By Gregg Barrios
Want to earn $50,000 for living in the wild for a month? Can you survive drive-bys, lowlife drug dealers, and Eses cramping your party animal lifestyle? If the answer is yes, you're in luck; a new reality-based/comedy show, Urban Jungle, premiered last week on the start-up SíTV cable network. Urban Jungle is one of SíTV's flagship programs, and Time Warner Cable has added the network to its digital Variety Service package in time for the show's first season.
English-language SíTV targets Hispanics who don't speak Spanish. According to surveys conducted by SíTV, many young urban Latinos prefer English to Spanish. This revelation is nearly 15 years old: A 1990 report, "Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration," found that more than 95 percent of U.S.-born Mexican-Americans between 25 and 44 could speak English well.
Although Latinos have integrated into the American mainstream, they have been consistently stereotyped on television as low-income clowns (Chico and the Man), thugs (Miami Vice), or thugs turned cops (CSI). While the complexities of Latino life are better represented on PBS' American Family, the large cable and broadcast networks have shown themselves to be culturally illiterate.
SíTV co-founder and co-chairman Jeff Valdez recently told Mediaweek that the reason some networks have seen a significant drop in young Hispanic viewers is because they are absent from the airwaves: "Has no one thought that, maybe, they were tired of not seeing themselves represented on TV?" And while SíTV is designed to lure young Latinos first, it also wants to attract a larger, multicultural audience.
Unfortunately, this ambitious mission flies in the face of Urban Jungle, a program in which young Latinos are still not as visible as their white counterparts. The program's portrayal of Latinos is as narrow as Chico and the Man, but instead of ghettoizing Latino youth, Urban Jungle caricatures them as air-headed, spoiled, and naïve.
Where are the young, smart, and savvy Latinos? Not here. The nine contestants selected hadn't even seen Born in East L.A. The narrower their ideas of real life in the Republic of East Los Angeles, the better. One wiseacre wonders if el barrio is, like, a Cheech & Chong movie. Another admits to looking up the definition of the word "barrio." It soon becomes obvious these suburban slackers are clueless.
Instead of exploring issues confronting inner-city youth, the unscripted but highly edited show prefers to poke fun at Anglo frat rats and Valley Girls who come from a "privileged" background - and they are the stars of this melodrama. Actually, most of the characters are recent transplants to L. A.: a motley collection of unemployed wannabe actors rather than scions and debutantes (although one contestant comes from a wealthy Mexican-Jewish family and later reveals he speaks Spanish).
Once in the safe house, or crib, the five men and four women have to find a regular job to pay rent and make ends meet. They have to forgo cars for public transportation and dump their cell phones for an avocado-colored one.
You know the nine characters are in over their heads when even the "sensitive" contestant gets totally blotto after a hard day's night of living in the barrio jungle. When not guzzling booze or trying to bed each other, the nauseous nine bad-mouth one another, talk kinky sex, and call the godparents for advice (the madrina is a phone sex worker in real life). One potty-mouth argues that anal sex isn't actually real sex, while a wannabe ballerina insists she will wait until marriage to try any sex, period. In the next scene, she's in the sack with one of the dudes.
Amazing as it sounds, one of these nine yuppies will take home $50,000 - while the others will return to their "privileged" lives - and keep the party going. Did you expect them to have a change of heart and donate this largesse to a hardworking Latino family trying to make ends meet?
Ironically, the very people this reality show was intended to profile are given the stereotypical role of outsiders looking in. If this series succeeds, imagine what we can look forward to: A sequel in which privileged Alamo Heights youngsters are forced to survive in the uncharted wilds of El Westside de San Quilmas. •
I want my SíTV!
A twenty-something bato is explaining why he likes his SíTV. "I don't understand Spanish. My dad watches soaps which I don't know what the hell they're saying."
Welcome to el nuevo mundo of Latino youth who, according to SíTV, want their TV in English and not in the español of their parents.
When local entrepreneur Bruce Barshop and former comic Jeff Valdez joined forces over a decade ago, they probably didn't imagine their partnership would lead to their own cable TV network. Initial success came from programming Hispanic comedy at the River City Comedy Club. By 1997, they had formed SíTV and produced the annual Latino Laugh Festival and a sitcom with a local setting, The Brothers Garcia, for Nickelodeon.
Last week, SíTV became a cable TV network after securing $60 million from eight investors including Time Warner and EchoStar Communications. And while SíTV is available in approximately 8 million homes, Barshop said he expects the fledgling network to reach 45 to 50 million homes in five years.
SíTV targets acculturated third- and fourth-generation U.S. Latinos ages 18 to 34. Its lineup includes hip-hop music, stand-up comedy, a talk show, and a reality program. Series reruns with a Latino twist are also featured: New York Undercover but no Miami Vice; and Hollywood films like Zoot Suit but no Like Water for Chocolate.
Asked why no African American made the final cut on Urban Jungle, Vice President of Production Edward Leon said that the slight wasn't conscious. "If the series appears again, it may have a South Bronx setting. That should take care of African-American demographics."
In another SíTV promo, a young Hispanic woman boasts: "We don't all speak Spanish, and that's not a crime." •