Latino TV personalities juggle a bilingual stage
By Yvonne Villarreal, LA Times, October 4, 2009
They say things like "Antes de la break" and "Mira que cute." One is a clownish, Puerto Rican-born 28-year-old who ditched studying engineering to pursue a career in entertainment, another is an outspoken SoCal native who once had a penchant for crashing cars. The Spanglish? It just comes naturally.
They're a new generation of Latino television personalities: attractive, plugged in and conversant not only in Spanglish argot but in a complex, shifting culture. Their employers believe they are offering young viewers a cool, and marketable, connection to this culture. Don Francisco, cuidado.
With U.S.-born Latinos accounting for more than 60% of all Latinos in the country, according to recent census data, a group of bilingual networks has arisen in the last few years to tap into an audience interested in bicultural programming.
In a fragmented media environment in which young viewers can watch mainstream and Spanish-language media, channels MTV Tr3s, mun2, SiTV and LATV aim to bridge the gap between American culture and the roots of their youthful -- and sometimes out-of-touch -- viewers. In August, mun2 achieved its best numbers since it was launched eight years ago with the broadcast of the U.S.A. versus Mexico qualifying soccer match for the World Cup; the game averaged 322,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. With the help of teen telenovela "Isa TKM," MTV Tr3s ranked No. 2 among Hispanic females ages 12-17 for a week in August, second only to Disney Channel at the 5-6 p.m. time slot.
From telenovelas and in- vestigative documentaries to sports programming and shows highlighting the latest in American and Latin music, the networks offer a variety of programming to compete with all networks, not just with one another and not just Spanish-language programming, says Jose Tillan, general manager of New York-based MTV Tr3s.
"Our audience is a hybrid of all markets," agrees Alex Pels, general manager of mun2in Universal City. "They're people who live in both worlds and are comfortable in both worlds. They can tune in to a telenovela one hour and 'Family Guy' the next. Networks like ours are a one-stop destination for the bicultural viewer."
The multicultural approach is appealing to advertisers hoping to tap into the expanding Hispanic market. LATV counts Honda, McDonald's, T-Mobile, Wrigley and the U.S. Army among its advertisers, while MTV Tr3s features Toyota, Target and Verizon Wireless. "It is unrealistic to expect a single-language strategy to work successfully for the entire Hispanic consumer market," says Laura Sonderup, director of Heinrich Hispanidad, an ad agency in Denver.
The style of these young, upwardly mobile entertainers -- from their wardrobe to the shows they watch -- reflects the juggling that millions face every day in an effort to maintain their Latin roots while living in the U.S. Born in America or elsewhere, they each add a different flavor to the audience.
Don't typecast her
She may have flowing blond locks, but don't call Pili Montilla a gringa -- it gets her slightly upset. Just ask Akwid. The L.A.-based Chicano urban rap duo made the mistake -- on camera -- of insinuating her golden mane was an attempt to be more American.
But Montilla didn't stay mum on-air. "I was so glad it happened that way," she says. "I called them out. They're actually digging a hole for Latinos by sticking to the stereotypes." Before she was interviewing Latin music artists for LATV, Montilla was a Jane-of-all-trades in her homeland of Puerto Rico: soap opera ingénue, theater actress, radio show host and MTV Puerto Rico personality. "I had basically done everything I could within that market," Montilla says.
There wasn't actually an opening for a new host at LATV, but a determined Montilla found executive producer Lalo Marron's contact information online and sent him her résumé. And it worked. She began as a correspondent in Puerto Rico and eventually landed the gig here.
She now hosts the music program "En la Zona" and "En Concierto," where she interviews artists such as Calle 13 and Luis Fonsi for a half-hour in front of a live audience.
"We're an alternative for the alternative Latino," Montilla says. "We're for those people who don't want to see girls in tangas shaking their booty. The networks like Channel 62 . . . they are criticizing the Latino. They're stereotyping us and they're saying we can't be challenged intellectually."
So she's offering her hosting skills to provide that stimulation. "There are people on TV, like me, who want to help the youth get reconnected," she says. "We're telling them, 'You know what? You're welcome in both cultures. Embrace both cultures and be happy in both. It's 2009. You can't just be attached to one thing. . . . The more you know, the better."
A Latin Seacrest?
Carlos Santos salsa dances with Beyoncé. He does skits with Paulina Rubio. Daddy Yankee? Yup. He knows him too.
The daffy MTV Tr3s personality has interviewed them and dozens of other celebrities as host of the now-defunct "MiTRL," a Latino spinoff of MTV's music video countdown program. The first on-air talent for MTV Tr3s, the 28-year-old now hosts "Entertainment as a Second Language with Carlos Santos," which just wrapped its first season.
The hourlong variety show features performances from top music acts, interviews with TV and film celebrities and comedy sketches. Think "Saturday Night Live" with a splash of "Sábado Gigante."
And you don't have to be Latino to tune in. "I think what we're working toward is a situation where we don't think in terms of color or ethnicity," Santos says. "There's a flavor that MTV Tr3s and other bilingual networks can provide to the rest of the world. We are in millions of homes; not all of them are Latino."
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Santos left home, where he was studying engineering, to attend Fresno State and received a degree in theater arts. To pursue his comedic ambitions, he headed to L.A. and graduated from Second City's training center.
By 2004, he was a host on rival network LATV. Two years later -- after many auditions -- Santos, who says he learned English by watching American television shows, landed a hosting gig at MTV Tr3s.
With "E.S.L" on hiatus, Santos continues hosting other artist-related specials. He recently attended the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C., where he helped introduce MTV Tr3s' new show "Yearbook Chronicles," a documentary that examines the disproportionate rate of Latinos dropping out of high school.
"The need is definitely there to represent that flavor of the bilingual community who have one foot in America and the other foot in their homeland," he says. "The main goal for everyone working in bilingual entertainment is to continue making bridges between the old and new generation. When you do that, you're creating a bond that's stronger than anything . . . and here is where you cue the sad music and cry."
Always the comedian.
Melissa "Crash" Barrera adjusts her leggings so the striped sides will be captured on camera. Beside her is Yasmin Deliz, who croons bits of Keri Hilson's hit single "Knock You Down" as she takes a last glimpse at the show's rundown before shoving the pages behind a pillow in the chic living room-styled set of "Crash & Yasmin Uncensored." Today's topic? Cosmetic surgery. And as the name of the show suggests, these chicas have no filters. They talk about "fake boobies." Ashlee Simpson's nose job, Crash (who got her nickname after wrecking six cars by age 15) says, was an aesthetic achievement -- "It did you good, girl."
When the duo isn't mouthing off on bone shaving and calf implants, they're offering their thoughts on breakups and homosexuality on "CYU" or taking an etiquette class and belting out rancheras on their other show, "The Chicas Project," which just wrapped its fourth season.
And their outspokenness is available in English and Spanish on mun2, NBC Universal's bilingual network. But they don't ration their ranting to meet any language quotas, so don't try to quantify their "Latina-ness" based on the frequency with which they roll their R's.
"I've worked in Latin television before and they've said, 'You don't speak enough Spanish,' 'You sound funny when you speak Spanish,' " says 24-year-old Crash (don't worry, SoCal drivers, she now takes the Metro to work). "I am Latina, and there are tons of kids that are like me. Being fluent in Spanish doesn't make you more Latina than me. I feel like if I portray myself any other way, then I am neglecting those kids that are just like me, that feel so lost in all this -- who wonder, 'Where do I fall in this Latin spectrum?' "
Venezuela-born Deliz, 22, was raised in New York by her Dominican father and Colombian mother. Don Francisco was the dominant Latino television personality; his variety show "Sábado Gigante" continues to air in the U.S. on Univision. Watching him was a "family affair" and once the clock struck 8:00, "nobody even had to say a word, we just went right to the televi- sion and watched." Deliz, who moved to L.A. when she was 16 to pursue a music career, never imagined she would be an alternative to such a dominant figure.
Her partner in crime, the Southern California-born Crash, is a mix of Mexican, Navajo and German. Expelled from two schools and legally emancipated from her parents by age 15, the rockera grew up with an eclectic blend of Spanish and American shows. Her grandma might be watching a telenovela in one room while her uncle was watching MTV in another.
The back-and-forth shuffle between rooms -- and channels -- to get a hearty diet of her cultures didn't seem unusual to the rocker chick. "I never thought it was odd because it's all I knew," she says. "It wasn't like there was an LATV or a mun2. There was nothing like that to compare. So it wasn't like I felt I was missing out on anything."
Now the two young women find themselves onscreen, their antics broadcast in homes across America -- but with a serious purpose. "We're keeping our culture alive," Deliz said, drifting in and out of Spanish. "We have an obligation to continue to do so. It's not an easy task. . . . It's great to be a part of that."
Feeling the music
Yarel Ramos is a 23-year-old grad student. She has late-night cram sessions. Takes copious notes during class. And is featured on billboards across Los Angeles promoting her show "Reventón."
The oldest of three, Ramos is a second-generation Mexican American who grew up in Los Angeles. She watched Nickelodeon's pre-teen favorites "Clarissa Explains It All" and "All That." But wait, she also tuned in to "Xou da Xuxa," a famous children's show in Brazil and Latin America hosted by Brazilian model Xuxa, and "Baila Conmigo" (Dance With Me), a telenovela from the early '90s. The duality of her identity was something she struggled to maintain at an early age.
"English was kind of set aside in our home," Ramos says. "My dad used to always tell me, "En la casa, se habla español. When you go to school, you speak English; pero en tu casa, you speak Spanish. It was a juggling act at times."
It's a balance, she says, that many of mun2 viewers understand. And "Reventón," a one-hour music program keeping Latino youth up to date with the regional Mexican music scene serves as a link for newer generations to their heritage. "As a kid, you think, 'I don't want to be Mexican,' " Ramos says. "Then you grow up and find that you appreciate it even more and want more of it."
While a student at the University of Miami, where she received a degree in broadcast journalism and international relations, Ramos found herself longing for that connection -- for the comforts she often tried to ignore as a child.
"When I was miserable in Miami, I would listen to regional Mexican music and go buy myself pan dulce. What do you do when the world is detaching you from yourself? You go back to the things that bring you back to who you are, where you come from."
She went on to start the first Spanish-language television program at her school, interned at Telemundo and found time to teach aerobics. She is pursuing a master's degree in media management at USC when she isn't in the studio interviewing musicians or introducing videos.
On this day, Ramos, her brunet curls cascading down her left shoulder, has just changed outfits to begin filming the latest installment of "Reventón," featuring cumbia music group Los Súper Reyes with a special appearance by Frankie J. She asks questions in English. Sometimes she'll punch things up with some Spanish.
It's a juggling act. But she's used to that.