First blacks, now Hispanics star in TV's prime-time spotlight

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A TV series Norman Lear is currently taping - based on a young Latino comic in Los Angeles and his family of 16 - is considered by some here to be a sign of the times.

A spate of coming television and movie projects suggests American Hispanics are becoming more visible on prime-time.

Mr. Lear's series, starring comedian Paul Rodriguez, is considered the most significant because it promises to bring Hispanic characters and Hispanic life before the widest audience.

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In the early 1970s, Lear was a pioneer in bringing black life to the television screen. He produced ''The Jeffersons,'' ''Good Times,'' and ''Sanford & Son,'' as well as TV's arch example of the white bunker mentality in ''All in the Family.''

At the same time, movies like ''Shaft'' had begun to make black leading roles more common.

Some speculate that Hispanics may be at a similar stage now in breaking into the mainstream of film and television.

Lear's company, Embassy Communications, is taking a solid lead. It has signed a five-year movie contract with the Puerto Rican pop group Menudo, wildly popular with young teen-agers throughout Latin America and, lately, becoming better known in the United States.

The Menudo boys made an appearance on this fall's debut episode of ''Silver Spoons,'' and Embassy is working on a script for the first Menudo feature film.

Embassy also picked up ''The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,'' a PBS-TV movie that Embassy is distributing in moviehouses.

The film stars Edward James Olmos as a Mexican farmer in turn-of-the-century Texas, breaking Hollywood tradition not only by using a Latino central character played by a Latino, but also because the character speaks no English in the film.

It has played in less than half the country so far with modest success.

Another talked-about film, which hasn't opened anywhere yet, is ''El Norte,'' the saga of a brother and sister who leave a Guatemalan Indian village after it is attacked by government soldiers to make their way through Mexico to el norte - in this case, Los Angeles.

Two-thirds of the picture is in Spanish, with English subtitles, but the distributors have high hopes that the sheer dramatic power of the story will carry it past the art-film audience and Hispanic market where the picture will probably be seen first.

And there have been others throughout the years, both Hispanic leading characters - such as Freddy Prinze's Chico in ''Chico and the Man'' or Eddy Olmos's mythical gangster in ''Zoot Suit'' - and Hispanic stars, such as Anthony Quinn, Ricardo Montalban, and Desi Arnaz. But these cases have never gathered enough momentum to become a tendency.

Much of the trend now, like the trend to bring blacks onto the screen a decade ago, comes because advertisers have discovered a new market.

''We're at the point blacks were in the late '60s where marketers were becoming aware of their buying power,'' says Jesus Trevino, one of the most prominent Latino filmmakers.

''While it's good that all of these things are happening,'' he emphasizes, ''it's long overdue.''

The history of Latino stereotypes goes back to the silent movies of the '20s, which needed clear-cut good and bad guys, Mr. Trevino explains. Mexicans were banditos. Later they became drunken Mexicans, Mexican spitfires, Latin lovers, or the Mexican peons that decorated so many Westerns.

At best, the Mexican was a sidekick to the hero, but the roles were generally subservient. More prominent Mexican characters were often played by Anglo actors , like Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata in the 1952 film ''Viva Zapata.''

''In Gregorio Cortez or Seguin (Trevino's own PBS movie), we become the players in the game. That's the big difference.''

Trevino is impressed with what he has seen of ''AKA Pablo,'' Norman Lear's new series, and the sophisticated way it takes on ethnic humor. The up-and-coming young comic, Paul Rivera, gets laughs with ethnic jokes that his father finds insulting.

The son's rejoinder is that Latinos have a right to laugh at themselves. In the back-and-forth, Trevino says, the audience comes to understand the characters and to laugh along with them.

Lear has no special designs on the Hispanic market, insists Barbara Brogliatti, a senior vice-president at Embassy. ''He works from his gut. He thinks, if we all like it here, people will like it out there.''

Further, she says, the 20 million US Hispanics (by the most liberal estimates) are not even measured by television ratings services. ''If you made some calculation to go after the Hispanic market, that would be a horrendous mistake, because it isn't represented in the Nielsens.''

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