Justina Machado and ‘One Day at a Time’ look to reshape the Latino narrative on TV

Actress Justina Machado stars in Norman Lear's reboot of "One Day at a Time." The revamped version is set in Echo Park and centers on three generations of a Cuban American family.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Justina Machado didn’t realize she yearned for a show with people that looked like her — mostly because it just wasn’t the norm.

“That’s why ‘The Cosby Show,’ for me was so important because I had never seen a family like that on television that wasn’t Caucasian, and I was like, wow,” Machado recalled during a recent visit to The Times’ video studio. And it’s why she was watching Jimmy Smits on “L.A. Law” in her youth, despite the adult subject matter.

VIDEO: 'One Day at a Time's' Justina Machado was ready to represent »

“I did yearn for it, but I didn’t know,” she said, referring to the lack of shows with Latino characters. “I had no idea [it was possible].”

It was and it is. And she’s helping contribute.

Machado stars in Netflix's reboot of Norman Lear’s classic sitcom, “One Day at a Time.” The revamped version is set in Echo Park and centers on three generations of a Cuban American family.

The 44-year-old actress, who until now was best known for her role on “Six Feet Under,” stars as Penelope, a war veteran and recently single mother of two children whose mother (played by Rita Moreno) lives with her.

What was your initial reaction to Netflix doing an all-Latino version of the series? Were you nervous, hopeful?

I think I felt confident. I didn’t know [co-showrunners Gloria Calderon-Kellett and Mike Royce] … but I was confident, because it was Norman Lear, that it was going to have a lot of heart and it was going to have a lot of laughs and it was going to be something that I wanted to be involved in. And then when I got the script, then I knew we were on the right track because this was a story that was universal and we weren’t the butt of every joke. Our ethnicity wasn’t what drives the show.

Did you watch the original?

I watched reruns of it when I was growing up, but by the time I started watching it, you know, the girls were already older and so I didn’t really get what everybody loved about it. But what I did do was, when I had my first audition, was see the show. I went home and watched it, and that gave me a lot of permission. I was like, “Oh, this is like a play.” And Bonnie Franklin took her time, everybody took their time, and it was real. That gave me a lot of confidence to go in the next day for the audition.

When I got the script ... I knew we were on the right track because this was a story that was universal and [Latinos] weren’t the butt of every joke.

— Justina Machado

After 20-plus years in the business, this is your first lead role.

It's funny because I did get a lead role in the late '90s and it was a show called “I Love Lupe,” and I remember that we shot the pilot, it was a fantastic pilot, and one of the things that was said to me, when it didn’t get picked up, was that they didn’t think America was ready for a Latino family.

Now, I was so young back then, it was kind of a shocking thing to hear, but I just had to keep hustling, you know? And it's amazing that it's taken this long to have another lead. I almost thought it wasn’t going to happen. I have to be real honest. I always knew I was going to work, I always knew I'd be a working actress. I never thought — I started to believe that [a lead] wouldn’t happen … So this is unbelievable.

How does it feel to play a version of the all-American mom?

I think it's about time. I mean, maybe it's incredible to everybody else, but to us, it's about time. It's like, yes, this is a universal story, it's being told through Latino eyes, and we're trying to change — you know, as other shows are — the Latino narrative that’s being put out there. So I think it's fantastic.

Justina Machado as Penelope and Rita Moreno as Lydia in "One Day at a Time." (Michael Yarish / Netflix)
(Michael Yarish / Netflix)

What was your reaction upon hearing that Rita Moreno was going to be playing your mother?

Well, she doesn’t remember, but she worked with me twice before. [laughs] But no, I mean, [it’s] great. I knew that it was going to be awesome. You never know what it's going to be like until you sit down and you do that first reading. I mean, she is Rita Moreno, she's a legend.

What has been some of the feedback you’ve gotten about the show?

Just so many Latinas and Latinos thanking me for representation, really just saying exactly what we said, like, we were excited, but we don't know because sometimes we're like, oh, come on, really? Really, there's another piñata? You know what I mean? We're eating tacos, great. We eat other things, people. So all of those things. So it was just — I loved that they feel — especially single moms, veterans, young kids, so there's so much — our show has so much representation on so many levels that it's all been positive.

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