February 14, 2003

‘Hispanically Correct’ — Latino Detractors Are Wrong About ‘Kingpin’

By: Marcelo Rodríguez

It’s ironic that the very groups that have long clamored for broader participation of Latinos on television are those that now complain the loudest about the one high-quality TV show featuring a mostly Latino cast and behind-the-camera creative team.

They should be applauding, not carping, about “Kingpin.”

NBC’s six-episode mini-series, which may develop into a regular TV show, is the best of a small handful of Latino-themed shows ever to air on network television. Still, Latino organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) and the National Council of La Raza (NLRC) aim to gun it down.

Their beef? Kingpin, focusing as it does on a family of Mexican and Mexican-American drug lords operating along the Texas-Mexico border, portrays Latinos too negatively.

Their argument runs roughly like this: There aren’t very many Latinos of any kind on network television, so a program featuring primarily Latino characters and actors should portray them in a positive way. Kingpin, because it is about the drug trade and its endemic violence, does not.

If we accept their argument, then it is inappropriate to air any realistic TV programs about drug trafficking, unless certain nationalities are changed to protect the reputation of all Latinos. The argument also implies that it would be fine to air a program about Mexican drug lords, or any Latino criminal, on a Spanish-language network.

What this double standard suggests is that, to the enforcers of all things Hispanically correct, a Latino-tinged Ozzie and Harriet is just about the only acceptable program for the major English-language networks. Of course, in 2003, no one — not even the arbiters of Latino right and wrong — would watch such a show.

The critics do have one point: There is a scarcity of Latinos on network television (though, on this score, America’s Asian community has an even more legitimate gripe). However, that shortage has less to do with nefarious anti-Hispanic tendencies on the part of network executives than it does with a lack of well-written Latino-themed TV programs worthy of a time slot.

Good intentions notwithstanding, programs such as Showtime’s recently cancelled “Resurrection Boulevard” and PBS’s off-and-on-again “American Family” feature mostly predictable characters that rarely stray from the stereotypical “good Latino.” The characters are so “good,” so one-dimensional, that they are ultimately uninteresting, unreal and go largely unwatched.

“That’s exactly what we didn’t want to do with Kingpin,” says 27-year-old Diego Gutiérrez, one of Kingpin’s six writers. “There’s a certain truth to all stereotypes, of course. But we did not want the characters to be of the so-called progressive stereotype, like the old-school patriarch in ”Resurrection Boulevard,” or the non-progressive stereotype of the Latino as poorly educated and boorish.”

What does Kingpin tell us about Latinos? Some of them are criminals. Some of them fight crime. Some of them are mostly bad. Some of them are basically good. And all of them have personalities that are more complex — more complete and real — than the stereotype of Latino goodness those that are criticizing Kingpin seem to long for.

“Our characters are both good and bad, like we all are,” Gutiérrez said. “The lead character is a Mexican drug trafficker, but he is also Stanford-educated and completely devoted to his family.

“We set out to write a high-drama about a larger than life issue, drug trafficking. And because the bulk of the drug trafficking activity occurs on the Mexico-U.S. border, you are going to have a lot of Mexicans involved.”

Gutiérrez says the show has opened the doors to future Latinos in the industry. “We have shown that Latinos can make great entertainment, with great stories and superb acting.”

Kingpin delivers a clear message that Latinos make for compelling, provocative entertainment. The folks from LULAC and the other organizations rightfully want to see more Latinos on television. What they fail to understand is that, thanks to “Kingpin,” we will.

Rodriquez (mr@sfblue.com) is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and the former arts and entertainment editor of the Miami Herald. The final two episodes of “Kingpin” will air on Sunday, Feb. 16 and Tuesday, Feb. 18. All six episodes will be re-aired on the Bravo Network and on the Spanish-language Telemundo network.

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