A funny thing happened on the way to "The Brothers Garcia." Jeff Valdez wrote the pilot for the series, premiering tonight at 8:30 on Nickelodeon, and realized something was missing.
"Holy moley, I forgot to include anything that's really that Latino, and I went back and I said, 'OK, here's a little more flavoring.'"
Going with the food analogy, Valdez adds, "To me, a TV show's like a steak. If you want to have barbecue sauce on it or bearnaise or soy or whatever, it's still a steak underneath."
The steak is a family sitcom, and the flavoring comes courtesy of the faces on and behind the camera. "Brothers Garcia" is the first English-language sitcom with an all-Latino cast and group of writers, directors and producers. In addition to writing or co-writing the first six episodes, Valdez is executive producer.
What took television so long to assemble such a team? "It only took 50 years. What do you mean so long? ...
"The mentality in the industry has been OK, we're going to do one Latino show this year, and if it doesn't work, we'll try another in five years. Yet they'll do six shows every season about two guys, a girl and a pizza and a bottle of Pepsi."
"Brothers Garcia" is set in San Antonio and focuses on three brothers (plus one sister) who are the children of a history teacher and a hair stylist. Actor John Leguizamo, speaking for the youngest brother, narrates their all-American adventures about wrestlers and first love and learning to live on a diet of less TV.
The show stars Carlos La Camara and Ada Maris as the parents and Jeffrey Licon, Bobby Gonzalez, Alvin Alvarez and Vaneza Leza Pitynski as the children. "Isn't it amazing that we keep hearing there's no Latino talent out there? Our biggest problem with casting this was saying no to a bunch of kids."
Valdez, a 44-year-old who considered "Gilligan's Island" his favorite show as a child, thinks he has created a "good, wholesome family comedy" that has no ethnic boundaries. "One of the things we heard in testing was a lot of kids said, 'Hey, I could watch this with my family.' I think that's so missing from television." Also missing: Latino actors on sitcoms or in roles other than shooting victims, gang members or cops.
Valdez still remembers being summoned to the television by his parents any time a Latino actor or Spanish speaker (such as Desi Arnaz) appeared. "We were out in the yard playing, and they would yell for us. And we'd come running in, and we'd sit there, 'Ooh, wow, aah.' What's scary is you could still do that now."
Unlike some Hollywood hotshots who were products of privilege, Valdez - the youngest of nine children - comes from very modest means.
"My family worked in the fields; they picked crops, actually. They were migrant workers, and they came from northern New Mexico into southern Colorado. ... I was born in the housing projects, and a couple of months ago I was back home and my sister gave me a tour of the places they lived before the housing projects. I was whining about being born in the housing projects.
"They lived in places that didn't even have running water and had dirt floors and that kind of stuff. They said, 'You don't understand. When we moved to the projects, that was moving on up for us.'"
Valdez's father, who has since passed away, worked several jobs. "He was a security guard for a big factory, and on weekends we mowed lawns together. And when I wasn't mowing lawns with him, I was cleaning homes with my mother." His father's dream, unrealized, had been to turn his considerable drumming skills into a full-time job.
Valdez played drums in two bands (traditional and grunge) and has given the oldest Garcia boy a passion for the drums. He borrowed lovingly and liberally from his family for the series.
Reeling off stories about haircuts and first crushes and other universal pangs, he says of the brothers, "Their friends are white and black and Asian and native. The show really, I feel, is the fabric of what America looks like."