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CBS gave Latinos an hour of prime-time TV to honor essential workers. Did it land?

Isabela Merced, known as the voice of Dora the Explorer, during Monday's "Essential Heroes: A Momento Latino Event" on CBS.
Actress and singer Isabela Merced, known as the voice of Dora the Explorer, during Monday night’s “Essential Heroes: A Momento Latino Event” on CBS.
(CBS)

There’s no dancing around it: The pandemic has devastated Latino communities in the United States.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Hispanic people in the United States are 2.8 times more likely than white non-Hispanics to contract COVID-19, 4.6 times more likely to be hospitalized and 10% more likely to die from COVID-19. Non-Hispanic Black and Indigenous communities have fared even worse.

Hoping to draw attention to the risks and sacrifices Latinos in the U.S. have made during the coronavirus crisis, CBS aired a primetime, celebrity-studded special of musical and comedy performances on Monday night hosted by Eva Longoria and Ricky Martin. “Essential Heroes: A Momento Latino Event” mixed sets from Pitbull and Luis Fonsi with emotional mini-documentaries about regular Americans making their contributions to the effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

It was an unprecedented, institutional show of support for Latino talent in the mainstream; CBS has remained the most-watched network on American television for 12 consecutive years, and its viewership skews older than other networks. The entertainer-activist coalition Momento Latino helped produce the show along with Funny or Die, keeping things relatively light throughout but still bringing viewers serious tales about frontline workers and success stories of people serving their communities during the pandemic — as well as activists organizing around healthcare, nutrition and education for underserved groups, including undocumented people.

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“Essential Heroes” was a stirring and sometimes tear-inducing evening. Yet despite the stars’ dogged push for unity, the program inadvertently shone light on the stubborn practices and blind spots of mainstream “Latino media” gatekeepers.

Your dedicated cultural observers at the L.A. Times watched from opposite coasts and share their conversation below.

Suzy Exposito: Let’s get one thing straight: there was no mention of Trump or Biden here. No Democrats, no Republicans, just vibes.

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Daniel Hernandez: Yep. This show started with a hopeful vibe. The opening number by Pitbull, with the chorus of “I believe that we can win” was certainly a statement of optimism, but the motive or goal went unstated.

Exposito: That’s par for the course with Pitbull these days — he’s king of the universal feel-good jock jam. And Eva Longoria and Ricky Martin kicked off the show with a warm, convivial energy that we sorely need in these times. But I sense that even they knew midway this introductory banter was not airtight. “No need to adjust the color [on your TV],” joked Ricky Martin. “We’re just naturally the color of…” “Canela? Café con leche?” Longoria offered. “We know brown is a spectrum,” Martin says amicably. It needs to be said that this casting didn’t capture the spectrum of Latinos as well as it could have. Some Latinos are Black, and some are straight-up white.

Hernandez: Come to think of it, everyone is the exact same shade of brown here. It’s uncanny. Literally the exact same “canela”! But seriously, you’re right. It’s this let’s-all-be-the-same-one-thing that just doesn’t reflect the reality, or any family really. Latinos come in every race. This is both our great gift and our ball-and-chain: U.S. mainstream culture just can’t wrap its brain around that, so we’re frequently sidelined or erased from this country’s big narratives. This is why shows like this are … a step in the right direction, at least.

Exposito: I think the homogenizing of Latinidad — portraying us as a group of beige mestizos who act real spicy — ultimately serves to make us more marketable to mainstream (anglophone) America. It’s easier for people in the States to understand the Latin American diaspora when they narrow us down to café con leche. But the diaspora encompasses over 20 countries and many more languages. People come in shades of white, beige, Black and brown in the same country — and if you’re anything like me, in the same family. Yet as we’ve seen in the lack of Latinos honored at the Emmys and Oscars, even the beige among us are hardly breaking ground in Hollywood, which is why a show like this could seem radical within the industry.

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Hernandez: I also wish these hosts had a little more faith in the normalcy of this big Latin moment on CBS. Ricky Martin literally said, “CBS just gave us an hour of primetime; I don’t know if this is ever going to happen again.” Come on!

Exposito: Perhaps this is a pilot for a variety show that we don’t know about! A Latin power hour to pregame for “One Day at a Time,” which CBS did acquire earlier this year.

Hernandez: Red alert: The Lopezes of Los Angeles were on! In the first of the documentary segments, L.A. queen Bricia Lopez fulfilled her local role as prominent mainstream ambassador of L.A. Oaxacan food and culture, as owner with her siblings Fernando and Paulina of the Koreatown staple Guelaguetza. This is a great moment for true Los Angeles society reflected on such a huge platform.

George Lopez.
(CBS)
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Exposito: How did you feel about the George Lopez sketch on the term “Latinx”? I was dreading it to be honest. It was Boomer Tío’s time to shine.

Hernandez: You mean George Lopez, the jester of Chicanidad, or Chicani-DAD? He’s so raunchy-dad-humor.

Exposito: But when Rita Moreno threw 10 chanclas at George Lopez I thought, “Wow, I love this show!”

Hernandez: She announced herself as “Rita F— Moreno”! Aside from that, it was very bold of Moreno to tell Lopez, “You need to start using ‘Latinx,’ ‘Latinx’ shows a greater acceptance of gender-nonconforming people,” and they’re really discussing it, with Lopez saying, “But only 3% of Latinos use it.” They’re really going for it, nice. That’s commendable.

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Exposito: I appreciated Rita Moreno going to bat for gender-nonconforming people on primetime television, and in Spanglish. I can’t help but find a lot of the antagonism against people who describe themselves as “Latinx” echoes the antagonism of LGBTQ+ people. Rita got straight to the point — you don’t have to use it for yourself, but it would make someone feel that much more safe and welcome.

Hernandez: There is certainly a spectrum of thorny topics — within ideology, language, identity, culture and even class — that are drudged together when “Latinx” becomes a point of discussion. I find it fascinating.

Exposito: I think the most potent moments of this show were the interviews with essential workers and activists. Our people are getting slammed by this virus — the people who run the restaurants, social workers minding everyone’s mental health, doctors and nurses who have to keep powering through even when their coworkers or family members have died. It’s so evident in the way almost everyone is on the verge of crying. Even I was crying!

Hernandez: Yes. This sounds like such a gimme, but honestly the networks should do an event like this, like, once a week. Why not? Artists, charity and stories of regular Americans of every shade and background getting through the pandemic, “together.” The commercials are also rousing, and could allow brands to associate with the undeniable demographic trends forecast for this country.

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Exposito: I agree. Also, Arturo Castro should make La Llorona a recurring character. I would watch more of him prescribing apple cider vinegar tinctures in drag. Paging “Los Espookys!”

Hernandez: The Arturo Castro bit as La Llorona was a good comedy interlude, calling it a “a moment of Self-Care.” But let me just say real quick that in the commercials, one just used the sentence “Estamos out here” [We are out here] and THAT IS NOT THE WAY PEOPLE USE SPANGLISH.

Exposito:¡Claro que yes!

Hernandez: Leguizamo came to do his reliable bit as the bibliophile of Latino American history and culture: He told us about all the inventions you didn’t know were invented by Latin Americans, including the color television, which was invented by Mexican Guillermo González Camarena. The segments highlighting the work of the essential workers were just so, so moving. It was also inspiring to hear from the omnipresent chef José Andrés, who told viewers: “Who do you think is working in this pandemic? The Latino family, taking care of every one of us. Being American is not about owning a passport, being American is showing up every day trying to make the community better!”

Exposito: That was an especially poignant moment. I have to admit, I craved for more of those from our musical guests: Juanes, Pitbull, Gloria Estefan, Luis Fonsi and Kelsea Ballerini. Juanes is like the woke prince of rock en español — 25 years ago he released “Fíjate Bien,” a song he wrote in the wake of Colombia’s civil war, which left the country littered with deadly land mines. I was hoping for a similar guitar jam, but he came through with one of his newer tracks, “Más Futuro Que Pasado.” I know it’s a pandemic, but do the people need easy listening right now? Or do they wanna rock? I think they wanna rock.

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Hernandez: Juanes was putting me a bit to sleep here. Sorry! I love Juanes as much as the next Latin rocker, but I was hoping for a bit more hope or power. And like Pitbull, he’s also wearing black — team, we’re in a difficult period, we get it, but we’re not at a funeral. Still, I appreciate his strong message at the end, “No te confíes, cuidate.” — Don’t get too comfortable. Take care of yourself.

Exposito: I think the show could’ve used more reggaetón, but like, family-friendly. It’s literally one of the most popular genres right now, and not just among Latinos.

Hernandez: Totally. And actually, no banda? Mexican regional? Mariachi? (Making Hmm emoji). I would say the presence of the mass-audience Mexican regional bands from so many subgenres, which form a significant base of the Latino audience in the U.S., should be front and center at a show aimed at U.S. Latinos. But what do I know? As I said, no surprises. Mexican regional sounds are one of those love-it-or-hate-it things, I guess?

Exposito: Does it surprise anyone that Luis Fonsi is a longtime country music fan? He has written the occasional song in Nashville, and wrote “Despacito” on a Gibson Emmylou Harris guitar. He seemed totally in his element while duetting with country star Kelsea Ballerini. And yet — they booked a white country singer on this show before they booked a Black artist.

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Hernandez: It would have been bold to feature very new, very fringe Latinx artists that could really have made the show a bigger news event — if someone in a stroke of brilliance destroys some convention. That’s what good, historical variety-show TV is about!

John Leguizamo.
John Leguizamo.
(CBS)

Exposito: Apart from Gloria Estefan’s Brazilian samba band, the dearth of Black Latinos on this guest list was unsettling. This country had a whole summer of marches for Black lives, which includes Latinos, but they continued to be cast aside on this show. They couldn’t call up Ozuna? Sech? Amara La Negra? Miguel?

Hernandez: Ugh, anyone. Yes, as you suggested earlier, being Latino includes being Black. This is a huge glaring gap and I honestly find it strange that this special would be telling me to adopt the term “Latinx” but at the same time erase such a significant aspect of our identity that is the racial diversity of the overall community. It’s just continually infuriating, actually. With all due respect, Gloria Estefan’s closing reprisal of one of her decades-old hits with Black Latinos appearing as background unfortunately perpetuates the effects of these disparities in representation on mainstream platforms such as these.

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Exposito: Props to the medical worker in the SOMOS segment whose mask read “Black Lives Matter” — that shot alone was so striking, and one of the boldest statements made on the show. And despite many attempts to steer the conversation away from politics, they’ve called in Isabela Merced, the voice of Dora the Explorer, to explain to people how to vote like they’re 5. That part was darkly funny, in that it was very telling of the state of the country. “Don’t let Swiper swipe [your ballot]!”

Hernandez: What was Ana Navarro doing here?

Exposito: Ana Navarro was just doing Tía Ana things; hanging out with her little dog, talking about voting like it’s family gossip. I have to hand it to Ricky Martin, Latin pop’s voice of reason, who brought us all back to earth with the most effective and chilling statement of the night: “You have power. You matter. There are forces out there that don’t want you to know that.” He’s not wrong!

Hernandez: That was pretty refreshing, overall despite our quibbles. Latinos really are a fundamental element, a backbone, of the pandemic economy and the churning of our daily way of life. Without us, there is no United States — especially in moments of crisis — and as a journalist I can say those are facts. So I salute the performers and those who put this together!


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