For anyone tracking the Latino presence on television, May was a zero-sum month. First, ABC canceled long-running sitcom “George Lopez,” prompting its titular star to complain, “TV just became really, really white again.” Then, not a week later, CBS announced the fall debut of “Cane,” an hourlong drama about a Cuban-American family.
But while the ledger might not have tipped to either side, there was still plenty to celebrate. Announced in April, this year’s Alma Awards nominees delineate a considerable Latino presence on both sides of the TV camera.
This preponderance is especially visible to David Chavez, who has served as the kudocast’s executive producer since its inception in 1995. “In the early days, it was very difficult to even have categories — there just weren’t that many Latinos working in high-profile positions or acting roles,” he says. “People used to make fun of us because every year it would be Edward James Olmos and Rita Moreno.”
And while Olmos is still as visible as ever (nominated in both the television acting and directing categories), he now has far more company: This year’s Alma Awards include eight television categories, containing as many as eight nominees per.
“It’s the zeitgeist now,” says “Cane” creator Cynthia Cidre, who believes her show’s Latino orientation was key to its pickup. “I think the culture has matured, there are more Latinos — it’s a real market, and it’s completely accessible.”
It certainly couldn’t have hurt that “Ugly Betty,” ABC’s Latino-led hourlong with roots in Colombian telenovela “Yo Soy Betty, la Fea,” was one of the few unmitigated successes of the 2006 freshman class.
“What ‘Ugly Betty’ exemplifies is that you can take stories that are Latino themed, and they can reach a wide audience,” Chavez opines, noting that “Betty” caught on among auds in the various demographics who were likely unfamiliar with the source material.
“It was interesting that we were up against the (Spanish-language) remake of the original on Univision,” says “Betty” showrunner (and Alma nominee) Silvio Horta. “They had ‘La Fea Mas Bella’ on at the same time. So I think (our audience) was mostly fresh.”
As the “Betty” situation suggests, the country’s changing demographics could begin altering Nielson figures in a significant way. The growing numbers (and disparate tastes) of bilingual first- and second-generation Latinos may soon force network heads to re-examine old notions about Latino audiences.
“I think there are some myths that Latinos are only watching Spanish-language television — and that’s not true,” Chavez says. “There is such a market for English-language content.”
The mainstream status of Latino culture also demands less of the heavy-handed social commentary that Cidre dubs “the Margaret Mead approach,” wherein didacticism takes precedence over storytelling. For his part, Horta seeks to avoid this by keeping the emphasis on the characters, even when politics intrude.
“Because of who Betty is and who her family is, it lends itself to these very specific stories that we’re telling, whether it’s the immigration story or the racial overtones of her being a Latina girl in this primarily Anglo business,” he says. “But first and foremost it comes from the characters, and these are just the stories that fit the characters.”
Screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton, Alma-nominated for both TV (HBO’s “Walkout”) and film (“Children of Men”), echoes this sentiment, saying, “There isn’t one blanket, unified Latino experience.”
No one will accuse “Cane,” which stars Jimmy Smits as the paterfamilias of a line of Cuban sugarcane and rum magnates, of taking the blanket approach. In fact, its creator sought to make the series’ focus as narrow as possible.
“Being culturally specific, instead of being sort of pan-Latino, makes a big difference,” says Cidre, who jokingly refers to herself as “the Cuban of choice” for the network, having previously scripted “The Mambo Kings” and “Fires Within.”
“Everybody can feel that specificity,” she continues, “the same way you can feel it when you watch ‘The Godfather’ — that was about a very specific culture, but it resonated.”