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Well, that’s the beauty of it all

Times Staff Writer

YOU could choose to focus on the way “Ugly Betty” looks. After all, the title of this new ABC comedy prods you in that direction. But there’s something more meaningful cooking on this series than the fact that its star, America Ferrera, is hiding her beauty under bushy eyebrows, braces and a mousy wardrobe.

“Ugly Betty,” which centers on 22-year-old Betty Suarez, a homely looking college grad who grew up in Queens, has been called both a Cinderella story and an ugly duckling, fish-out-of-water tale. Betty dreams of landing a plum job in publishing in Manhattan, perhaps at a financial magazine, and in the pilot, Betty sort of gets what she wants: She’s hired as an assistant to the editor of fashion publication Mode. It’s a “Devil Wears Prada” sort of setup that will pit her against the pretty people and their superficial world. And it’s the sort of contrast that made “Yo Soy Betty la Fea,” the Colombian series on which it’s based, one of the most popular telenovelas ever.

But none of that gets at what’s truly groundbreaking about “Ugly Betty.” Woven into Ferrera’s role is the story of a first-generation U.S. Latina straddling cultures, a young woman as rooted in her Latina upbringing as she is in her American belief that anything can be accomplished with hard work. At home, Betty helps her immigrant widowed father (Tony Plana) deal with his frustrating HMO; at work, with her ingenuity, she saves her boss (Eric Mabius) from losing an important client, even though he has treated her dismissively.

“I feel it’s wonderful that this show is not about her being a Latina, and that’s what makes her different,” said Ferrera, who was in full Betty garb (minus the braces) during a lunch break at Raleigh Studios recently. “Being an immigrant is one story. But when you have family roots in another country but you’re born and raised as an American, that’s a whole different struggle. Betty is a minority in every sense of the word: She’s a woman, she’s young, she’s Hispanic, she’s short and not blond and not blue-eyed. Yet she’s got something inside that is very reassuring to watch.”

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Indeed, by not harping on Betty’s ethnic background but reflecting the reality of what it feels like to grow up as both an insider and outsider in two cultures, never quite fitting into either, “Ugly Betty” distinguishes itself from the other shows on broadcast television. In recent years, ABC has led the way in multicultural casting, hiring actors of many ethnic backgrounds for “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” without typecasting them. Or as the spunky 22-year-old Ferrera put it, “You turn on ‘Lost’ and it’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m Latino so when I landed I had a bag of tortillas in my purse.’ ”

But “Ugly Betty” creator Silvio Horta, a Cuban American born in Miami, wanted to up the veracity quotient. He decided that his version of the popular telenovela would work only if it depicted the way he grew up. After several other countries (including India, Germany and Russia) succeeded with remakes of the show, executive producers Ben Silverman (“The Biggest Loser” and “The Office”) and Salma Hayek attempted to make it in Hollywood but had no luck selling it because they wanted to keep Betty a Latina. Then Hayek met Ferrera, who had starred in “Real Woman Have Curves” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” and ABC executives began to see the possibilities. Landing her and Horta (“Jake 2.0") sealed the deal.

“This is my story, living at home and switching between languages -- talking to my mother in Spanish, talking to my sister in Spanglish, and you don’t even think about it,” Horta said. “You grow up thinking telenovelas are cheesy, and yet all the kids watched them because that’s what your parents watched. And you got addicted. Of course, that was interspersed with watching ‘Three’s Company’ and ‘The A-Team.’ I don’t think you really get it unless you live it.”

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ROOTED AND BLOOMING

FERRERA gets it. The youngest of six children who grew up in Woodland Hills with their Honduran mother, Ferrera was proud of her heritage but wanted more than anything else to fit in with her peers. Her mother spoke to all of the kids (five girls and one boy) in Spanish, and they spoke to her in English because nobody in the neighborhood was speaking Spanish then.

“Where I grew up, I went to tons of bar and bat mitzvahs, and I’ve never been to a single quinceanera,” said Ferrera, an El Camino Real High School graduate. She wanted to convert to Judaism “because it was the cool thing to do. When you are first-generation anything, you have your past, which is these roots, and it’s a part of you because you’re so deeply connected to your relatives. But then you have the society that you’re supposed to blend into. You’re supposed to find friends, you’re supposed to make a life for yourself. It’s that quarrel between how much do I compromise on each side and still understand who I am?”

A self-described latchkey kid who watched a lot of television and movies while her mother worked, Ferrera said her childhood memories are cataloged in her mind by the shows and films she watched. “Stand and Deliver,” for example, made her believe she could score 1800 on her SAT. And in books, Ferrara, who is one semester shy of graduating from USC, found what television and movies did not offer. Authors such as Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros portrayed the ambiguities of U.S. Latino life in ways in which she could relate.

“I feel a certain obligation to be involved in things that I would have wanted or I would have needed when I was younger, something that when I was a young girl, I would have been like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s my life on the screen!’ ” Ferrera said. “ ‘Saved by the Bell’ didn’t look anything like my life. Not at all.” But “Ugly Betty” “would have been something I would have relished when I was younger.”

Horta, 32, feels fortunate that when he was growing up in Miami, there was a television show that reflected his life. Created for the PBS station in Miami, "¿Que Pasa, USA?” was a bilingual sitcom that explored the multigenerational identity crisis of a Cuban family. It aired from 1977 to 1980 and has become a cult favorite among Latinos across the nation. The series reflected the way English and Spanish are mixed in Miami’s Cuban American neighborhoods, a way of life in most Latino communities, but no subtitles or translations were provided.

“It was so funny and so totally groundbreaking,” said Horta, who watched with his family. “It just really captured what it is like to live in these two worlds. We ordered the DVDs in the office because I felt like it really shows what I’m trying to get at with ‘Betty.’ It’s daunting that a big chunk of this country is Latin, but Latinos really don’t have shows that reflect how we live. All of this is bubbling in the culture right now.”

Then why haven’t more bicultural Latino stories graced the big and small screens? Pepe Bahamonde, who executive produced "¿Que Pasa?,” has one theory: As the Latino population has swelled and become more desirable for advertisers and the entertainment industry, targeting them has proved challenging because Latinos are a diverse, ethnocentric and divided population.

“I believe we stress too strongly and to our detriment our differences in the media and in the marketplace,” said Bahamonde, now a professor at Miami-Dade Community College. " '¿Que Pasa, USA?’ was [federally funded], so there was no commercial interest pushing for the themes or cast members to reflect anything other than the cross-cultural, inter-ethnic and intergenerational conflicts of Cuban American teenagers. Suspecting that it would have wider appeal, I decided that we would never get so Cuban-centered that the episodes would only appeal to us. Practically anyone can identify with the Pena household.”

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WILL THEY FALL IN LOVE?

BETTY may be Mexican American, but Horta said her Mexican roots won’t stand out at the beginning of the series for the same reason Bahamonde said he kept Fidel Castro references and Cuban politics out of his sitcom.

“Every Latin culture is different, but we’re trying to keep them a Latin family as opposed to Mexican since New York has the influences of almost every Latin culture,” Horta said. “We want it to be relatable to all Latinos and, of course, to the general audience as well.” Creating a sense of authenticity as he skates between the specific and a more generalized sense of “Latino” will be one of his tasks this season.

Ferrera, who is bound to break out this TV season no matter what happens to “Ugly Betty,” is confident that Americans of all backgrounds will fall in love with Betty the same way she and the rest of the world have, even if some critics have described the show as chauvinistic and the title as mean.

“Those people are literally insane,” Silverman said. “Because, clearly, the show is trying to demonstrate the issues that women go through and the successes that you can have with your brain. That’s the whole joke. That’s the point. We’re trying to show that it’s a problem.”

Ferrera thinks the media’s focus on the term “ugly” is hypocritical. “People hate the word ‘ugly,’ ” she said, “and there’s irony in that because we live in a society where beauty and image is an obsession. And by only showing and selling one image of what ‘beautiful’ means, we are calling everything else ugly. To me, I would hope that by the middle of the first season we have an audience who isn’t thinking about whether she’s going to undergo a big physical transformation. What I love the most about her is that you’re not waiting for her to become a swan. You get to watch the other people blossom into real human beings because she reminds them what it is to be real.”

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maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com


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