Screen Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s TV, everywhere kids see it.
“Oh, no!” my 2-year-old nephew cries, unprovoked. I jump out of the comfy couch at my sister’s house and rush across the living room.
“¿Que pasó?” I ask, concerned. “What happened?”
“Oh, no!” he says again. I look around for any signs of a broken toy, a spilled cup, a bleeding kid.
Again: “Oh, no!” And he runs off, laughing.
I look at my mom, perplexed. “Siempre dicen eso en el Paw Patrol”—they say that all the time on Paw Patrol, a Nickelodeon cartoon depicting the adventures of an all-dog rescue team headed by a 10-year-old boy. “Oh, no!” is something nearly all the characters say again and again because, well, everyone’s always in danger, about to be in danger, or warning someone about danger.
Paw Patrol is fine, I guess. It teaches my toddler nephew to always be careful and to trust packs of talking dogs. It’s so nice, so sweet, so … American. (Yes, I know Canadians produce the show, but my nephew doesn’t know this.) Judging from all the Rubble Pup costumes in my Mexican-majority neighborhood this Halloween, Paw Patrol is teaching a lot of Latino preschoolers how to approach life—that is to say, as Americans, and in English.
And the way my nephew’s American TV experience differs from those of the generations before him—his abuelita, his mother, my little brother, and me—is emblematic of how the process of Mexican-American assimilation has changed over 50 years. Don’t believe the right: Our niños are becoming more American than ever—gracias to TV.
My mom came to this country as a 12-year-old girl in the early 1960s. She immediately went to work harvesting crops in California’s Central Valley six days a week alongside my teenage aunts and uncles. Sundays were the only days of leisure, and the only screen time came thanks to a Filipino man who projected film reels of Bozo the Clown and Terrytoons (mostly Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle) at the farmer’s camp where everyone lived. Once a month, my grandparents took their kids to the house of a nice white couple who allowed them watch to The Lawrence Welk Show. My family loved it; Welk’s waltzes and polkas reminded them of the quinceañeras and weddings back home in the Mexican state of Zacatecas.
When my grandparents moved to Southern California and finally got a television of their own, they only tuned in to the couple of hours a day of Spanish-language shows that aired on the then-embryonic KMEX-TV Channel 34, now the largest Spanish-speaking television station in los Estados Unidos. Working 40-plus hours a week in a tomato cannery with little time to assimilate, my mom surrounded herself with the comfortable in a strange land. And she’s never been really interested in going beyond Spanish-language television, especially since her DirecTV package includes multiple Mexican channels. To this day, Mami watches almost no television in English unless it’s Dancing With the Stars, Benny Hill, or The Three Stooges—all shows where language is an afterthought to action.
I was different. While Mom was off packing tomato cans into crates, I was home after school watching classic cartoon troublemakers—Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, and especially Tom and Jerry. The independent local channels in Southern California served as a backyard dumping ground for old Hollywood reruns, so that beyond those cartoons many Mexican Americans also fell in love with I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and even That’s Incredible! My mom credits these reruns (and Sesame Street) with teaching English to me and my sister, who’s two years younger than me.
But my parents also wanted us to learn about Mexican culture, so Sunday mornings were devoted to two iconic Mexican children’s TV shows on KMEX. Chespirito was a sketch show with two iconic bits: “El Chavo del Ocho” (“The Kid From Block 8”), featuring an orphan who hangs out in a barrel in a Mexican City barrio, and “El Chapulín Colorado” (“The Red Grasshopper”), a parody of superhero shows that featured a guy in red tights and yellow shorts wielding a rubber mallet. (Matt Groening credits this character as the inspiration for The Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man.) I liked Chapulín Colorado so much that I dressed as him for Halloween as a 3-year-old.
Even better was Carrusel, a kiddie telenovela about life at a Mexico City elementary school that told surprisingly complex stories about race and class. The story that Mexican Americans of my generation remember is the unrequited love that Cirilo (a poor Afro-Mexican) had toward the rich, light-skinned Maria Joaquina. Many of us had never met an Afro-Mexican in our lives (the comic-book character Memín Pingüin notwithstanding), but we could relate to Cirilo, especially as Maria Joaquina repeatedly spurned him. (The image of her ripping up Cirilo’s love letter and raining it on him still makes me misty-eyed.)
Those two shows immersed us in Mexican idioms and customs that we simply couldn’t learn in the United States—a sense of solidarity with los pelados (a Mexican Spanish term describing the rabble) from Chespirito, and a hatred of class and racial divisions from Carrusel. They ensured that my sister and I would grow up not only bilingual but bicultural.
Things changed for my youngest brother, born in 1991. By then I was a surly English-dominant teenager, sunk into the couch watching Pokémon, Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, and In Living Color. And he sat right next to me, soaking in that Americanized TV. My parents also wanted my brother to learn about his Mexican roots—but now the education was Spanish-dubbed American programming. His Sesame Street was the Spanish-language Plaza Sésamo. And my parents bought pirated, Spanish-language versions of Disney animated films in Tijuana—to this day, I’ve never seen The Lion King in English, even though I’ve seen the movie more than a dozen times. You don’t know Scar’s true vainglorious nature until you hear him en Español voiced by the legendary Spanish dub actor Carlos Petrel (who also did Grandpa Simpson and Shere Khan). His gravelly-yet-syrupy inflection makes Jeremy Irons’ English-language take (which I literally just YouTubed right now) sound foppish, almost campy. Just watch how Petrel voices the final fight between Scar and Simba, especially on the line “Tu majestad” (“Your majesty”):
My brother loved the above scene so much that we’d act it out in Spanish. He can still speak the language. But all these years later, he’s far more Americanized than me, because that’s the culture he grew up on, regardless of idioma.
In both my brother’s and my case, at least we had parents who exposed us to Mexican culture. For my 2-year-old nephew, things are different: My parents and I talk to him in Spanish, and we even show him bilingual videos of songs like “The Wheels on the Bus.” But it’s a losing battle. His parents—my sister and her husband—are fully assimilated Mexican Americans who are proud of their roots but immerse their son in Little Einsteins. Their day-to-day culture revolves around ESPN, Dodgers, and Dapper Days at Disneyland, which is how my nephew experiences the adult world. And what was the theme for his second birthday party this summer? Paw Patrol.
My nephew just started day care, and will, as others have before him, gravitate to what’s “cool”—English. And being “American” is cooler than ever. Last week, my sister, a fourth-grade teacher, invited me to speak to her class—all students of Mexican heritage, of varying levels of assimilation. When I told them I interview celebrities for a living, they peppered me with whether I had ever met their favorites: Jake Paul. The Martinez Twins. Tessa Brooks. 8booth. All of them YouTube stars, none of them Spanish speakers.
“I once interviewed Salma Hayek,” I volunteered.
The room stayed silent. Finally, a young girl responded: “Who?”