TV adds Spanish flair  
Los Angeles Times
Nov. 5, 2007

Maria Elena Fernandez
HOLLYWOOD - "Oye," have you noticed? All over the TV dial, "se habla espanol. Si. Si." It's true. Many of your favorite TV characters are speaking in Spanish. Sometimes it's just a line of dialogue sprinkled in to add a dash of authenticity. Sometimes it's a full-blown conversation with or without subtitles. Sometimes it's even that (lazy? or is it naughty?) bi cultural hybrid, Spanglish.

As Hispanics have grown into the largest U.S. minority, the culture has surfaced ever so slightly on our TV programs. To be sure, the TV networks still have their work cut out for them when it comes to all-around diversity. But increasingly, Hispanic characters on television are resembling the full U.S. Hispanic experience: from the working-class families of "The George Lopez Show" and "Ugly Betty" to the middle-class professionals of "Scrubs" and "Dexter," to the wealthy elite of "Cane."

Now for the bad news: Sometimes Spanish words are so horribly mispronounced and the grammar is so mangled that the FCC should consider charging someone with a crime against language. "Que pasa," TV networks? Is it that challenging to hire some tutors? In the same way that shows hire consultants to get medical or crime investigation procedures right, can't you hire some native speakers to work with your actors?

Cases in point: In a recent episode of Showtime's "Dexter," detectives Angel Batista (David Zayas ) and Maria Laguerta (Lauren Velez ) expressed their condolences to the family of a victim. But the way the actors pronounced "perdida" (loss), emphasizing the second syllable instead of the first, sent the wrong message. Instead of "I'm sorry for your loss," they told the grieving mother that they were "sorry that you got lost."

Fox's "Prison Break" can thank its lucky stars for Amaury Nolasco , a Puerto Rican actor who plays heart throb Sucre and delivers his Spanish lines as flawlessly as his English ones. But the rest of the Panamanian prison is infested with folks who really need to spend a little more time on phonetics.

Similarly, "CSI: Miami" can't rely on Adam Rodriguez to carry all the "espanol" on his broad shoulders. The show is based in a city where most of the population is fluent in Spanish and not necessarily in English. But some of the language is so mashed that those of us who do speak Spanish could still use subtitles. Horatio, "ayudanos!" (help us!)

Speaking of subtitles, much of the new multiculturalism on the small screen could be credited to "Lost," the ABC drama that frequently has its Korean characters speaking in Korean, sometimes without subtitles. Whether "My Name Is Earl" creator Greg Garcia liked what he saw on "Lost" and made it his own is unknown, but he uses Catalina (Nadine Velazquez ) to deliver inside jokes in Spanish that he does not translate for his English-speaking viewers.

And we really appreciate that Catalina and the new heroes on "Heroes," Alejandro (Shalim Ortiz ) and Maya Herrera (Dania Ramirez ), speak in a Spanish that is as convincing as Nestor Carbonell's delivery of Cuban expressions that we never thought we would hear on broadcast television, especially on CBS. In last week's episode of "Cane," for instance, as three men drank and toasted, two of them, Alex (Jimmy Smits ) and Grasso (Jason Beghe ), offered the customary "Salud." Carbonell's Frank opted for the vulgar but not obscene, "Que te crezca," which literally means "May it grow" and is a wish men bestow upon each other's sex organs.

Shocking? "Un poquito." But it's genuine and reflects the idiosyncrasies of a culture without relying on stereotypes. In media interviews, Rita Moreno, who plays the matriarch in "Cane," has praised CBS and the producers for bringing to life an immigrant family that toiled in the sugar cane fields, loved each other and became gazillionaires. She has noted that this is important in both show business and social terms.

Indeed, this is a first. Never before have three generations of a Hispanic family been portrayed on English-language television as people who are educated, upper class and can speak English well. But as Jimmy Smits' lead character, Alex Vega, develops more and more into a gentler and more loving amalgam of Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, we are reminded of how much more road there is to pave.

Three seasons ago, ABC's "Desperate Housewives" introduced Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira ) and Gabrielle (Eva Longoria Parker ) Solis as the richest couple on the Wisteria Lane cul-de-sac -- they even had a white gardener -- only to turn Carlos into an embezzler who earned his millions as shadily as possible. It seems it's not possible yet to be a rich and powerful Hispanic who does not resort to murder or other crimes to get through life's hurdles. "Por que?"

The Suarez family on "Ugly Betty" is depicted like any other hard-working American family. They don't speak with funny accents or spend time breaking pinatas. They watch Spanish telenovelas at the same time they discuss young Betty's (America Ferrera) all-consuming fashion magazine job or nephew Justin's (Mark Indelicato ) penchant for musical theater. Nurse Carla Espinosa (Judy Reyes ) on "Scrubs" is proud to be Dominican but doesn't get on a soapbox about it. The Miami detectives on "Dexter" live and work in a bi cultural environment that is never singled out as "different."

Isn't that what embracing diversity is all about? It really just comes down to "respeto." Respect.