One could say that Matt Lopez was born to be the first to break ground at ABC as the creator of a multigenerational series about a wealthy, interwoven Latino family vying for power and prestige in Sonoma Valley.
Armed with the lived experience of the Latino diaspora as the grandson of a Cuban immigrant — along with a keen knack for business affairs, and a background in corporate legalese from his days as an attorney for DreamWorks before he segued into writing via the Disney Writers Program — Lopez has spun a web of immigrant issues and telenovela intrigue in “Promised Land.” While injecting heart and authenticity into a narrative that teeters between “East of Eden” and “Days of Our Lives”-levels of family drama, the creator and executive producer challenges stereotypes made about Latinos in the United States, as well as assumptions about what themes Latino shows “should” tackle.
Much of the strength of “Promised Land” lies in its casting, which is almost entirely 100% Latino — John Ortiz, Mariel Molino, Andres Velez, Christina Ochoa, Cecilia Suárez, star, along with Bellamy Young. The crew and writers’ room is almost entirely Latino as well, a rarity for an American English-language network.
Lopez sat down with Variety to discuss how the representation of Latinidad and Hispanic heritage on “Promised Land” is like an aromatic glass of the Sandoval vineyard’s wine — rich, complex and nuanced — and the pressures of making sure those notes translate tastefully and authentically on-screen.
What is the significance behind the title “Promised Land?”
I feel that there is a Dickensian, Steinbeckian thing to it, in the sense that the show and the title itself ties into the land. The word “land” is in the title, and it is a show about people who work the land. One thing that my research about vineyard families, especially these old Napa and Sonoma families that have been in the business for two, three, sometimes four generations brought up, is that they are farmers, through and through. Even the very wealthy ones. They may clean up well and go to formal events and galas, but at the end of the day, they are farmers that are deeply connected to the land and that aspect of the promise of the American dream. And that aspect of the American dream is also part of the immigrant experience, which is an integral part of the show. This country’s immigrants, many of whom are Latino, live the ideals and the promise of the American dream as well— if not better —than the people whose families have been here for generations. And I include my own immigrant family in that group, as we have been here for about three generations.
This show is about Latino families vying for power in California, but you noted earlier that Steinbeck and Dickens were two of the script’s muses. Could you talk more about that?
Dickens is a huge inspiration to me, and to the scope of the show. From the earliest days that I started developing this idea at ABC, I knew that I didn’t want “Promised Land” to be another soap opera or another telenovela. It seems inevitable to draw those parallels, you know, given that it is an hourlong drama with an almost-all-Latino cast. People want to throw the label of telenovela on it, and on the one hand, I don’t reject it. “Promised Land” plays in some of the genre’s waters and does so very comfortably— it has a beautiful vineyard, the actors are beautiful, and so on and so forth. There are twists and turns and intrigues, but we are aspiring for something more than the modern telenovela, and that’s where Steinbeck and the Dickens come into it. Dickens’s novels were very much the popular “primetime” entertainment of its heyday, and they have just as much drama as what we see on TV today. He also wrote many of his great works episodically. But, at the same time, in terms of depth of character and in terms of richness of themes, “Promised Land” is going for something so much more than what is typically applied to Latino family narratives on American television. Obviously, there are great works of Latinx and Spanish-language literature and shows, but not so much on English-language network TV.
The cast is almost 100% Latino — why is it important to have that level of authenticity in representation on-screen on one of the major English-language networks? What does it feel like to carry the weight and responsibility of being one of the first ABC show creators to do take this on?
Getting to know this cast and collaborating with the cast has been maybe the most gratifying part of the entire experience of making the show. I call them collaborators because they have brought such a level of complexity and richness from their own lives to the show. I am a third-generation Cuban-American from Tampa, but that’s just one part of the immigrant experience, right? But, then there’s someone like Rolando Chusan, who plays young Billy, who came here from Ecuador. That is an entirely different immigrant viewpoint than my own, and you are able to see both perspectives reflected in the show and in the two timelines. I have always had this idea to depict the immigrant experience from two different points along the journey and see how one set of characters transforms into the other set of characters, with all of the costs incurred along the way. Our casting director, Veronica Collins Rooney— who, notwithstanding those two Irish last names is Mexican-American — wanted to, at first, cast all Mexican-Americans but, strictly on the basic level of cast availability, it became increasingly clear that this ambition was going to be extremely difficult to follow through with. So, then we said, okay, let’s get the best Latino actors irrespective of what their roots are. We had such a wonderful experience because we ended up with actors from all over the Latino and Hispanic diaspora — we’ve got Spaniards, we have a Cuban, we have Puerto Ricans, we have Mexicans, we have South and Central Americans, and I like to kid that John Ortiz is from the Latin American Republic of Brooklyn. It was just fantastic because, I think we often as Latinos know that we are from many different cultures and countries, and we often — and rightly so — celebrate those many differences between us and the pride we have for our own backgrounds, but I think sometimes what gets overlooked in doing that is our many commonalities, not just in language, which is the most surface-level one, but in experience, and food, and family and culture. I think this also allowed the cast to play their characters in all of their richness and complexity.
In the show, there is also LGBTQ representation, which is not something we see a whole lot of on network television that has English-language or Spanish-language programming.
That’s true, and it’s something that I take very seriously. It was born out of the experiences in my own life, and I wanted to challenge certain assumptions that we have about Latino families constantly in Season 1. One assumption is that all Latino families are patriarchal, and many of them definitely are. With the Sandovals, as you see in Episode 2 and more as the series continues, there is a matriarchal aspect of the show with the character of Lettie. So, that’s one assumption I hope to tackle. Another assumption has to do with LGBTQ representation, with the character of Antonio. I am tired of the trope of the stern Latino father who is like, “Oh! Homosexuality is a sin, get out of my house!” And, look, that story is sadly true for many, and it is worn out often, so I didn’t want to tell it again. When Antonio relays the story of what led to their fallout, his father, Joe, basically tells him that he can sleep with whomever he wants, but there are certain assumptions people make in the industry, and so he wanted his son to essentially stay in the closet in public and in front of non-family. So, in Joe’s mind, he didn’t understand what the problem was, but of course, Antonio was upset because he wasn’t allowed to live authentically as himself.
There is a shocking reveal at the end of the first episode that unites these warring families in a unique way.
So, essentially, there are two brothers that essentially fall in love with the same woman, and, as we will see unfurled in the tapestry across the first season, end up with one of them. In the present timeline, one of those men, Billy, returns under the guise of “Father Ramos,” and what led to that choice following a break-up, as we will see in the past timeline. We will also see how Joe, who climbed over the wall with Lettie, winds up with young Margaret Honeycroft, who is the daughter of the original owner of the vineyard. There is a mixed marriage, and mixed heritage, from the start, and it has been a wonderful prism from which to examine the immigrant experience. It is very common in mixed Latino families to see the push and pull that takes place during the assimilation process. There’s a cost to that assimilation, sometimes in terms of family, in terms of your culture, holding onto language, etcetera, and we see all of that play out in the two timelines. I hope a lot of viewers are able to see some reflections of their own families on-screen.
Many shows that we see nowadays about wealthy siblings — “Succession,” “Righteous Gemstones,” “Yellowstone” — have brothers and sisters are constantly trying to tear each other down. But, you see in “Promised Land” that there is real love between these siblings and cousins, in spite of the business struggles taking place.
Yeah, that was something we talked about a lot in the writers’ room — we wanted to let them be bratty, and be petty and be venal, because why do Latinos always have to be either noble and humble, or in the cartel? It’s always one extreme or the other. You see a lot of this in the character of Carmen, in particular, who is pretty vain and shallow, which often leads her to not being taken seriously. She is underestimated by other people in her family, and I would also say by herself, and over the course of the season, we see that she goes on quite the journey of self-actualization. From my own experience with my family, even when there are rivalries and even when the daggers come out, there is love behind it. Antonio is, for example teaming up with his mother and trying to bring down his father, but he isn’t fueled by resentment and anger, or a desire for revenge, he’s mostly fueled by his need to win his father’s love. And it just so happens that his father is the kind of man who will only come to love and respect Antonio if he can be just as much of a badass as he is and take him down— or, at least, that is how Antonio sees it. We put a lot of the assumptions that he has about his own father and his own siblings under pressure. Look, I mean, “Succession” is a work of art and that show is fantastic, and I think that “Promised Land” definitely has some of its elements, but I also do believe that it is a little bit more of a show for the heart, rather than the head.
This interview has been edited and condensed.