'American Family' on PBS searches for roots in Mexico

Monday, August 5, 2002

MEXICO CITY -- When "American Family" traveled to Mexico recently, the groundbreaking Hispanic TV drama experienced a cultural homecoming.

The series, set in East Los Angeles, follows life with the Gonzalezes, a Mexican-American family with strong cultural and family ties south of the border.

Since its debut on PBS in January, the show has won praise as the first Hispanic drama on U.S. broadcast television. The first 13 episodes were so successful that PBS decided to pick up nine more. (Mexico's Televisa network has announced plans to air all of them in the fall.)

Series creator Gregory Nava took "American Family" to Mexico to film two season-ending episodes.

In "The Journey," family patriarch Jess Gonzalez travels to southern Oaxaca state to learn more about the childhood of his late wife; son Esteban arrives in Mexico City to try to rescue his relationship with his girlfriend; and daughter Nina heads to southern Chiapas to deliver humanitarian aid to poor Indians.

Nava, acclaimed director of the films "El Norte" and "Selena," has struck the right chord with PBS, TV critics and the Los Angeles-based National Hispanic Media Coalition.

"The series is doing everything we had hoped for," said coalition President Alex Nogales. "It's a quality show that talks about something we have never been able to speak about before: the American Latino and his trials and tribulations in this nation."

Strong writing and acting and a focus on universal issues also contributed to the program's success, said Jacoba Atlas, PBS' senior vice president of programming.

"We've gotten extraordinary e-mails from viewers thanking us for the series," Atlas said, "and they're certainly not all coming from Latinos."

Nogales says the show has helped make U.S. viewers more sensitive to another reality of Latin life in America, one notably different from that of the stereotypical migrant field laborer, sweatshop worker or taco vendor.

Jess Gonzalez (Edward James Olmos) owns a barbershop. Nina (Constance Marie) is a lawyer; another daughter, Vangie (Rachel Ticotin), a fashion designer; Esteban (Esai Morales), a firefighter.

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