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'American Family' A Turning Point For Latinos


August 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

PASADENA, Calif. -- Twenty-eight years ago on PBS, An American Family made lots of noise with the fractious Louds.

Now comes American Family, another trailblazer that gives PBS the distinction of having the first Latino drama series in English-language broadcast television history.

The earlier series magnified a real-life California family that let a documentary filmmaker record their every waking moment. Its 12 episodes were debated endlessly. Should the country at large have been party to renegade son Lance Loud's ``coming out'' party? Meanwhile, his parents headed toward a divorce that also unfolded on national television. It was the first flat-out ``reality'' series.

American Family, which will premiere in January, tracks the fictional González family of East Los Angeles through various trials and travails. Gregory Nava, director of feature films like El Norte, Mi Familia and Selena, originally made the series' pilot episode for CBS, which decided not to include it in its 2000 fall schedule. The network did, however, allow him to shop the pilot and PBS eventually scraped up enough money to fund an additional 12 episodes.

PBS, which hasn't had a weekly episodic drama series since it picked up NBC's canceled I'll Fly Away in 1993, also has an option to order additional episodes.

The series stars longtime Latino activist Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice) as conservative family patriarch ``Jess'' González. Raquel Welch plays his sister, Aunt Dora. Constance Marie (Selena) and Esai Morales, now of ABC's NYPD Blue, also are in the regular cast.

Welch, whose father is Bolivian, has played Latino characters just twice in her long career.

``I've made it a point to be in the closet as a Latina or as a Hispanic for many years because, quite frankly, it was a disadvantage to come into the entertainment community and advertise that you were Latin,'' she said. ``The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that you're just supposed to homogenize yourself and not have any defining characteristics or anything that would get in the way of people identifying with you.''

Olmos also is playing against type. His Jess character is an archconservative who believes that anyone living in America should speak English, period.

``Imagine Archie Bunker meeting Zorba the Greek, and then you get me,'' he said. ``The guy likes to dance. At the same time, he listens to Rush Limbaugh.''

The character is modeled after Olmos' real-life older brother, Pete, a former Marine Corps drill instructor. Nava hopes that Jess will be a crossover ``bridge'' to a wider audience for American Family.

``Everybody has a father or an uncle who is like that,'' he said. ``So let's have fun with it. And the minute you do that, it kind of gets rid of all the cultural, ethnic and politically correct things. Let's not worry about that, all this image stuff.

``Jess is real, believe me. Our [Latino] community is very conservative in a lot of ways. So we decided to make Jess the focal point of the show.''

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