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'Taina's' Puerto Rican creator, Maria Perez-Brown, is hoping that her show's success generates more interest in Latin writers and their stories


April 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001. THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.


On Nickelodeon's hot new sitcom Taina, the main character is a 15-year-old Latina who rides the subway by herself, chats with her homeys on her cell phone, fails a Spanish exam and refuses to wear the poofy pink dress her family is saving for her quinces coming-out party.

In other words, Taina Morales is the typical Latin teen coming of age in urban America, caught between two worlds and surviving the discrepancies.

It's no wonder the show, one of scant few offerings reflecting Latin culture on English-language TV, has struck a chord with young audiences.

``You may be a tough little girl who rides the subway by yourself, but as a Latina, when you go home you have to suspend a lot of things because of a lot of strict cultural rules,'' says Taina's creator and executive producer, Maria Perez-Brown, whose own life mirrors the main character's.

Nobody knows the struggle of negotiating dual identities better than Perez-Brown, who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Brooklyn. One of four kids raised by a single mom, she overcame plenty of obstacles to get into Yale for a B.A., then New York University for a law degree.

But her biggest challenge was breaking into television as a Latina who wanted to tell Latin stories. Not since Que Pasa U.S.A.?, the bilingual sitcom about a Cuban family struggling with American life in 1970s Miami, has a TV show so closely dealt with the issues of growing up Hispanic-American. Why it took nearly three decades for another show to reflect a reality shared by millions in the United States has everything to do with who calls the shots at the networks, says Perez-Brown.

``We are all extremely happy to have Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. It makes our life a lot easier to be able to point to them as examples of the power of the Latin market in the U.S. It's good to have the stars. But things need to start changing behind the scenes. People of color are rarely represented in the writing rooms. There can be 10 or 12 writers on a show and if you look around, they are all white and male. You can only come up with stories that are about your own experiences.''

Perez-Brown, 39, has made it her mission to tap Latin writers for Taina, even those who don't have a lot of television experience.

``Sometimes a playwright or a journalist can be an incredible sitcom writer,'' she says. ``The big excuse from Hollywood is that they can't find enough Latino writers. But that's because they haven't made an effort to bring people in at a junior level and train them.''

Nickelodeon is one cable channel making strides. It recently launched a training program to help minority writers crack the system. ``We brought in three writers who were paid $30,000 each just to sit and watch us produce a show for a year. At the end of the year, they have to write one episode for one Nickelodeon show,'' says Perez-Brown, who found an untraditional way into the business herself.

She began her career as a lawyer in the tax division of a Manhattan law firm. But her big love was entertainment. So, on the side, she handled entertainment contracts for friends. Eventually she quit the firm for entertainment law full time. Along the way she made television connections.

Among her first projects was writing for Gullah Gullah Island, a Nickelodeon show for preschoolers. She also produced several episodes. Now she's working on a pilot for a sitcom to appeal to adults, which she plans to pitch to the big networks.

``I know I came through untraditional routes. I had developed relationships at Nickelodeon through my work as a lawyer. But most Latinos don't have access to the people who buy shows,'' says Perez-Brown. ``What Nickelodeon has done for me is that now I can knock on some doors and get a meeting. A few years ago, a Latino just couldn't get a meeting. I'm hoping my presence will help open the doors for other writers.''

Nickelodeon is making the case for Latin-flavored entertainment. In addition to Taina, which kicked off its first season in January, it is home to Brothers Garcia, about three siblings growing up in San Antonio, Texas; and Dora the Explorer, a bilingual program for the preschool set.

``The shows may feature Latino kids, but they've done great in the ratings across the board,'' says Kevin Kay, senior vice president of production for Nickelodeon. ``The way the shows have been designed, they tell good stories about everyday kids. Kids are exposed to other people of other cultures every day. We decided we ought to reflect that world.''

Taina is posting solid ratings gains, up 28 percent from last year among kids 2-11 in its time slot (7 p.m. Sundays). ``It's growing every week,'' says Kay. ``The big news is with the tweens, the 9-to-14-year-olds, where ratings are up 51 percent.''

The story takes the Puerto Rican Taina from her traditional Latin home in Brooklyn to the Manhattan School of the Arts, where she pursues her dreams of stardom with a crew of multicultural friends.

She lives with her mostly acculturated parents, a younger brother and a not-so-acculturated abuelo (grandfather), played by Manolo Villaverde, who won an Emmy for his role as the dad on Que Pasa U.S.A.? Taina's mom is played by Lisa Velez, a k a Lisa Lisa, a pop music star of the 1980s.

Talk show maven Cristina Saralegui makes an occasional appearance as the principal at Taina's school. Also from Miami is Christina Sanchez, the Sabado Gigante regular who plays Titi Carmen, Taina's aunt from Puerto Rico.

`The biggest difference between Taina and Que Pasa U.S.A.? is that they had a lot of language issues,'' says Perez-Brown. ``In this family, they've all been in the U.S. longer. Even the abuelo speaks English. The biggest barriers are cultural. Taina can't understand some of the traditions.''

No episode explains the clash better than Quinceañero, in which Taina refuses to wear the tacky quinces dress her mother wore to her 15th coming-of-age bash. In the end, Taina wears the modern dress she picked out herself, but in deference to tradition, walks in with the tiara her mother had been saving for her.

``For me, the message of Taina is a business message. It simply makes business sense to include Latinos in programming,'' says Perez-Brown, who lives in New Jersey. ``It's not just an altruistic thing. Production companies invest millions into developing shows. When you look at the numbers of Latinos across the country, we have a huge buying power. We have also become more discriminating. The success of Taina suggests we are demanding a certain quality programming that reflects our lives.''

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