I grew up watching too much TV. I especially loved watching sitcoms, so I became very well-acquainted with fictional families like the Tanners and the Huxtables. In fact, I would often fantasize that I was their adopted Mexican cousin. I also loved Balki’s silly Eastern European antics and the all shenanigans of the Saved by the Bell characters. When I was six, I even wrote the cast a letter asking everyone but Screech to be my friend.
But, growing up in a working class Mexican community, I was perpetually confused about the lifestyles of these fictional families. Did people in real life really have stairs inside their house? Wait, did these kids not have cockroaches in their toys? How was it that that little brat Michelle Tanner got horse riding lessons whilst I had to fashion a Lamb Chop out of an old sock like a young McGyver? How was it that those jerks on “Beverly Hills: 90210″ actually thought that Andrea Zuckerman was poor? The only family I could even vaguely relate to was Roseanne’s because their problems seemed relevant: their mom was scary, they argued about money, and their jobs required physical labor. I can’t even think of any current TV shows that are even remotely like this.
All I knew was my working class Mexican community where my friends’ parents worked in factories and our homes were small and sometimes run-down. I never saw my reality reflected or any other Latinos on TV save Luis and María from Sesame Street, mullet-boy Mario Lopez on Saved by the Bell (who was not even initially cast as a Latino character), and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy re-runs. It astounds me that a groundbreaking show about an interracial marriage which aired in 1951 still seems radical. I can’t think of any current shows with an interracial leads.
What happens when children never see reflections of themselves in the media? We grow up confused. Little brown girls grow up longing for blond hair, blue eyes, and light skin because that’s what we’re told is beautiful. Many of my peers dyed their hair alarming shades of blondish-orange and wore colored contacts, which, let me tell you, looks horrifying. We grow up utterly perplexed about our place in society. We feel like the world doesn’t acknowledge us. There are more of us on TV now, but the numbers are still paltry despite the fact that we make up 16.3% of the U.S. population. I love Aubrey Plaza’s character on Parks and Recreation, Sofia Vergara is hilarious on Modern Family, and The George Lopez Show was a hit, and continues to do well in syndication. (Please don’t even mention that new Rob Schneider show because I would like to punch that man in the face.) But this is not enough.
I would love to see a sitcom about first generation working class Latinos, one that doesn’t make cheap, ethnic jokes about being a Mexicant (barf), one that isn’t filtered through a white-male perspective. I want to see story lines about problems such as poverty, racism, and deported family members, problems that so many of us can relate to. I don’t think a TV show will be a panacea for American xenophobia or our issues of invisibility, but shedding light on our realities and showing our humanity may alter perspectives.
The anti-Latino rhetoric in our country is overwhelming right now. It keeps spreading like an itchy and tenacious STD. I can’t help but think that some of it may be a result of our complete absence in popular media. All people see is our demonization by the political right. According to these portrayals, this vast group of people is solely composed of shifty criminals and sexy ladies. This needs to change. Seeing ourselves portrayed in positive light would also make us feel like the world acknowledges us and that our stories matter. I would love to be a part of that kind of project. Any takers?