Picture this: It’s nearly midnight on a school night in the mid-aughts, and you can’t fall asleep. You flip on the TV and a bright blue light temporarily blinds you as the distinctive sound of a cowbell fills the room. You lean against your headboard and gaze at the screen as George Lopez and his fictional television family jump on a trampoline to War’s “Low Rider,” and you wish you didn’t have to do a mountain of homework the next day. Lopez’s high-pitched catchphrase, “I got this,” replays in your mind as you eventually drift off to sleep.
This was my nightly routine for almost two years. Episode after episode of “George Lopez” ― a sitcom that most people referred to as “The George Lopez Show” ― kept me company during the loneliest hours of the day. The Lopez family didn’t reflect my own: While I am Mexican-American, I was raised by a single white mother with two sisters who are Korean-American. Still, they became my second family. In George, specifically, I saw the dad I never had and so desperately wanted.
I’m not alone in this feeling. Between 2002 and 2007, George Lopez became a father to many young kids who saw themselves reflected in his on-screen children, Carmen (Masiela Lusha) and Max (Luis Armand Garcia). Jessica Marie Garcia, an actor on Netflix’s “On My Block,” was one such person who saw George as a stand-in for her own father, who was rarely in her life.
“I felt I could have a dad in a way watching George,” she told HuffPost.
Garcia was 15 years old when she first saw her family represented on screen. Half Mexican, half Cuban, Garcia remembers how similar her family was to the Lopezes, especially since her grandmother lived with her at the time.
“I felt I could have a dad in a way watching George.”
“My mom and I would just laugh and laugh about all the similarities we shared, especially when [Angie]’s father would come on the show because he was just like my Cuban grandfather,” Garcia said, referring to Lopez’s on-screen wife, played by Constance Marie. “Seeing a whole Latinx family made me feel like I was seen for the first time. Like my family dynamic mattered, like we weren’t the only ones.”
For many Latinx viewers, “George Lopez” was the first time they saw themselves reflected in an American sitcom in a way that didn’t focus on hardships and trauma porn. And for five full seasons, they had an almost entirely Latinx cast, something almost unheard of even by today’s standards. As co-creator, writer, producer and star, Lopez leveraged his power to make a spot for Latinx actors to tell Latin-centered stories. And the show’s legacy lives on: You can still catch reruns on cable TV and stream the full six seasons on various platforms almost 20 years later.
While there had been other sitcoms that focused on Latin family units prior to 2002, “George Lopez” cemented itself in Hollywood history thanks to its smart comedy and its authentic take on family and life. In fact, you could argue that “George Lopez” was the beginning of a long succession of sitcoms written by and for the Latin community ― like “One Day at a Time,” “Gentefied,” “Mr. Iglesias,” and soon “Lopez vs. Lopez,” the comedian’s new series featuring his daughter, Mayan. “Lopez vs. Lopez” is set to premiere in late 2022.
Some loyal viewers, like author and editor Lauren Davila, say the show opened the doors for other diverse comedies on TV like “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” Growing up in a Mexican-American household, Davila recalls “George Lopez” as a major part of her childhood.
“I watched the [show] with my mom and sister as reruns most often [during] early mornings or late at night,” she said. “There was a level of comfort from seeing this complex, flawed family on TV that reminded me in many ways of the people I know and grew up with.”
Davila acknowledged that she remembers the show fondly through the lens of childhood nostalgia, and that she never viewed it with a rigorously critical eye. Still, she thinks it “proved to the television industry that audiences are clamoring for representative media across the board,” especially since the show depicted the home life of a multigenerational, working-class family and managed to be successful during prime time.
“I think it was really nice to see a family that showcased all the different ranges of what a Latinx family can look like,” she said.
Writer Sandra Proudman has been a fan of “George Lopez” since she was a teenager in the early 2000s.
“There really were no other Latinx shows outside of Spanish-speaking networks [at the time],” she told HuffPost. “I grew up watching telenovelas with my mom and sister, so seeing a Latinx show on an English-speaking network, well, it made me feel like we had a seat at the table in the United States as well ... It felt like home.”
For Proudman, “George Lopez” was revolutionary in that it cast actual Latinx people in the roles. Some shows have come under fire for casting white actors as Latinx characters. For example, Netflix’s “On My Block” cast a white actor — who previously tweeted in support of Donald Trump’s politics — as a young Latina whose parents were deported. Alex Nuñez, an infamous Latina character on “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” was portrayed by Italian-Canadian actor Deanna Casaluce. Even Ofelia Salazar, a “Fear the Walking Dead” character who is the daughter of a Salvadorian immigrant, was played by Persian-Swedish actor Mercedes Mason. The only non-Latinx cast member in Lopez’s show was Lusha, who is Albanian.
“This was a time where casts were very much still primarily white, so to have a show where the characters spoke English, telling Latinx jokes, and where the cast was [almost] all brown, it was something that was invaluable,” Proudman said. “At the time, I might not have realized just how much, but looking back now, it’s something that was so rare and special. Even today.”
“I think it was really nice to see a family that showcased all the different ranges of what a Latinx family can look like.”
It was the jokes in particular — jokes about hard-to-please abuelitas, hallucinogenic mezcal worms, George’s massive head — that connected Garcia, Davila, Proudman and so many other Latinx viewers to “George Lopez.”
“I think that was one thing that the ‘George Lopez Show’ did differently and so well, was that it didn’t make Latinx people the punchline,” Proudman said. “We were fully in on the jokes, and they were written to offer us laughter, not to be a source of laughter for a non-Latinx audience.”
The success of “George Lopez” made Lopez himself the first Latino to lead a television series of his own into syndication — when a program runs on a different network than it was initially created for, an achievement that usually requires a minimum of 100 episodes. But the show’s ratings didn’t hold up after ABC shifted its time slot to compete with the mega-popular “American Idol.” The show was ultimately, and in Lopez’s words “unceremoniously,” canceled.
Today, it seems the networks still haven’t found the value in supporting Latin-focused productions. The last few years have seen a string of painful cancellations, including “Diary of a Future President,” “Mr. Iglesias,” “Gentefied” and “One Day at a Time,” to name just a few. Currently, there are no Latin shows left on network television, and those on streaming services often get canceled after just one season. (RIP, “The Baker and the Beauty” and “Gordita Chronicles.”) With over 18% of the U.S. population identifying as Hispanic or Latino, this seems like a major disservice to a massively underrated market. In fact, as of 2019, Latinx actors made up only 6.6% of leads on broadcast scripted TV shows. As Proudman notes, “no one show can be a monolith for such a diverse group, so the more the better.”
Garcia, who is deeply intertwined in the behind-the-scenes happenings in Hollywood, wants her industry to show Latin viewers that their family dynamics matter too.
“Our shows can highlight the love we have for each other along with our dysfunction,” Garcia said. “That we can laugh at ourselves and argue but always come back together in the end. That after years of watching nothing but white family shows, we can finally get our happy ending after 23 minutes too.”