his colleagues that, no, he did not catch the latest Chivas match on TV.

"¿Que clase de mexicano eres?" asks a fellow cook. What kind of Mexican are you?

Chris declares that he's more Mexican than everyone in the room. "Test me!" he demands.

And thus, an improvised SAT of Mexican-ness is born, played out in an antic sequence in which Chris eats, drinks, dances and kicks — and gets the name of every last Mexican wrestler wrong.

The bit is a humorous jab at rigid notions of authenticity in identity politics, ones deployed as much by non-Latinos (cue the refrain You don't look Latino) as by Latinos against one another. (How can you call yourself Latino if you don't fill-in-the-blank?) Anybody who has ever had their claim to their identity challenged can empathize with Chris' frantic attempts to prove himself. And his rendition of Mexican dances make for great physical comedy.

Moments such as these are an exceedingly rare sight on U.S. television, where Latinos remain wildly underrepresented. Of the countless reports published on the matter, one of the most recent, released by Nielsen in December, notes that Latinos account for only 5.5% of screen time on feature television programs across broadcast and streaming platforms — despite the fact that Latinos make up almost a fifth of the U.S. population.

Rarer still are projects such as "Gentefied." Conceived by Latinos (Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, who both have Mexican roots), and produced and directed by Latinos (among them, actor and director America Ferrera, who helped bring the series to fruition), it features a writers room full of Latinos along with a largely Latino cast. It's also an outlier for the ways in which it tells stories: an original narrative, shaped from the ground up by Latino points of view.

"I just wanted to do something that felt Chicano, that's cinematic, that was about identity," Lemus told Vulture last year. "And for the characters to look and talk like me."

Side-by-side images show Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez against a colorful mural
Marvin Lemus, left, and Linda Yvette Chávez, co-creators of Netflix's "Gentefied," the rare television series to feature original Latino storytelling. (Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In the 1990s and early aughts, diversity on television meant throwing a Latino or two into an ensemble show: the cop on the right, the paramedic on the left, the nurse in the back. Occasionally, a show might feature a Latino lawyer or doctor.

Over the last half dozen years, however, studios seem to have developed another strategy to contend with representation.

Enter: the reboot.

In 2017, Netflix relaunched Norman Lear's '70s-era sitcom "One Day at a Time" with a Latino cast and set the story in modern-day Echo Park. The following year, the CW followed suit with a Latina reboot of the drama "Charmed," about a trio of witchy sisters just coming into their powers. In 2019, the network dusted off the late '90s series "Roswell," about alien kids at a Roswell, N.M., high school and rebooted it as "Roswell, New Mexico" with a Latina protagonist. And last year, the Freeform channel reconceived the '90s drama "Party of Five," about five children orphaned after their parents die in a car accident, as a story of Mexican American kids left to care for one another after their parents are deported.

In some cases, the series that are rebooted originate in Latin America.

This includes the mid-aughts dramedy "Ugly Betty," which was based on the Colombian telenovela "Yo soy Betty, la fea" and featured "Gentefied's" Ferrera in the title role, or the more recent "Queen of the South," an adaption of the smash Mexican series "La Reina del Sur," about a female drug lord, which is currently in its fifth and final season on the USA Network. And, of course, there was "Jane the Virgin," adapted from the Venezuelan telenovela "Juana la Virgen," about a young virgin who is accidentally artificially inseminated during a visit to the gynecologist. That series launched to critical acclaim in 2014 with Gina Rodriguez in the title role and concluded in 2019 after five seasons.

For the most part, however, it appears that TV studios are hellbent on recycling old U.S. properties and dressing them up with a veneer of Latino. After all, Hollywood loves a reboot and audiences do too. (I was a devoted viewer of the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot in the aughts, which starred Edward James Olmos as the steely Commander Adama, battling it out with Cylons for the future of humanity in outer space.) Building an audience is a complicated and costly endeavor, and reboots offer readymade marketing and a built-in fanbase.

But they can also be a lazy default for fixing issues of representation while setting narrative traps: programming that fits into Hollywood's narrow vision of what is Latino rather than programs that provide a more nuanced Latino worldview. At a time when the lack of Latino representation has created a cultural vacuum — one that has been eagerly filled by xenophobic politicians — original stories are critical.

Of course, one show headed for a reboot — "Fantasy Island" (1977-84), being remade by Fox with Black and Latino actors (Kiara Barnes and John Gabriel Rodriguez, respectively) as two of the protagonists — was that rare television series with an iconic Latino lead: Ricardo Montalbán. In his dapper white suits and mellifluous accent, he played against Hollywood's stereotypical vision of the servile Latino. His regal Mr. Roarke is always in charge.

As Montalbán stated in a 2002 Archive of American Television interview: "I always tried to play people of different nationalities with the dignity that I wished Americans would show when they play Mexicans."

In the new version, the island’s mysterious proprietor will be Roarke’s granddaughter, Elena. The role has yet to be cast.”

I'd like to nominate "Queen of the South's" Verónica Falcón for the role.

Better yet, scrap that.

Just give Falcón, a veteran stage and film actress from Mexico — who has the chops to play women who are authoritative and sultry in both English and Spanish — something original to work with. Because the endless reboots are starting to feel like TV's big plan for Latinos is feeding us nothing but leftovers.

"We have been absent from the narrative for so long," Tanya Saracho, one of the creators for the Starz network's sexy Latinx drama, "Vida," told my colleague Yvonne Villarreal in 2019. "And that is not a Hollywood thing. That is an American thing."

Like "Gentefied," "Vida" — which wrapped last year after three seasons — was a unicorn on TV: an original show by Latinx creators that reflected a range of experiences.

None of this is to say that some of the reboots haven't been a source of entertaining television.

Showrunner Tanya Saracho sits at her desk which has a sign that reads "La Jefa" and plays with her cat
Tanya Saracho, shown with her cat Roscoe, was a co-creator of "Vida," which frequently examined Latinx life through a queer lens. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

"Jane the Virgin," in particular, was a revelation — more of an exception than the rule because it was less a reboot than a wholesale reinvention of how stories can be told. Improving on a formula established by "Ugly Betty," the show embraced the tropes of Latin American soaps (the melodramatic plot twists, the cliffhangers, the evil twins), but fused them with the pace and form of a U.S. family comedy. Fantasy sequences and ridiculous costumes nodded to the high cheese of Latin American slapstick. The snappy dialogue reflected the very real ways in which multigenerational Latin American families in the U.S. communicate: Grandma Alba spoke Spanish, Jane responded in English; somehow everyone made themselves understood.

Beyond that, the show's contorted, romance-novel plot lines addressed universal themes related to love, loss, family and women's friendships, all with a protagonist who defied the Hollywood convention of fiery Latina sexpot. Jane was an anal retentive young mom whose professional dream was to become a bestselling novelist.

The show never felt like a rehash. Instead, it spoke a new language that truly evoked the cadences of a bicultural existence.

Other reboots have served as the more intriguing reimaginings of their predecessors.

The revamped "One Day at a Time" (on Netflix for three seasons, followed by one season on Pop) was inspired, in part, by the life of one of its showrunners: Gloria Calderón Kellett, a Cuban American comedian, writer and director who grew up in Southern California.

If the original 1970s show was about a single mom trying to find her place in the world in the wake of a divorce, the Latino reboot smartly added more layers to the story. Like her predecessor, Penelope Alvarez (played with great wit by Justina Machado) is a divorced mother of two. She is also a nurse and an Army vet contending with PTSD, along with the alcoholism of her ex-husband (also a vet) and the sundry slings she faces as a Latina professional. Among them: being paid less than the mansplain-y white guy at work.

Plus, she has to manage her theatrical Cuban mother (an ebullient Rita Moreno) and her two kids, Alex and Elena, who continuously find ways to defy her authority as well as tradition. In the first season, the willful Elena (Isabella Gomez) relents to her mother's pressure campaign and agrees to have a quinceañera, despite the ceremony's overtones of paternalism.

"I will dress like a child bride for you, Mom," Elena tells Penelope, a line that succinctly illustrates a generational split.

The original "Party of Five" centered on the white, middle-class Salingers, a family that lived in a comfortable San Francisco townhouse and operated a stylish, white-napkin restaurant. The emotional and existential adjustments the kids are forced to make in the wake of their parents' unexpected death gave the show its drama.

The 2020 reboot, set in Los Angeles, centered on the Acostas, a family whose economic existence was far more tenuous than the Salingers. It debuted shortly before the pandemic and lasted just one season. But it accomplished a lot in its brief life — taking the original narrative and upping the ante.

Emilio, the only adult-aged child (played by Brandon Larracuente), not only became head of the household, he had his own fragile immigration status to reckon with as a DACA recipient in the xenophobic Trump era.

In one scene, Lucia (Emily Tosta) explains the concept of "margin of error" to one of her brothers. "I don't think we get any," she concludes.

The show's plot made the show feel like more than a reboot. But it was a reboot nonetheless. And the whole reboot concept can trap a show into a preexisting narrative framework that might grant the existence of Latino characters but does not always allow for a Latino worldview.

The themes in "One Day at a Time" felt contemporary, broaching topics such as gentrification, racism and female sexuality at middle age. But the format — a situation comedy complete with laugh track — felt like a throwback. "Party of Five," likewise, revealed truths about families torn apart by a hostile government. But the storytelling didn't deviate from the conventions of U.S. prime-time television dramas, which are often dead serious and dead earnest. For a program embedded within Latino worlds, it seemed to be missing a certain Catholic fatalism and gallows wit.

On reboots such as "Charmed" and "Roswell, New Mexico," Latino identity is either treated as incidental or comes off as archetype: the undocumented family member, the schoolbook Spanglish, or the saintly, one-dimensional elder who calls you m'hija and speaks in platitudes. (The latter is a phenomenon that artist Jaime Hernandez, of "Love and Rockets" fame, describes as, "The tortillas are warm.")

It is precisely this issue that makes original programs such as "Gentefied" and "Vida," as well as "Los Espookys" on HBO, so vital. These shows aren't about reinventing white forms with brown faces but instead have nuanced aspects of Latino life embedded into their narrative DNA.

"Gentefied" subverts the nostalgic tortillas-are-warm tendencies and has characters that chatter away in blazingly musical and off-color Spanglish. In one early scene, the magnetic Joaquín Cosio, who plays the devilish Pop, tells his son, "No ruines la experiencia culo-nary" — don't ruin the culo-nary experience — intentionally mispronouncing "culinary" to include the word culo, or butt. It's a throwaway line that is resonant with the ways in which people actually deploy Spanglish.

"Vida's" Spanglish, unfortunately, was wooden. But it explored gender, race and class among Latinos in singular ways, with characters that didn't fit into Hollywood's established stereotypes of cholo/maid/deportee. (One of my favorite characters was Nico, the motorcycle-riding bartender and writer, a role played with low-key panache by Roberta Colindrez.)

Best of all, the program consistently delivered visuals unlike anything showcased on the average U.S. family drama, including a a queer quinceañera, a gay wedding that featured a handsome couple decked out in ornate Norteño-style suits and an alluring scene in which Lyn, one of the sisters at the heart of the series (portrayed by "In the Heights'" Melissa Barrera) dances on a rooftop with the Doña Tita, the no-nonsense old lady who lives down the hall. It is full of warmth and magic.

Actor Roberta Colindrez is shown in a blue suit in a party setting on the set of the TV show "Vida"
Roberta Colindrez, on the set of "Vida," a show that has put a spotlight on queer Latino life in Los Angeles. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

And of course, there is the sublimely bizarre "Los Espookys," which is unlike anything else on TV.

The show was created by Fred Armisen in collaboration with comedians Ana Fabrega and Julio Torres. Torres, a staff writer at "Saturday Night Live," is the demented genius responsible for that show's wildly absurd "Papyrus" skit, in which Ryan Gosling goes mad over the type font used for "Avatar." "Los Espookys" is similarly bizarre: about a band of weirdos who create fright experiences for a range of batty clients, all featured within a comedic framework that draws from the narrative conventions of horror, surrealism and Latin American melodrama.

The characters are lovable misfits, and dialogue is often delivered with freaky deadpan aplomb. In one scene, the blue-haired Andrés (Torres) explains to his colleagues why he didn't complete an assignment: "Between problems with my family, Juan Carlos, the quest for my past and a little bird at my window that I think is trying to tell me something, I didn't do it."

While the show needs polish at the level of plot, it is the rare program to dispense with all the tropes of Latinos on TV. No strumming guitar soundtrack. No storylines about immigration. No expository dialogue about not being able to speak Spanish. The show, instead, is all mood. And the Latin-meets-Dark Wave soundtrack is perfect in every way.

"Los Espookys" speaks perfectly to what television networks desperately need more of: a willingness to embrace new narratives and stories that don't quite fit the mold. And they need to support that storytelling with equitable production budgets and adequate marketing muscle. Moreover, these experiments need to be allowed to fail without serving as a referendum for everything Latino on television.

It raised an outcry in 2019 when Netflix announced it was canceling the critically beloved "One Day at a Time." "We just couldn’t find the broad audience we hoped it could get," Cindy Holland, Netflix VP of content, said at Recode's Code Conference. The move raised questions about the platform's commitment to doing anything Latino that wasn't about drug trafficking (see: "Narcos"). The network has since introduced "Gentefied," as well as "Selena," now in its second season — though the latter program is afflicted by an acute case of low-budget syndrome. (Couldn't Netflix have diverted just a fraction of the "Emily in Paris" promotion budget to getting Selena's wigs — not to mention her character — right?)

But ultimately there should be infinitely more Latino-focused programs to choose from.

I often wonder what "One Day at a Time" might have been if Calderón Kellett, and her co-creator Mike Royce, had been given the opportunity — and the resources — to tell the story of a Cuban family in Echo Park in their own narrative voice. True representation isn't simply about putting a few Latino faces on TV. It's about who tells stories and how they are told. A reboot can force a story into a template. The best storytelling breaks it.

As a trickle of Latino creators manages to slip through the few available open doors in Hollywood, they are having narratives thrust upon them. It's high time they be allowed to shape them too.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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