By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
It wasn't a good year for Latinos on television, but—pinche—is it ever? The latest sitcom Great Brown Hopes tanked, as American Family buckled under a thick but not-too-zesty salsa soundtrack and cholo clichés, while George Lopez's eponymous show was immediately criticized as insufficiently "Latino." And The Simpsons featured an episode ("Blame It on the Lisa") so hilariously ignorant of Brazil (for one, Brazilians speak Portuguese, não espanhol) that Brazil's state tourism bureau threatened to sue the Fox show for defamation.
But Latinos should take a closer look at Bumblebee Guy before burning him in effigy alongside George Lopez and Edward James Olmos. The Simpsons recently concluded its 13th season and, according to a recent survey, is the most-watched television show in Latino USA. Surprised? Don't be: The Simpsons is the most Latino show on television, depicting the urban reality of America's largest minority.
At first glance, the only constant Latino presence in Springfield seems the inept Cuban Dr. Nick Riviera and the aforementioned abeja. Beyond these obvious characters, though, are subtle yet crucial incidents in the show that expose Latino Springfield.
Referents to Springfield's Latino life are everywhere. The town's main movie palace is the Aztec Theater and is resplendent with pre-Columbian motifs. Springfieldites can also partake of lucha libre matches at the Springfield Memorial Stadium (in one episode, Marge and her friends invest in a Mexican wrestler known as "El Bombástico"). In the world of crime, Springfield's only soccer riot occurred after a match between Mexico and Portugal, and Snake once shared a cell with a Colombian drug lord in Springfield Penitentiary.
Cultural values espoused by members of the Simpson family themselves also suggest a substantial Latino influence on Springfield that could only arise from daily interaction with Latinos. Bart's catch phrase of "Ay, carumba!" is impossible to imagine without Bart hanging around Latino kids who taught him Spanish swear words or expressions. Meanwhile, Lisa is Chicana-conscious enough to care to point out the difference between Olmec and Mayan to Maggie after Mr. Burns gave a giant stone head of the Olmec war god Xtapalatecetl to Bart. And noted dolt Homer is not immune to the spell of Latino culture, owning a battle scar from the time a lunch truck slammed on his head after he demanded a burrito and once imagining himself as "Evil Homer" playing maracas over his grave.
Even Dr. Nick and Bumblebee Guy are nuanced. Dr. Nick is an immigrant, having to take an immigrant test to remain in the country after the passing of the anti-immigrant Proposition 24 (more on that later). Though hilariously inept, Dr. Nick operates a free clinic in the poor section of town that advertises itself as "Se Habla Español." This little touch both alludes to the reality that Latino immigrants face in obtaining health care and suggests that Latino immigrants in Springfield are recent arrivals—and poor. And their only form of diversion outside soccer matches and lucha libre is their idol, Bumblebee Guy, the Spanish-speaking Mexican in a bee suit who overshadows even Krusty the Clown and newscaster Kent Brockman. To the Simpson family and their friends, Bumblebee Guy is just (as Bart once said) "unpredictable Mexican sitcoms." But Pedro (Bumblebee Guy's real name) is so popular that he and his network, Channel Ocho, beat Krusty the Clown in the ratings. His network is so important (having its own production studio) that when Sideshow Bob threatened to blow up Springfield, Channel Ocho was one of the "distinguished representatives of television" that met with Mayor Quimby to decide the fate of television in Springfield. And eventually, Bumblebee Guy defects to Channel 6 in an apparent move by Springfield's English networks to attract Latino viewers by hiring one of their own (a rough parallel to appearances in soaps by Latino celebrities Ricky Martin and Cristina Saragelui).
Since all of Bumblebee Guy's skits are in Spanish (albeit a horribly corrupted version), his ratings power indicates a large, unassimilated Springfield Latino population. This same population also explains why Springfield felt it urgent in one episode to pass Mayor Quimby's Prop. 24, an anti-immigrant measure eerily similar to former California Governor Pete Wilson's Proposition 187.
Latinos should claim The Simpsons as their own and encourage the show's writers to fully develop the large Latino community already established as a major component of Springfield. This doesn't involve a threat of boycott or creation of the implausible situations that The Simpsons' writers have unfortunately grown fond of. By demanding a fuller depiction of Springfield, Latinos could give The Simpsons the biggest Latino presence on television outside of Cops.