The newest American television family couldn't be more ordinary. The father is a history professor, the mother runs a beauty salon. They drive the official vehicle of the suburbs--an SUV--and they have four children, ages 9 to 14, three of them boys.
They wouldn't seem out of place living next door to June and Ward Cleaver or the Brady Bunch. Except for one thing: their name is Garcia, and they are the only middle-class Latino family in prime time, the first in 20 years.
The arrival over the summer of "The Brothers Garcia" on cable's Nickelodeon, the channel most watched by children under 12, is a barometer of changes being wrought by the current generation of youths, the most racially diverse and most Latino in the nation's history.
In the adult world, Latino advocates have denounced broadcasters for a "brownout" of Latino stars caused by executives' doubts that they draw enough adult viewers for advertisers. The only adult show with a Latino theme and stars--"Resurrection Boulevard," about the working-class Santiagos of East Los Angeles--premiered in June on the cable channel Showtime, which relies on subscriptions, not advertising.
But the walls are coming down in children's TV, reflecting much larger changes working their way up in society. "The Brothers Garcia," with the first all-Latino cast and creative team in English-language television, is one of three new Nickelodeon series with Latino themes and stars. In January, Fox Kids and the Disney Channel will join the movement. Disney Studios is developing a Latino-themed show for ABC's Saturday morning cartoon block.
The contrast between children's and adults' programming partly reflects cable's quest for niche audiences versus network TV's broad, national viewership. But the underlying forces appear deeply demographic.
Hispanics, projected to become the nation's largest minority group in the next decade, reached that milestone last year among the population under 18, making this the first generation whose premier minority group is not African Americans. By 2010, based on immigration and fertility rates, the Census Bureau projects Hispanics will make up 21 percent of children and youth, with whites at 59 percent and African Americans at 14 percent.
Overall, today's younger generation is almost 8 percent less white than the nation. Even in the whitest suburbs, children can inhabit a multicultural media world of Latino hip-hop, African American rap, e-mail penpals from overseas and, of course, the World Wide Web. They are the most biracial generation in U.S. history, and more of them have immigrant parents than any generation in 80 years, according to "Millennials Rising--The Next Great Generation," an analysis of the nation's youth by Neil Howe and William Strauss.
"Cultural openness is commonplace for this generation," said James U. McNeal, who has studied the children's consumer market for 30 years and recently retired from Texas A&M University. "They've watched Sesame Street with adults and children of every race, had schoolmates increasingly from Mexico, from Vietnam, from India. Their textbooks emphasize multiculturalism. And they've spent more time away from their parents, in day care and after-school care or home alone, so peer influence and these other forces are stronger."
Of course, some swaths of the country remain almost all white, places where multiculturalism remains a foreign concept. And cable networks such as Nickelodeon still reach only small slices of the national population. But with diversity and cultural sensitivity now taught everywhere, beginning in pre-school, the advent of Latino-themed children's shows is a signal that interest in other cultures is becoming the norm.
There is also a profit motive behind the Latino programming. Hispanic buying power has more than doubled since 1990, and is projected to reach more than $452 billion next year, according to a study by the University of Georgia. Census Bureau studies also show that Hispanics are moving out of poverty faster than the country as a whole.
Advertisers are feverishly courting Hispanic adults, mostly on Spanish-language TV, a burgeoning media that just spawned another U.S. network. But capturing Latino children, whose bilingual lives extend to television, requires a larger net. Studies show that many watch Spanish "telenovelas," or soap operas, with parents, but overwhelmingly favor English-language TV when watching alone.
With few exceptions, English-language TV has not looked to Latino stars to lure general adult viewers, critics say. But major networks say the picture will change soon. "This is a medium that lives on the popularity of stars that appeal to a broad audience, and there's no feeling that any group is off limits," said Gil Schwartz, executive vice president of CBS, which recently broadcast the Latin Grammys, the first live, multilingual event in prime time on network television.
Children, he pointed out, are a different audience. They accept what they see on the screen with fewer biases and defenses.
Children's TV executives say young viewers rarely mention the race of characters when commenting on shows in focus groups. Rich Ross, general manager of the Disney Channel, said girls of all races had the exact same response to the handsome star of "The Famous Jett Jackson," a show about an African American boy who is a teenage television idol: "He's cute!"
Similarly, Jeff Valdez, creator of "The Brothers Garcia," said the oldest Garcia brother, Carlos, with stylishly spiked hair and a world-weary swagger, was rated "cool" by boys in test audiences, and "cute" by girls.
Invariably, he said, non-Latino participants did not mention that they were watching a Latino family until prompted. Nor did they stumble over clear cultural markers sprinkled throughout the show, from parents fretting over children losing their Spanish fluency to snippets of Spanish conversation to salsa on the breakfast table.
The young viewers' sense of the family's normalcy exhilarated Valdez, a Mexican American who grew up bilingual in a Pueblo, Colo., housing project.
"I wanted a show with people who happen to be Latinos instead of Latinos who happen to be people," said Valdez, founder of the San Antonio-based Latino Laugh Festival and SiTV, a production company.
Latino children apparently have the same yearning. Two 11-year-old boys in Manhattan, who speak Spanish at home and English outside, recently watched the show with a reporter and laughed or nodded in recognition of cultural references. "They're sort of like my parents," said Gabriel Ulla, noting how protective and involved they were with their children. In most American TV families, he observed, "you don't see parents in kids' lives."
"Seeing a Latino show, it makes me feel like my family isn't at all weird," said Pierre-Charles Richard, who also loves watching telenovelas with his Colombian mother.
In preparing the show, Valdez said he tested two types of Latino families with focus groups--recent immigrants struggling to make good versus an assimilated middle-class suburban family. Both played well with non-Latinos, but Latinos vociferously voted against the downscale family.
"They asked, 'Why do we have to always be poor and drive lousy cars and speak in accents?' " he said. Hence, he created the upwardly mobile Garcias of suburban San Antonio, with a loving marriage, model parenting skills and thoroughly modern kids who gel their hair, fantasize about outer space, flirt, and occasionally get grounded--all with their Mexican American heritage in the background. "I decided we needed 'The Cosby Show' for Latinos," he said.
Latino advocacy groups have said the same for years. "The most visible Latinos on the networks are all playing maids, criminals or crime victims," said Lisa Navarette, spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza. Child actor Alvin Alvarez, who plays the youngest Garcia brother, 9-year-old Larry, recently played a gunshot victim on NBC's "ER." Now, a few clicks of the remote away, he is growing up safe and sound.
Media watchdogs are voicing concern about the effect of TV images on young minorities. Children Now, a child advocacy group, surveyed 1,200 white, Latino, Asian and African American youth in 1998, and found striking unanimity in their perceptions of racial stereotyping on television.
They associated "having lots of money," "being well-educated," "being a leader," "doing well in school" and "being intelligent" with white characters, and "breaking the law," "having a hard time financially," "being lazy" and "acting goofy" with nonwhites.
About the same time, Nickelodeon executives were scrutinizing their programs for attention to all facets of what company president Herb Scannell calls "kid-dom."
In past years, the channel pioneered strong girls as lead characters, and developed shows with African American and Asian American stars. There were no Latino stars or themes.
"We said, 'What's wrong with this picture?' " said Scannell, the product of a Puerto Rican mother and Anglo father, who grew up on Long Island.
Other children's channels were discovering the same blind spot. Fox Kids will unveil "Los Luchadores" (the wrestlers), about a Mexican wrestler with superhero qualities, in January. That same month, the Disney Channel will debut its first regular Latina co-star in a new series, "What's Lizzie Thinking."
Scannell said his executive team went to Valdez and other Latino artists in search of stories and characters with universal appeal. Besides the Garcias, they chose "Dora the Explorer," an educational cartoon with a bilingual Latina heroine, and the upcoming "Taina," which follows an aspiring teenage rock star growing up in New York City in a traditional Puerto Rican family.
Maria Perez-Brown, creator and executive producer of "Taina," drew from her own story. She arrived in New York at age 6 from Puerto Rico, speaking no English, and soon was bilingual, serving as her single mother's translator at the welfare office. She watched English language shows by day, Spanish-language TV with her mother at night and burned with a passion to succeed.
When she left home, and began watching mostly English-language programs, "I did start missing myself on TV," she said. "I wondered why there were no brown faces."
A graduate of Yale and New York University's law school, she was stunned that television often portrayed her polyglot city as overwhelmingly white.
Reality is changing, even if television lags. Latino consumers have become so numerous that U.S. manufacturers are developing separate product lines aimed at them. Examples include Productos de General Mills, including Para Su Familia (for your family) cereals. Betty Crocker has mixes for Latin-style desserts such as rice pudding and flan, packaged in bold colors with festive swirls. And some may soon be advertised on English-language children's television.
"Just a couple of years ago, we would have laughed at the idea that Anglo kids might ask their parents to buy them a Latin product," said children's marketing guru McNeal. "But television shows are products, too, and they're buying those."