February 24, 2013

I Can Speak Inglés: Hispanic Representations in American Sitcoms

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Over break, while trying to find a show for the family to watch, I suggested Modern Family, which my father promptly excused himself from. I was confused. We had watched a few episodes together here and there, and he never had a problem with the show. When I asked him why, he said he didn’t like Sofia Vergara’s character because it seemed the writers were just making fun of her.

Although I could definitely tell that her accent has gotten more affected in recent years, I chalked it up to comedic exaggeration. As a Hispanic, it never truly bothered me because at least she is authentically Hispanic and on a major sitcom. Her character might parody our culture, but I find the show to exaggerate aspects of all the characters and not just one. Nevertheless, my father’s comment made me reconsider not just her portrayal of a Latina on television, but other portrayals throughout television history that cement those stereotypes.

One of the first real Hispanic actors to charm American audiences was none other than Desi Arnaz, better known as Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy. He was the straight man to Lucy’s crazy antics both on and off screen. On screen, however, the Cuban actor played to the exoticism associated with his background. He was a bongo-playing musician with a thick accent to match. Every weekend he yelled after Lucy with the famous line, “You got some ‘splaining to do!” And beyond these characteristics, his name on the show was enough to play into stereotypes: Ricky Ricardo—Ricardo Ricardo. Seriously? No one would actually have this name. The show may have diversified representations of couples through this inter-ethnic one on a major television sitcom, but through the exoticism of both his occupation and name, it continued the notion of Hispanics as an ethnic “other” that was not emblematic of what was American.

Then there was self-proclaimed Hungarican Freddie Prinze (not the 90s heartthrob with boyish charm, but his father). Before his suicide in 1977, he had a prolific career as a stand-up comic and as the star of the sitcom Chico and the Man. The show depicted a curmudgeon garage owner, Ed Brown (Jack Albertson of Grandpa Joe fame in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and his Chicano mechanic, Chico Rodriguez. With his prejudice against the rising Chicano demographic surrounding him, the sitcom focused on the evolution of Ed Brown as he grew to love and respect Chico. In doing so, the show aimed to break cultural stereotypes, although not without some mishaps along the way.

A famous catchphrase from Prinze’s stand-up, “It’s not my job!” made its way into the first season. At the behest of fans in the Hispanic community, it was later changed to “Looking good!” This simple alteration showed that Prinze and the writers were hoping to represent the Hispanic community as best they could, and break with the ingrained stereotypes. Unfortunately, Prinze only made it through 2 seasons of the show before he tragically ended his life at the tender age of 22. Nevertheless, his work and legacy inspired many and extends to today.

Among the people who emulated him was none other than George Lopez. Growing up idolizing the young comic, Lopez saw that someone from that background could make it to the forefront of American culture. In 2002, he was able to leave his own indelible mark on American television with his own sitcom, George Lopez. The show followed a Latino family through the normal trials and tribulations of any family sitcom.

This time, though, the cast was predominantly Latino (except for the actress who played George’s daughter who was Albanian American). Furthermore, it showed a small diversity in that Latino rendering. Growing up where people always assumed that if you were Latino, you were either Mexican or Puerto Rican, it was nice to see a bit of a mix, albeit a slight one. In addition, it also showed that not all Latinos have darker complexions—George’s wife, Angie, on the show was a light-skinned Cuban, for example. Above all, the show stayed true to certain aspects of Latino culture with some traditions and sprinklings of Spanglish here and there, but it did not exaggerate it to exoticize the ethnicity. It was a careful balance that is to be appreciated.

And finally back to Sofia Vergara in Modern Family. After taking my dad’s comment into consideration, I realized that the writers are somewhat making an injustice of Gloria’s character. They have contributed to this exoticization of the Latino ethnicity that many previous sitcoms were trying to slowly eradicate. The overtly broken English and constant yelling do not serve to portray an underrepresented minority, but rather continue the belittling of it. I can appreciate the diversity that Modern Family is putting forth, but wish that the writers would consider showing how Gloria’s culture and traditions contribute to the family, rather than focusing on how different they are from the rest of them.

Original Author: Natalia Fallas