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Latinos On TV: Laughing At Culture, Laughing With It

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: With us to listen in on how Spanish has been used on television is NPR's Felix Contreras, producer for NPR's Arts Desk.

And, Felix, when did U.S. audiences start to hear Spanish on the airwaves?

FELIX CONTRERAS: You know, pretty much since the earliest days of the medium. And the most prominent example of this is the show that set viewing records in the 1950s and also featured a character with a thick accent who struggled with English.


LUCILLE BALL: (as Lucy Ricardo) (Unintelligible)

DESI ARNAZ: (as Ricky Ricardo) (Foreign language spoken)

BALL: (as Lucy Ricardo) Don't you feel better, honey?

ARNAZ: (as Ricky Ricardo) (Foreign language spoken)

BALL: (as Lucy Ricardo) Get it all out of your system.

ARNAZ: (as Ricky Ricardo) (Foreign language spoken)

CONTRERAS: That was, of course, Desi Arnaz as bandleader Ricky Ricardo on the "I Love Lucy" show. And he was married to Lucille Ball and was the mastermind behind this show. But what I think a lot of people don't really understand is that I think he was shrewdly using his otherness in controlling just how far the lash would go.

Now, in this next clip some friends from Cuba are visiting the Ricardos in New York and they don't speak English. Lucy has been doing things like speaking loudly and all the things that people do when they talk to people who don't speak English. And then they toast with glasses of wine, which calls for more Spanish.


CONTRERAS: And, you know, I think that clip was an example of the vision of that show, 'cause ultimately the laugh line is delivered in Yiddish, as a way of saying Yiddish, Spanish, English - we're all Americans no matter what language we speak at home.

MONTAGNE: Language was also, of course, used to stereotype at times.

CONTRERAS: I think there were far more examples of that than enlightened uses over the years. Now, check out this clip from a "Looney Tunes Speedy Gonzalez" cartoon, which I used to watch on Saturday mornings.


CONTRERAS: Obviously the Spanish dialog was just gibberish and the story lines, the exaggerated accents, all very, very stereotypical.

MONTAGNE: Was there ever a point in TV history when speaking Spanish was part of a natural flow of an English language TV show?

CONTRERAS: You know, I've never seen a completely bilingual show on English language TV. But the closest I've seen on how many Latinos mix English and Spanish in conversation, was on the sitcom "The George Lopez Show," which ended a few years ago.

In this next clip, George is on a visit for a potential job and he finds out he was recruited only as a token Latino manager.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, yeah. We had a Rodriquez but he could pass for Italian.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Look at you. You are a dark-brown Mexican hermano.


GEORGE LOPEZ: (as George Lopez) Oh, yeah? Well, you can watch this dark-brown Mexican nalgas walking away from you.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: George, whoa. Whoa...

MONTAGNE: And then the word that got the laugh?

CONTRERAS: The word was nalgas, which is a kind of crude slang for saying rear-end. Now, it's funny to me because it's something that I'd heard a millions times, but I never expected to hear it on network television. George Lopez's show was an example of not laughing at the Spanish and the culture, but laughing with it.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's go back full circle to Ricky Ricardo by way of another character with an accent from the current hit show on ABC, "Modern Family."

CONTRERAS: That would be the Colombian-American trophy wife Gloria, played by Sofia Vergara, who was handing out a comedy award last month at the Emmys with Rob Lowe.


ROB LOWE: The category of outstanding lead actress in a comedy has been home to many legends from Mary Tyler Moore to Lucille Ball who this year would have been 100 years old.

SOFIA VERGARA: Ay, I love Lucy.


LOWE: Yes.

VERGARA: But, you know what? I never really understood her - what she was saying. Her accent was thick, no?


CONTRERAS: You know, anyone who speaks Spanish who's heard that clip, they laugh out loud at the idea of Lucy having an accent. And Sofia Vergara plays her character Gloria on that show, "Modern Family," in a lot of ways like a combination of Ricky and Lucy being in control of how and when the language gets a laugh, which kind of brings us full circle and gives us an idea of just how ahead of his time Ricky Ricardo was.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Felix Contreras is a reporter/producer for NPR's Art Desk. And he's also co-host of AltLatino, an on line show about Latin alternative music.

Felix, thanks very much for joining us.

CONTRERAS: Thanks for having me.


MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.