This year is shaping up to be a breakout one for Latinos on network television. CBS’s launch of Rob, Rob Schneider’s show about a non-Latino who marries a Mexican American woman after knowing her for six weeks and then has to win over her family, is the first Latino family sitcom on network television since George Lopez was canceled in 2007. Rob premiered last month to 13.5 million viewers, giving CBS its best ratings in that time slot since 2010. It’s part of a trend of increasing Latino visibility on television.
Last week, Latin pop singer Ricky Martin also guest-starred on Fox’s hit musical comedy-drama Glee
. The bilingual episode included a speech on Latino stereotypes by Santana (Naya Rivera), and the show’s creators offered Martin a return role
as David Martinez, the new Spanish teacher, before the episode even aired.
One can credit ABC’s ensemble comedy Modern Family, now in its third season, for jump-starting the trend. Featuring Sofia Vergara as Gloria, the patriarch’s hilarious, Latina wife, the show owes its success to a strong overall cast. But it is Vergara who has garnered four major commercial endorsements—from CoverGirl, Pepsi, State Farm, and Kmart, a deal that’s rumored to be worth $8 million—since the show began.
Vergara’s success is due in no small part to her talent, but she’s also made her mark as the Latino population in the U.S. has exploded. The 2010 census, for instance, showed that Latinos are responsible for the majority of the past decade’s population growth in the U.S. Vergara was a natural choice for advertisers eager to reach this emerging demographic.
If you consider that the Spanish-language network Univision continuously earns the highest prime-time ratings in the country among bilingual Latinos, you can see that any major network that doesn’t cater to Latino sensibilities will struggle to survive.
What’s exciting about these new roles is that Latinos are getting a chance to play characters that are empowered, funny, and not the gardener or maid. Vergara’s character is a rich housewife whose son from a previous marriage, Manny, is a precocious 12-year-old with a penchant for drinking coffee and writing poetry. On Rob, the lead character’s Mexican American in-laws, played by Cheech Marin and Diana Maria Rivera, are successful business owners. Rob’s wife, Maggie, played by Claudia Bassols, is a translator. On Glee, Ricky Martin plays a high school teacher.
It’s a delicate dance, using comedy to bridge cultures, but a dance worth learning. If Rob can carry on making audiences laugh in the kinds of numbers it began with, it just might be the beginning of a new era for the American family sitcom.