Who Will be Our Latino Tyler Perry?

By Rafael Agustin

As a young immigrant here, my native culture barely stood a chance. Like all the other niños, I immersed myself in English-language TV programming. In fact, the first phrase I learned in English was, “my name is Bugs Bunny!”

I know more about American history than the history of my native Ecuador. This is a direct by-product of a K-12 educational system in the U.S. that re-imagines the universe within the confines of the borders of the United States.

My parents worked too hard and were too broke to take me to any Latino arts festivals or, hell, even Olvera Street, so I settled down with a borrowed VHS copy of Steven Spielberg’s An American Tale. I didn’t understand all the dialogue, but I found myself crying hysterically at night over Fievel’s plight – imagining it as my own. That little mouse and I both shared a fear of losing our parents in the U.S.

That animated film about a family that flees the turmoil of their homeland in search of a better life was like my own life. My family and I also wished for a land of security and prosperity, which the film beautifully compared to a land with “no cats” and “streets filled with cheese.” Like any kid, I wanted to relate to what I saw on our TV, so I imagined myself to be that intrepid little Jewish, Russian rodent. However, outside of the Mousekewitz, there just hasn’t been much for me to relate to.

Wait – that’s not true. Back in 1990 I remember an episode of that outer space puppet show Alf in which a government agency calls to say they know the family is harboring an alien. Everyone freaks out, but they finish laughing at the end when immigration enforcement shows up looking for an “illegal alien.” I’ve never been so terrified watching a TV show in my life.

Years later, sitting in the office of a major television production company I actually heard someone say the phrase, “Will it play in Peoria?” I get that Middle America sets the standard for entertainment, but the population is changing. According to the 2011 Census Bureau, Latinos are now 1 in every 6 U.S. residents.  The executives in those largely white network offices need to wake up and start seriously asking, “Will it play in Pico Rivera [California]?”

Why are we still waiting for mainstream media to tell our stories?

It’s time we took our cue from Forbes Magazine’s Highest Paid Man in Entertainment today, Tyler Perry. Perry figured out how to work outside of Hollywood when Hollywood thought programming for African-Americans was a bad investment, and now his empire reportedly rivals that of luminaries like Steven Spielberg, who apparently made a few other movies besides the whole Feivel thing.

Tyler Perry was not the first Black entertainer to create his own opportunities outside of the Hollywood system (Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee come to mind), but he was the first to do so with a unique formula: “Comedies for us, by us”. By constantly writing, directing, producing, and acting in Black family comedies, he essentially wrote otherwise invisible African-American families into existence. Black-Americans responded by supporting Perry’s efforts with their attendance, viewership, and dollars.

Which raises an important question for the Latino community today: who will be our Tyler Perry? Who is that man or woman that will take our unique point of view, life experiences and universal stories to the forefront of American culture and then – hopefully – the world?  Before anyone replies with a searing criticism of the Madea films, I’m not talking about duplicating the artistic sensibility of Tyler Perry’s work; I’m talking about a creative leader who capitalizes on his fundamental premise: culture-specific projects with great characters and heart.

Robert Rodriguez

Tyler Perry Studios employs over 300 industry professionals, a significant number being of African-American descent. Imagine what a Latino-owned studio like his could do for our community.

So who could it be? Robert Rodriguez maybe?  Rodriguez who will be heading the new El Rey Network to be distributed by Comcast, is in the prime position to step into Perry’s TV mogul shoes.  He is already familiar with successfully working outside the Hollywood system (Machete, Spy Kids, Desperado, Sin City) making box office hits.  Other candidates include Stand-up Comic and TV personality George Lopez, multifaceted actress/producer Salma Hayek or new reality Queen B, Jennifer Lopez. I’m leaning toward San Diego border-child and award-winning writer Rick Najera (Latinologues, Nothing Like he Holidays, Mad TV), who has been writing Latino comedy for the stage, film and teltevision for years and is my current business partner. Together we are working the “Perry” angle.

Stay tuned. La lucha continua.   

Rafael Agustín is the co-star and co-writer of the comedy show N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK, Festival Manager of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) and alumni of 2011 CBS Diversity Showcase. He received his BA and MA from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film & Television.