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How They Broke the Gay Portrait Barrier

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tall, barrel-chested and comically macho, the uniformed general strides onto the set of a new Spanish-language sitcom in spit-polished black boots and orders his adult son to stand at attention. For most of the next half hour of “Los Beltran,” characters become tangled in a zigzag of mistaken identity before the son is forced to reveal to his father that he is gay.

The episode, titled “The Coming Out of Fernandito,” will air this spring on the Telemundo network, but the show itself already has hit a home run in the ratings with its gay subplot and has earned a remarkable laurel for Spanish-language television: a nomination for outstanding comedy series from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 31, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 14, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
“Los Beltran"--Due to an error by Nielsen Media Research, the ratings of Telemundo’s sitcom “Los Beltran” were incorrect in a March 10 Calendar story. The show is actually seen in 349,000 Hispanic households.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 31, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong numbers--Because of incorrect information from Nielsen Media Research, the ratings for two TV programs were juxtaposed in a Calendar story March 10. Telemundo’s “Los Beltran” is seen in 349,000 households a week and Univision’s “Bienvenidos” is seen in 1.29 million households a week, according to Nielsen’s survey of Latino viewing habits.

Spanish-language dramas and sitcoms typically feature homophobic male characters and traditional gold-digging female characters--not a climate where plot lines deviate from the white wedding denouement. The GLAAD nomination pits “Los Beltran” against last year’s winner, ABC’s “Will & Grace,” and new nominees HBO’s “Sex and the City” and two shows that already have been canceled: ABC’s “Oh, Grow Up” and Fox’s “Action.”

“The portrayals we’ve seen [on Spanish-language television]--like the soap operas--there are no homosexual characters. If there is an inference that someone could be gay, it’s extremely negative,” said Scott Seomin, GLAAD’s media director. “The actors [on ‘Los Beltran’] play it with such love and affection. It’s a very realistic portrayal that also has integrity. This is a very rare occurrence in Spanish-language television.”

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The stubborn patriarch of the sitcom is Manny Beltran, whose “foiled again” predicaments provide most of the show’s comedic fodder. In the show’s pilot, he took his winnings in the neighborhood lottery to move his family--mom, daughter and Chicano artist son-in-law--from the San Fernando Valley into a duplex in Burbank.

“Here’s this guy with the dream. He’s realized it,” says Mike Milligan, the show’s co-creator. “He bought a duplex in the beautiful town of Burbank, and unbeknownst to him he rents the apartment to guys he doesn’t even realize are gay . . . and this after he’s bragged to everyone that his tenant is a medical doctor! They’re a thorn in Manny’s side with that Latino sense of macho. We realized this would be a constant assault on Manny’s sensibility. We show how irksome it is, and by showing how he reacts so bizarrely, it reveals how bizarre he is. It holds a mirror up to society.”

Viewers have rewarded Telemundo’s progressive programming with ratings that wallop the major Spanish-language television network, Univision. According to Nielsen Media Research, “Los Beltran” is seen in an average of 1.29 million Hispanic households, and only 349,000 Hispanic households are tuning into “Bienvenidos,” a Univision comedy show that airs at the same time.

Viewers Attracted to Modern-Day Scenarios

One of the reasons “Los Beltran” might be attracting viewers is that it incorporates familiar modern-day scenarios into the characters’ dynamics. The gay couple, for example, is also a mixed pair, with Fernando (nicknamed “Fernandito”) the Spanish doctor, whose father is the general, and Kevin, the sandy-haired Anglo.

Kevin is played by James C. Leary, who moved to L.A. with his wife almost two years ago. He doesn’t speak a word of Spanish and was originally cast in the part last March, when Telemundo intended to allow some bilingual dialogue between the gay characters. The network changed its policy last summer and asked Leary if he would still want the part in Spanish.

“So it’s Method acting at its finest,” Leary said, resigned to the fact that much of the laughs he draws are for his unintentionally horrible accent.

Gabriel Romero, who plays Fernando, is also crafting his language. Born and raised in Mexico City, Romero fakes a Spanish accent nearly perfectly, with exaggerated pronunciation and what sounds like a lisp to a Latin American speaker. He said “Los Beltran” allows him to poke fun at the snobby stereotype of Spaniards while treating his character’s gay life with dignity.

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“Everyone has a gay person in their family, and they just don’t talk about it,” Romero said. “It’s the time to talk about it. By bringing in such a positive portrayal, we’re just making it available so people talk about it.”

But Romero, who has appeared on Spanish- and English-language television during his 11 years in L.A., is eager to develop his character’s professional side. He said Fernando’s work could carry a story line or provide quick hits.

“I’d like to make him a gynecologist,” Romero said, laughing. “But I think they’re leaning toward making him a general practitioner or surgeon so he could make organ jokes. We’re also thinking about making him a plastic surgeon, but then he wouldn’t be renting a duplex.”

Fernando and Kevin have not kissed on-screen or gotten ready for bed in front of the camera, but they have walked off stage with their arms around each other.

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“Their inclusion is so matter-of-fact,” Seomin said. “They could easily be a heterosexual couple based on the reaction of the rest of the characters.”

Another gay subplot on Spanish-language television, this one also on Telemundo, started in January with a new telenovela, “La Vida en El Espejo.”

The Mexican show is a man’s perspective of divorce, after the main character discovers his wife of 25 years has been cheating on him. With their marriage in tatters, he tries to rebuild his life and maintain a relationship with his three children. Last week, his 23-year-old son Mauricio canceled his wedding and “came out” to his father.

“At first, the producers were very surprised that we wanted to do this,” said the show’s creator, Bernardo Romero Pereiro, who has written more than 40 telenovelas and watched “too many to count.”

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“Homosexuals are treated like jokes, just stereotypes. But this is something that exists, something we live with, and yet you never see it here. Ever,” he said.

Made in the U.S. Is a Big Factor

Telemundo spokeswoman Claudia Santa Cruz said the network was seeking out modern telenovelas when it read Romero’s story lines. “Telenovelas have certain typical stories, but we want to show different stories,” she said. “We want our viewers to have options.”

Unlike the majority of programs that air on Spanish-language television, “Los Beltran” is not made in Latin America. It’s a U.S. product, which might explain why it seems so progressive compared to most of the other shows on Telemundo and its competitor, Univision.

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Romero said Mexican TV has not featured a stable gay couple on any program in his memory.

“Los Beltran” probably would not exist on Latin American television, said Silvana Paternostro, a fellow at the New America Foundation whose 1999 book, “In the Land of God and Man: Confronting Our Sexual Culture,” dealt with the dangerous combination of Latin America’s profound homophobia, its resistance to AIDS prevention, chauvinism and domestic violence. “I mean, if we look at the human rights [violations] against gays in Latin America . . . the amount of police violence against gays and transvestites in Mexico and Brazil . . . I don’t see any head of a Latin family [like Manny Beltran] not commenting that two open gay males are coming into his house, either by mocking it or by being verbally violent about it,” she said.

The rest of “Los Beltran’s” main characters include Manny’s wife, his daughter and her husband, a militant Chicano art student. Manny and his son-in-law chafe each other with the same acrimony that was seen week after week between Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic (Meathead) on “All in the Family.”

The 11th annual GLAAD Awards banquet is scheduled for April 15 in Los Angeles, and Bermudez and several of his colleagues will attend to see if they win what he described as an “unexpected honor.”

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“We concern ourselves more with putting out a funny show than making a statement,” he said. “We would like to help out and have people see the show, but that’s not the point. The point is to make people laugh.”

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“Los Beltran” airs on KVEA-TV Sundays at 8 p.m., while “La Vida en El Espejo” airs weeknights at 8.

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“It’s a very realistic portrayal that also has integrity. This is a very rare occurrence in Spanish-language television.”

Scott Seomin

media director for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation


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