Why Hollywood Can’t Put Real-Life Mexicans on TV

Last Sunday saw the bittersweet culmination of a dream I dropped 15 years ago, a dream I now want more than ever before. The occasion was the season finale of Bordertown, a FOX cartoon that satirized life on the U.S.-Mexico border and for which I served as a consulting producer. It was a historic series, the first cartoon starring Latinos on prime time. And the conclusion to Season 1, titled “Viva Coyote,” was my first writing credit and helped me get my Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), West membership—yay!

But I held no viewing party, had no friends and family over to mark the achievement. It was also the series finale for Bordertown, as FOX had announced its cancellation two weeks earlier. We just never got the ratings or critical buzz to justify a second season for executives. And that same week, all the networks and many cable, web and streaming outlets began announcing their new shows for the fall season—and only one will focus on Latinos (a Netflix-Univisión drama about El Chapo—surprise, surprise). With Bordertown‘s axing and a similar fate befalling the Eva Longoria-starring NBC laugher Telenovela, that leaves just one English-language, Latino-centered show—the CW’s Jane the Virgin—on network television, one on cable (Lopez, George Lopez’s latest roman à clef), none on Amazon Prime (Mozart In the Jungle, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, doesn’t really count), one on Hulu (East Los High), Narcos on Netflix . . . and that’s it.

This, during the supposed Golden Age of Television. In a country in which Latinos are now the largest minority. In a year in which politicians are defaming Mexicans nonstop. In an industry based in Southern California, which reverted to Mexico in 1995. As we say in Spanish—and someone get a translator for the writers’ room, won’t ya?—¿que pinche chingada?

It’s actually a worse situation than when I first had an urge to become Hollywood Gus. I majored in film at Orange Coast College and Chapman University at the turn of the 20th century, looking to join the New Brown Wave. Those years were an Época de Oro for Chicanos on television and film: Movies such as Selena, Mi Familia and Real Women Have Curves became cultural landmarks, while series such as House of Buggin’, Resurrection Blvd. and American Family gave nuanced representation to a minority long cast as spitfires or spics. (And, of course, the TV version of Culture Clash, which came out when I was in high school, not college!)

I wanted to be part of the change back then—but once I discovered OC Weekly, I never looked back. I don’t regret my career move because it gave me perspective and motivation. Now that I’m finally a TV guy, ever so slightly, I’m committed to not only break down doors, but to also level the goddamn foundation. See, I now know exactly why Mexicans remain side characters at best on networks or cable, why Latino writers rarely get the chance to run their own shows, and why it’s going to be like that for a while—and my moment of clarity came because of the word pocho.

Regular readers of mine, or people who live their daily lives surrounded by Mexicans, know the word is slang for an assimilated Mexican-American. It’s technically an insult, but not a vulgar one, and it long ago lost its bite—think of it as the mestizo version of gringo. I used the word in my Bordertown script—and I nearly got my boss in trouble for it.

After a script is written (and rewritten and rewritten; out of the 35 or so pages that make up my episode, maybe four of those pages are my lines. It’s a living) and approved by execs, it goes over to a studio’s Standards and Practices division to review for libel and good taste. I wasn’t in the Bordertown offices the day that happened, but fellow writer and legendary cartoonista Lalo Alcaraz was. I remember getting a text telling me the story: that FOX Standards and Practices didn’t know what pocho meant, that neither did execs, and that neither side knew a Mexican who might, so they decided to call someone at FOX Deportes. And that a non-Mexican Latino there told them pocho was an expletive that violated FCC rules.

After this game of Telephone, Standards and Practices lit into Bordertown showrunner Mark Hentemann for trying to sneak in a bad word on TV. Exasperated, Mark summoned Lalo to talk to them; Lalo explained in a conference call that pocho is not an expletive and that he runs the satirical website pocho.com, so can you leave us alone and let us do our jobs?

Think about it: FOX didn’t have any lawyers who knew Mexicans who knew what a commonly used Mexican Spanish word meant, nor did any executives, and nor did someone at FOX Deportes. When Lalo and I told this story to audiences nationwide, groans filled the room—of all words, it was pocho?

I don’t mean to pick on my patrons because this is actually a mild example of Hollywood Mexi-cluelessness (far worse was the young Latina assistant who told her bosses that Día de los Muertos wasn’t a voodoo holiday, who nevertheless depicted it as such in a major motion picture). But there’s your diversity problem. If there are pathetically few Latino television and film writers (only 3.3 percent of WGA, West members are Latino), there are even fewer directors, still fewer executives and far fewer critics, a frequently overlooked aspect of media diversity that can champion a show yet whose corps contains a number of Mexicans almost on par with a Trump rally. Few Latinos get in, fewer move up in influence, so there is little institutional support for Latino ideas and creatives in Hollywood. While nearly every studio has a diversity program and community focus groups, you know the system is screwy when the most common Mexicans whom producers know are the nannies and landscapers in their personal lives and security and janitors in their work lives.

Tinseltown doesn’t need affirmative action so much as a Mexican Marshall Plan for itself to remain relevant in Latino USA’s future. Our demographics are there, but so is our demand for excellence (why do you think the most popular sitcom of all time for Latinos remains The Simpsons?) and to not get Hispandered. Studios should recruit raza from outside, to populate all levels of their hierarchies and offer a new perspective everywhere. One of the reasons I’m even in Hollywood today is because execs tell me they like that I’m not from their bubble, that my ideas are fresh and story lines new. Obviously, my contributions to Bordertown weren’t enough to keep the show around—but get more Latino outsiders like me, and we’ll keep ustedes relevant. Otherwise, off to Snapchat young Latino viewers go.

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