THE MIAMI HERALD
January 11, 2000
LAUGHING IN SPANISH
THE SITCOM, LONG A MAINSTAY OF ENGLISH-LANGUAGE TV, IS MAKING A SUCCESSFUL CROSSOVER WITH TELEMUNDO’S ‘LOS BELTRÁN’
By Jordan Levin
Cuban-American Manny Beltrán runs a bodega in Burbank, Calif., and has the usual set of family problems. His daughter Anita married a Chicano artist with leftist politics instead of a nice Cuban boy. And with the young couple sleeping in the next room, his wife Letti is hardly ever “in the mood” anymore.
Plus, he’s sure his bruja mother-in-law – now ashes in a jar on the mantle – is still undermining him. And the Spanish doctor living in their rental apartment may be a prestigious tenant, but his same-sex lover makes Manny distinctly nervous.
Welcome to the world of Los Beltrán, a new Telemundo sitcom airing Sunday nights at 8 that has ventured onto comic ground not tilled since the bilingual PBS cult hit ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A.? went off the air in 1980.
Los Beltrán has much in common with ¿Que Pasa? – as well as with All in the Family (overbearing conservative father clashing with his daughter’s liberal husband) and The Jeffersons (black family living in New York’s tony white Upper East Side).
In fact, it was ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A?, about a multigenerational Cuban family living in Miami, that inspired Los Beltrán.
“I loved ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A?,” said screenwriter Carlos Bermudez, who created the Telemundo program along with Mike Milligan. “I could hear my dad and my friend’s dad talking like that. That’s why the show worked – it rang true to people.”
Which is why Bermudez, who has written for English-language shows including Family Ties, has always yearned for a program that reflected the mores and ironies of being Latino in the United States.
“It’s always been a sort of mission of mine,” he says. “There’s nothing out there that we (Latinos) can relate to.”
Filling that void has also been a goal of Nely Galán, the former president of programming at Telemundo.
“I wanted to develop original shows about issues that Latinos face in the U.S.,” says the Cuban-born Galán, who continues to serve as executive producer forLos Beltrán despite having left the network three months ago. “Living in L.A., I knew one of the big issues was that Cubans and Mexicans don’t get along. Trying to create a national show, the idea I wanted to put out was that Latinos don’t always get along, while in the mainstream, gringos think we do. I wanted to create shows that only we at a Hispanic network could tell.”
“I think the show can’t get any more out there than dealing with racism, classism, homosexuality, and I think it should. Spanish-language TV hasn’t taken enough risks in telling the real stories of Latinos in the U.S.”
Since its debut in October, Los Beltrán has proven a risk worth taking, having more than doubled Telemundo’s Sunday night audience over this time last year. And the cast hopes that success will make the sitcom a viable alternative to the telenovela-heavy prime-time programming Spanish-language TV has traditionally offered.
“We’re doing very strong comedy where we call things by their names, where we’re saying things that maybe have never been said on TV before,” Emiliano Diez, the dynamic Cuban actor who plays Manny, says over lunch at a Little Havana restaurant.
Diez came to Miami as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, in which tens of thousands of Cubans were allowed to leave the island. A graduate of the Superior Art Institute and the University of Havana, Diez worked as an actor in Cuba but initially supported himself as a gardener and salesman after coming to the United States. He eventually made it to the stage in South Florida theater, winning a Carbonell award for best actor in 1992.
“We’re being very honest and upfront in the show,” says Diez, who also appeared in several novelas before landing the lead in Los Beltrán. “‘We never get shows produced here in the U.S., so we don’t even have a chance to express those things. I think it’s the first time that we are really dealing with all these different aspects on TV.”
The nearly constant parade of melodramatic – but popular – telenovelas on prime-time Spanish-language television has created an impression that Latinos don’t like comedy. And although the sitcom has been an English-language TV staple for decades, there are few comedies that specifically targeted Latinos – which is surprising since the few that have aired have done well.
At its peak, ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A.? – which mixed Spanish and English dialogue – aired on 222 stations worldwide. And in 1992, a prime-time Spanish-language sitcom called Corte Tropical, set in a Miami hair salon, drew huge ratings for Univision.
Now comes Los Beltrán, which makes fun of normally taboo subjects such as the prejudices between Latinos of different nationalities, homophobia, machismo and even Cuban nostalgia.
And the timing, says Margarita Coego, who plays Manny’s wife Letti, couldn’t have been better.
“We have a Latino thing going on now, and if you’re going to do anything new, now is the time,” says Coego, a first-generation Cuban-American. “We should be pioneers. I think sometimes people are shocked, but they’re also welcoming it. I mean, come on – it’s 2000.”
Many of the shows revolve around clashes between the conservative Manny and his liberal son-in-law Miguel (played by Demetrius Navarro, who plays a recurring character on ER) over differences in their nationality, their politics or their Americanization. In one episode, Manny, mistaking Miguel’s parents for a Cuban couple, insults Mexicans, then has to sing an apology with a mariachi band. In another, he promises to host a political rally for a racist politician, over Miguel’s protests, in exchange for getting a permit for a parking lot. But when the politician calls Miguel ‘garbage’ for his dark skin, Manny dumps guacamole on the politico’s head.
Other episodes mock Latino social mores, as when an actor does a Walter Mercado-like impersonation of a Santería priest after Letti becomes convinced their family has been cursed, or when Miguel and Manny’s daughter Anita (Yeni Alvarez) vainly try to hide a nude painting of Anita from her indignant parents.
Los Beltrán is Latino-specific enough that it helps to know Cuban or Chicano mores, but the themes of prejudice, changing values and family clashes are universal. Manny, for example, is a caricature of the staunch Cuban – blustery, machista, always sure he’s right. But he’s also every conservative, protective family man.
“I’m so proud that you’re my daughter,” he tells Anita.
“And I’m proud that you’re my father,” she answers. “Most of the time.”
The quick one-liners are typical of American sitcoms, the antic physical style typical of Latino theater – which reflects the way the show is put together. Bermudez says scripts are written in English, then translated into Spanish. Many of the writers come from English-language TV because Telemundo couldn’t find Latino writers with sitcom or comedy writing experience.
But Bermudez is working Latino writers (one, Joe Menendez, was raised in Hialeah) and directors into his lineup in the hopes of giving homegrown Spanish-language talent chances he never had.
“I would never blame discrimination, but it’s hard to write for Mad About You when your name is Bermudez,” he says. “Hopefully this will become a breeding ground for more writers and directors.”
“Four Latino directors have already directed for us, so now we have four directors we can use, who will join the directors guild, who never had that chance before. That’s from just one show – imagine the talent we’d have if we had three more shows.”
At $150,000 an episode, Los Beltrán costs about one-tenth what a comparable-length English-language show costs – yet it’s far more expensive than a half-hour of imported novela programming.
But it’s an investment that could pay huge dividends, says Bermudez.
“If we can give people an alternative, maybe we won’t come out on top, but we can share the audience,” he says. “All I want is to be popular enough so we can make more shows.”
Diez hopes so too.
“¿Que Pasa, U.S.A.? was a show that set a precedent. It was unique,” he says. “It’s a shame that they didn’t keep doing things like that. It shows how fast Spanish productions are going in the U.S., that it’s not until 20 years later that we’re doing Los Beltrán.”
“There are many, many good Hispanic actors in Miami and L.A. and New York. They should have the opportunity to work in a series. After all, who better to portray Latinos than Latinos?”
“We all know someone like Manny,” says Bermudez. “When my Cuban friends watch the show they go, ‘Oh, I know a guy like that.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Guess what? It’s you.’”