Michele Serros: Latino-Themed Writing 101

When my boss casually asked if there were any books of poetry I could recommend, I suggested Jimmy Santiago Baca’s newest book at the time, "The C Train and 13 Mexicans."

“Thirteen Mexicans?” a co-worker sitting nearby quipped. “Sounds like a family trip to K-mart.” Light laughter from both my boss and a few other colleagues followed.

Normally, as a Latina (Mexican American, to be precise) and UCLA graduate (with a degree in Chicana/o Studies) you bet I’d have a little something to retort toward a comment that many might find inappropriate, especially in the workplace. However, I just smiled. “Uh, yeah. Very funny, guys.”

Yes, in this case, my boss and my co-workers were guys, white guys, and our place of employment? The Writers Room at Warner Brothers Studios, to be more precise. My position? A staff writer for The George Lopez Show.

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In the Writer’s Room, it was our job to constantly make jokes, namely, jokes about Mexicans and Latino culture - from 10 am in the morning to 7 pm in the evening. Come quitting time, if the producers ordered pecan pie and double Frappuccinos we all came to dreadful realization that our jokes weren’t funny enough and we’d be working late into the night.

But those days and long nights of working for G.Lo are long gone. Just as the second season was picked up, I did a Chappelle and quit the show abruptly. In my case, it was due to medical reasons; the environment and the process of comedy writing for a major network were literally making me sick.

And now, post George Lopez, post Ugly Betty, post I Married Dora (remember that show?), I plunked down on my couch last week to watch the new CBS sitcom, ¡Rob! I was curious what had been created in CBS’s Writer’s Room and what strides la raza has made toward our representation. After all, the star of the show, Rob Schneider, is married to a Mexican. And while she’s not part of the cast or crew, I’m sure she has some major say in how she wants her family and people represented, right?

On the friend and family front, as well as on the blogosphere, the response to ¡Rob! appears to be split. Some raza find the show funny, even downright hilarious while others, like myself, find it ho-hum, and embarrassingly cliché. Sure, one’s opinion on comedy (like with art, poetry, heck, like with Chimichanga Supremes) is subjective and yes, as Latinos we can laugh at ourselves – especially when the jokes are delivered by us. Maybe the one about Thirteen Mexicans going to Kmart would have been gut-busting if, say, my Uncle Rudy had told it.

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But realistically many Latinos, like my Uncle Rudy, aren’t granted the coveted position of TV sitcom writer very often. Just a mere glance over the credits for ¡Rob!  lead me to believe that its staff writers or executive producers aren’t of Latino descent, Maybe I’m putting too much weight into the obligatory presence of  X’s, Ñ’s, Z’s and double R’s that often denote a Hispanic surname or identity. That’s not to say non-Latinos can’t conjure up decent chuckles when recounting a humorous exchange or experience they may have had with a Latino or two – which is what ¡Rob! is supposed to be about.  I’m sure my ex-husband, an Anglo American to whom I had been with for nearly eight years, has his own batch of memorable guffaws to share.

During my tenure as a staff writer for The George Lopez Show, many Latinos lamented to me that the show didn’t depict the Latino experience accurately. I had no idea there was one experience. Perhaps I felt defensive, maybe even a little protective. After all, George and I shared a similar background; one that we didn’t share with any of the other writers in The Room. As native Californians, we were both raised on Black Sabbath and pocho Spanish rather than (what is utilized in ¡Rob!’s marketing campaign) black velvet sombreros and Spanish actresses depicting Mexican Americans.

Sometimes I catch reruns of The George Lopez Show on TV Land or Nick at Nite. Some episodes I find funny, hilarious. Other ones I find ho-hum. But for what it’s worth, I can’t help but recall how courageously George worked that first season, before he gained star power, to maintain an authentic voice for himself and for, what he believed, our community. I often felt badly as I witnessed him, the star of his own show, relegated to nearly begging for permission for any and all scraps Chicano. One time he was firmly reminded, in almost a condescending manner, that he was not to use Spanish slang. “Now George, we talked about this. There will be no Spanish.” The exchange seemed like a flashback to a 1970s classroom in Texas.

From time to time, I’ve been asked if I would ever work in The Industry again. I wonder myself. Am I strong enough now to stomach the creative process of the Writer’s Room? Should I charge a consulting fee that includes lessons in history and politics? I gotta admit, once in a while, I feel ashamed that I had abandoned a good paying job. I mean, how does one tell your father, who once worked years as a janitor,  that she quit a good paying job just because she just didn’t feel “creatively enriched?” If only I had only been a bit stronger I could have contributed to representing of our community with a bit more dignity and, dare I say it, accurately. After my abrupt departure, I heard that whenever one of the writers from The Room needed to retrieve something from their office and was suspected of not returning to work, George teased, “You’re not gonna do a Serros on us, are you?”  Fijate? My name was appropriated as a verb - just like… Dave Chapelle. Talk about keeping comedic company!

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But I do know if ever I was to take a seat once again in the Writer’s Room and my TV executive producer boss asked me to recommend a book of poetry I’d still suggest Jimmy Santiago Baca. But this time the book would be, ‘Immigrants in Our Own Land’ which includes the epic poem ‘So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans.” The whole time I would be yearning that such jobs would include those of book-wormish TV producers and thick-skinned TV writers.

Michele Serros is an author and former writer for "The George Lopez Show." She is a frequent contributor to NPR. She can be reached via Facebook.

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