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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Strangers In The Barrio, Testing Cultural Flexibility
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
June 4, 2004
Sí TV, the Latin-themed cable network that principally broadcasts in English, first appeared in February and is now available in seven million homes. To followers of what some have called the language wars, the channel appears to suggest an elegant solution, one that is especially evident in its new reality show, "Urban Jungle."
The language wars in the United States are as old as the nation itself, and they begin with a silence: the Constitution makes no mention of a national language. Should the United States, which has always been a de facto polyglot nation, preserve and promote multilingualism or make English the law?
The question gained urgency in the 1980's and 90's when, amid growing concerns about bilingual education, signboards and the linguistic status of ebonics, a number of states instituted English as their official language, including California (1986) and Florida (1988), both with large Hispanic populations.
Some considered these developments victories in a march toward national lingual unification. Others, like Raul Yzaguirre, the president of the National Council of La Raza, which advances Hispanic causes, saw them as a reproof to Spanish speakers, the second largest language group in the country. "U.S. English," he has said, referring to the powerful English-only interest group, "is to Hispanics as the Ku Klux Klan is to blacks."
More recently this debate has cooled, appearing to settle in the same way that language conflicts are generally settled in the United States: by improvisation. English dominates the Internet and publishing, but with the nation's Hispanic population at 13 percent, according to the 2000 Census, Spanish is regularly spoken in workplaces and schools. Spanish newspapers are published all over the United States. And Telemundo and Univision have drawn impressive ratings with all-Spanish formatting, as have Spanish-language versions of cable channels like Fox and CNN.
But Sí TV is an anomaly. The brainchild of Jeff Valdez, a former comedian, Sí TV strikes a blow neither for linguistic assimilationists nor for preservationists. Instead it works off a provocative statistic: at least three-quarters of the projected 2010 population of Hispanics in the United States 44 million people will live in households that are bilingual or where English predominates. By offering shows intended for second- and third-generation Hispanics who are fluent in English but who closely identify with Latino culture, Sí TV gets around the English-or-Spanish split. Instead of choosing, the network dramatizes in its programs the converging cultures in transition.
Nowhere is that transition more explicitly in evidence than on Sí TV's most publicized offering, "Urban Jungle," a reality show that will have its premiere on Sunday. Mr. Valdez created the show himself, and he calls it a "social experiment."
"Urban Jungle" sends nine young suburbanites of various ethnic backgrounds (the show calls them "privileged brats") to live and work in the barrio of East Los Angeles for the chance to win $50,000. What's left out of the premise is the real challenge of the show: to master the art of American cultural flexibility, which here means learning, relearning and unlearning both Spanish and English. (One contestant already speaks Spanish.) To start things off, one contestant, Vanessa, a blond party girl, makes it clear how little she knows: "I had to be told the definition of what the barrio was. And when I first read it off of something, I pronounced it `bar-ee-OH.' "
A trio of local padrinos, or godparents, watch over the contestants and, this being reality television, decide who deserves the money. The padrinos are Marilyn Martinez, a joker with great timing who is a freelance phone sex worker; Armando Cosio, an exterminator; and Pete Esquivel, a photographer. The neighborhood to which their charges have been consigned scares even the padrinos. "Talk about ghetto, right?" says Armando, and they break out laughing.
Their charges include Kimberly, an Asian-American bikini model; Sasha, a Mexican-American flirt; and Bryan, a good ol' boy from Arkansas. They're a telegenic if not brilliant group, drawn from the party-oriented pool of reality contestants rather than the churchy pool.
After facing a house they deem grimy and roach-infested on television, it looks only artfully distressed the contestants are given $100 each and the mandate to get jobs. (They do menial labor in a restaurant, a bakery and a warehouse.) But there is still a college-dorm atmosphere, and before long they're drinking rotgut from the bottle one guy co-swigs it with Coke and designating a "chuck bucket" for the ones hit hardest. Vomiting, though not drinking, counts against these contestants with the padrinos, whose tyranny seems capricious. Though they say they will choose a winner based on "respect, attitude and work ethic," the padrinos seem to dock people for whining, for fighting and for no reason at all.
So far, no one has lost points for xenophobia, though Bryan makes the case for assimilation: "If you're going to come here, learn the language." But which language, and where's here?
By the end of the second episode the contestants' experiences indirectly reflect the barrio's influence. They're squabbling and suffering from hangovers, but they're also coming to appreciate the struggles of the urban poor and to enjoy the moral charge of hard work. Hey, good for them. That usually lasts a few days.
Sí TV, Sunday night at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Jeff Valdez, creator and executive producer; Ed Leon, executive producer; produced by Roni Menendez and Joe Menendez.
WITH: Dustin, Vanessa, Rich, Sasha, Salomon, Bryan, Janine, Kimberly, J. P., Pete Esquivel, Armando Cosio and Marilyn Martinez.