The summer television schedule is no longer a wasteland scattered with the occasional non-rerun oasis. Instead, it’s a newly verdant (sometimes overwhelmingly so) environment, blooming with new shows and upstart networks. Among them are “Los Jets,” a documentary series on the 10-year-old network NuvoTV about a high school soccer team in Siler City, N.C.
Founded by Paul Cuadros, a former investigative journalist who first came to Siler City to cover immigration and the food processing industry, the Jets represent an effort by the town’s new residents to establish a recognizable foothold in their new community. And “Los Jets” is part of a larger ongoing effort to establish a place for Latino and immigrant stories in prime-time television that ramps up this fall.
“Los Jets” is an earnest argument that immigrants and the communities that receive them truly want the same things. A parent weeps at his son’s piety and college aspirations. A struggling student sees his grades slip, breaks up with his girlfriend and is benched for a crucial game. Cuadros counsels his players to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior, telling them before a game that “People chop at you, brush it off. If it’s not fair, brush it off.”
“I think people thought that when the [poultry] industry would go, the [immigrants] would go too,” Cuadros said, explaining that the shift in Siler City’s population appears to be permanent. “[But] other families have stayed. They like the community. It’s a wonderful, small rural community. It’s the place where Aunt Bee from Mayberry [the fictional setting for ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’] retired.”
But the show is more interesting as a more specific chronicle of a new sport’s arrival in a small town, and as a reminder that there is not only one kind of Latino immigrant experience in the United States.
“Soccer is entirely new to these communities. They don’t have big club teams like you see in suburban areas. People don’t watch it,” Cuadros explained when we spoke last week. “Some people have told me they thought the sport originated in Russia.”
Getting permission to start a varsity soccer program at Jordan-Matthews High School was a victory over those kinds of attitudes, but it does not mean that soccer is automatically on par with sports such as football and basketball, which actually have a shot at being profitable enterprises for the school, even though they are less competitive programs. “Los Jets” captures the ambivalence of several multi-sport athletes who enjoy the attention they get at football pep rallies but reserve their passion for soccer.
“They speak with Southern accents, so they say y’all, and it’s impacted their diet. They love chicken biscuits,” Cuadros said of his athletes. “It’s really fascinating how these kids are going to grow up. Their Latino identity is going to be very different from the Latino identities you typically see in the Southwest. There is no culture of Chicanoism in the Southeast.”
The show maintains a tight focus on the boys themselves, which means that we see one of the Jets crowned homecoming king, though not the larger social realignment in the now majority-Latino high school that made his victory possible. As director Mark Landsman put it, “We filmed quite a bit in the lunchroom, and I’m not going to say there’s this melting pot going on, but there is this integration going on.”
It might have been nice to see more of these dynamics play out in Siler City at large, a town where “right next to the Garden Feed is the peluqueria,” Landsman said. But fortunately, “Los Jets” has arrived at a moment when there are a lot of shows ready to tell different stories about different aspects of immigration and Latino experiences in the United States.
FX premiered “The Bridge,” an adaptation of a Scandanavian cop drama now set on the border between the Juarez and El Paso, last summer. Both ABC and the CW are premiering shows about Latino extended families — multicamera sitcom “Cristela” on the former and drama “Jane the Virgin” on the latter — this fall. And Fox has “Bordertown,” an animated comedy about the impact of immigration on immigrants and U.S. citizens alike, coming to air from Seth MacFarlane with an assist from cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz.
“Jane the Virgin” star Ivonne Coll explained at the Television Critics Association press tour in July that her character watches telenovelas for much the same reason she did growing up in Puerto Rico and “Jewish immigrants watched Yiddish theater … I think this is what connects her to her roots, to the form of expression that they have in her country, which is very different from how we express in North America, right, which is you’re more subtle. We’re like boom! We don’t hold any bars. Nothing holds us back.”
It makes sense for both established and upstart television networks to try to court Latino audiences, who are by some measures, including per capita movie ticket purchases, voracious entertainment consumers.
For legacy broadcasters, the rise of competitor channels that target Latinos with both English and Spanish-language programming is a spur to try to hold onto existing viewers or bring in new ones. For upstarts, underserved audiences are a place to start building a customer base, though that can lead to a phenomenon comedian Larry Wilmore described as the creation of a “Negro Leagues” for television, in which programming for people of color is shifted off to channels affiliated with the Big Four broadcasters including the CW.
The hope, though, is that just as the Jets gave immigrant families a foothold in Siler City and then drew in the support of white school administrators, these family stories will resonate with audiences more broadly.
“We love having a diverse slate, but we think these shows are deeply relatable,” ABC president Paul Lee, himself a British immigrant, said of the shows on his fall schedule. “I mean, when I watch ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ [about Asian immigrants] or when I watch ‘Black-ish” or when I watch ‘Cristela,’ I am one of those families. So that’s why we think they’re going to succeed.”