God Mex Us, Every One!
A friend of mine called me last week, mildly distraught. She wasn't sure she should admit this, but she knew she could tell me: She had just watched Jersey Shore, the new MTV reality show that has Italian-American advocacy groups such as Unico National up in arms. They complain the series is "discriminatory, insulting, and Italian-bashing." So now, the nation's largest Italian-American service organization (according to Unico's official press release) is hard at work urging all corporate sponsors to drop the series.
My friend wondered: Would she be offended if the young people in Jersey Shore were Latinos instead of Italians, calling themselves "cholos" and "cholas" (or Chicanos and Chicanas) instead of "Guidos" or "Guidettes" as they do on the reality series? What did I think?
In spite of the fact that I avoid most petri dish shows like Jersey Shore, I watched one episode and came away with this quick analysis: The cast is not offensive because they're Italian. They're offensive because they're stupid. I don't assume all Italians are stupid. However, if the cast were self-proclaimed cholas/os or Chicanos/as, I might be offended only because there are so few representations of Latinos in popular culture as it is. When the ones you see are weak, one-dimensional, and, well, trashy and stupid, it sets off the alarms.
That reality series starring dim bulbs who happen to be Italian is getting more than its fair share of press, thanks to the stink Unico is raising. (Why can't people learn the best way to build an audience for a show is to express outrage over it?) What I'd rather do is point out a lost opportunity. Or rather, celebrate my favorite Mexican family on TV you didn't know was Mexican: the one on Brothers & Sisters (ABC). Yes, that domestic drama starring Sally Field as Nora, the family matriarch of the Walker family who hovers over her large brood, to me, is undeniably Mexican-American.
Consider the evidence. Everyone is involved in the family business in some way (Mexican), and those who aren't had better be in school (the youngest, studying to be a doctor, fingers crossed). When the series began, the patriarch of the family keeled over after a big family gathering (qué Mexican – the big family gathering, that is), after which it was discovered he had another family, another life. There's the extended family, including the uncle and lifelong "bachelor." Because this is TV, we quickly figure out that Uncle Saul (Ron Rifkin) is gay. In real life, it might be that thing that no one talks about directly. On the contrary, everybody in the Walker family knows everybody's business (Mexican). The best way to assure this is the line: "Don't tell anyone, but ...." And then the drama begins.
The Walkers as a Mexican family, you ask? They're in California, for God's sake! Don't tell me they're not Mexican!
In the corner of my brain that harbors conspiracy theories, I posit that the original premise for Brothers & Sisters had the Walkers as a large Mexican family set in California, running their family business as they had for generations. Why the Walkers instead of the Garcías? Lack of imagination, fear, shortsightedness, pick your poison. What I do know is that instead of supporting campaigns to kill shows for their ill-conceived or offensive representations of my people (or others, for that matter), I'd really rather ignore them until they fade into oblivion. I'd rather be part of a campaign that asks, why couldn't Brothers & Sisters (or any other series of your choice) be based around a Latino family, Mexican or otherwise? Aside from the fact that it's a vehicle for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, what if it were The New Adventures of Old Cristina? I love me some Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24, but I would so be down with Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) playing the alpha male. And wouldn't Grey's Anatomy be that much more tolerable with Sara Ramirez or Sandra Oh or, well, anybody else as the centerpiece of that show?
Imagining it is the first step to making it a reality. Any takers?
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E-mail Belinda Acosta at email@example.com.