We’re living in an American renaissance for Spanish-language television

The release of HBO’s ‘Los Espookys’ represents the latest ground bilingual Spanish television has won among mainstream American audiences.

We’re living in an American renaissance for Spanish-language television

The release of HBO’s ‘Los Espookys’ represents the latest ground bilingual Spanish television has won among mainstream American audiences.

Los Espookys is not your typical Spanish TV show. You won’t find telenovela or bilingual sitcom tropes; Telemundo isn’t airing it; it certainly wouldn’t make my mother laugh. Los Espookys tells the story of four decidedly weird and goth friends — complete with long sweeping black coats and chokers, bright blue hair, crucifix earrings and dry humor — who launch a business faking supernatural and gory events for clients in a nondescript Latin American country. Together, the horror-obsessed Renaldo (Bernaldo Velasco), chocolate-empire heir Andres (Julio Torres), dental assistant Ursula (Cassandra Ciangherooti), and the oddball worker Tati (Ana Fabrega) make their haunted horrors come to life for their clients, like a priest hoping to outshine his new, young coworker. All the while, their uncle Tico (Fred Armisen), a world-renowned valet driver, works to help them get gigs.

The new comedy, which airs on HBO, is fully produced in Spanish (with English subtitles) and departs from the world of slapstick or conventional humor that Latinx sitcoms and bilingual shows are known for. It is unlike any other show on HBO, which is why the company’s decision to stream Los Espookys was surprising to multiple media organizations. A wide advertising push — Julio Torres and Ana Fabrega were profiled in publications like Vulture, GQ, Vanity Fair, and Forbes; the characters’ faces were plastered all over New York City subway stations — was rewarded with reviews in just about every major entertainment publication, showing the potential for a wider audience beyond Spanish-speaking demographics.

“I think just because it's in Spanish doesn't mean that we only want Spanish speakers to watch it,” Ana Fabrega, who is also the co-creator and co-executive producer of the show, told The Outline. “Just because you speak Spanish doesn't mean you're going to be into the show, because perhaps it’s a very specific sense of humor.” When writing the script, Fabrega said they never thought about targeting a specific group of people, instead having faith the show would find its own audience. “We never wrote thinking, oh, we want to reach the millennial Latinos,” she said.

In fact, the reason the show is entirely in Spanish is simply because it’s set in Latin America — which, of course, makes a lot of sense. When the show was being developed, Fabrega said she wanted to avoid, for example, a show set in Russia where all the characters spoke English with Russian accents. “So many people have asked us if HBO was ever encouraging us to have more English,” Fabrega said. “ And no, they've been totally on board with everything being in Spanish from the beginning.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Lorne Michaels, who is an executive producer of the show, said that the “the normal thing you used to hear from networks was, how do you make it broader? “But we don’t live in that world anymore. The audience is much more adventurous and open. People will find it, and none of it is too hard to understand.” Over the last few years, bilingual shows like Jane the Virgin and One Day at a Time have taken off, along with a boom of Spanish-language shows like Narcos, Money Heist, and Cable Girls. We’re living in an American renaissance for Spanish television, and Los Espookys is just the latest piece.

This wave of Spanish and bilingual TV in America isn’t a new trend. A movement for educational equity in the 1950s ultimately led to the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which provided the fuel behind the launch of a number of bilingual children’s television programs such as Carrascolendas, which aired in 1970 aired on Austin’s PBS. Villa Alegre, another bilingual children’s program, followed on PBS in 1973, and Mundo Real, a bilingual drama following a Puerto Rican family, aired on Connecticut Public Television in 1974, later being distributed by PBS in 1977.

"A decade ago, bilingualism on TV was nonexistent,” TV Guide critic Sally Bedell wrote in 1977. “[Today, it] has clearly found a niche on TV." That same year ¿Qué Pasa, USA? became the first bilingual sitcom to grace major American television networks, airing on PBS as a government funded project. The story followed a Cuban-American family in South Florida, and once the show went national in January of 1978, it was a huge hit. Publications across the country raved about it. “Juana and Pepe Peña may become the next Ozzie and Harriet — Latin style,” People wrote that January. “It puts many commercial, productions in the genre to shame,” said the Times. It even inspired Newsday to publish a think piece about the “changing America.”

“Since the 1980s, people have been making arguments about the Latino boom, the browning of our audiences, the browning of America,” Isabel Molina Guzmán, a professor in Latina/Latino Studies and Media & Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, told The Outline. What U.S. News and World Report called the “Decade of the Hispanic,” saw the onset of Spanish programming on major networks like MTV and PBS. In the 1990s and 2000s, networks began launching geographical offshoots like MTV Latin America, ESPN Deportes, and HBO Latin America to cater to growing Latinx viewership.

This time around, Molina believes there’s something different that might inspire lasting power of Spanish on American television sets and computers. “The pressures on the networks and on the distributors, and on outlets like HBO, has increased as the demographics of audiences have changed in ways that can't be ignored,” she said. “What I noticed has changed the game somewhat are the streaming networks.”

Netflix, with its robust and nimble production arm, didn’t take decades to launch a “Latino” offshoot like major networks might’ve in the past. In four years, it introduced its streaming services throughout Latin America and the Carribbean, beginning its reach for a global audience. “Netflix's strategy is slightly different because they're trying to capture Spanish-language audiences in the U.S. and Spanish-language audiences outside the U.S.,” Molina said. With a mix of programming, from acquired series produced or co-produced in Spain or Mexico to original Netflix programming like Narcos, Netflix has assembled a diverse line-up. “They’re trying to do both, target Spanish-language audiences and also bilingual or English dominant audiences in the U.S.”

Since the 1980s, dozens of articles have theorized the rise of Latinx people in numbers and power. This dominant rhetoric, along with actual changing demographics — in 2016, Latinxs accounted for 18 percent of the nation’s population, and their collective purchasing power reacted $1.4 trillion, nearly 10 percent of the total U.S. — has made a programming switch necessary. Some of these shows have become burgeoning phenomenons. In 2014, the CW released Jane the Virgin, an American satirical telenovela following the life of a young Latina in Miami (Gina Rodriguez), who switches between Spanish and English. A recent study found that only 24 percent of people who watch the show are Latino; 54 percent of the audience identified as non-Hispanic white, making the primary audience a broader American viewership. A year later, Narcos, an American-produced crime series shot in Colombia, debuted on Netflix. Narcos’ third season had 27.2 million streams in its first week of release; one analytics company estimated it was the 7th most popular television show in the country. Bilingual and Spanish TV shows continue to proliferate on the platform with five new Spanish original series — bringing the total count to 11 — in development and production in Spain, where Netflix is launching its European Production Hub.

It’s nice to think that networks and streaming services are diversifying their programming in a progressive push for broader representation, but such decisions are partially driven — or entirely, if you’re cynical — by economics. Take, for example, the recent Netflix relaunch of One Day at a Time, Norman Lear’s hit show about a single mom raising her two children that aired on CBS from 1975 to 1984. While the original was about a white mom and her kids in Indiana, the relaunched version featured a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles. When showrunner Brent Miller’s team was deciding what show to relaunch, he told The Outline that he “happened to have had a meeting with an agent that was talking about a study that was done by Coca Cola and who they wanted to market to over the next 10 years. It happened to be the biggest demographic, specifically, were single, Latinx women with children.” The show was well-reviewed and ran for three seasons, but because Netflix typically does not release its ratings, it’s impossible to know how many people really tuned in. When it was cancelled, Netflix’s Twitter account posted a tearful thread expressing how important it was to boost Latinx stories, even though they were the one swinging the axe.

Still, the ongoing production of successful bilingual and Spanish shows illustrates that the desire for them is there. “Whenever there’s success with a show, regardless of what its genetic makeup is, the industry responds to that success,” Miller said. “We're a country of excess… If there’s is a proven example of success that happens to be a Latinx family they show, then you can bet everybody's going to want to share in on that success and try and create something similar, or their version of that.”

Aside from its characters speaking Spanish, Los Espookys isn't stocked with specific cultural references or jokes. You don’t need to be Latinx or speak Spanish to laugh at Fred Armisen’s divine talent for parking two cars at once; thus far, the only overt cultural signifier is the spooky quinceañera that opens up the show. “A lot of other bilingual shows are trying to pander to, or play up the Latin American aspects,” Fabrega said. “[They] throw in all these references to be like, hey look Latinos we're here, but you don't need to do that.”