Historically, American TV shows that feature Latino families have gone out of their way to communicate how different their subjects are from the Conners and the Cleavers. Whether it’s George Lopez screaming his signature “ ’ta loca!” catchphrase on his eponymous show, America Ferrera rocking a technicolor poncho with the word Guadalajara emblazoned across her chest in Ugly Betty, or even Rita Moreno solo dancing to a Cuban rumba while she makes breakfast in the One Day at a Time reboot, all of these moments serve as ways to tell the audience that this family isn’t just crazy like yours, they’re (I’m sorry) loca. These shows offer excellent representation of different kinds of Latino families; they also had the unenviable task of highlighting cultural differences while simultaneously teaching non-Latino audiences that we’re all actually more alike than you think. All this television history is part of what makes San Antonio best-selling author, pop culture writer, and Twitter savant Shea Serrano’s new sitcom, Primo, such an interesting entry in the Latino TV canon.
I know how this sounds, but Primo just might be peak pocho representation. Pocho is slang typically used to describe someone who is of Mexican descent who either isn’t fluent in Spanish or is somehow perceived to be removed from “authentic” Mexican culture. It’s often used derogatorily, but can also be a point of pride. Selena was a pocho. I’m one, too. As Rodrigo Nuñez, host of El Pochcast, says, “It’s pochos all the way down” when it comes to Tejanos.
In Primo, there are no passionate outbursts where a character is so overcome they simply must start speaking Spanish. No one repeats what they just said in Spanish over again in English to make sure we all know what’s going on. No one chastises anyone for speaking too much English or for losing touch with their cultura. Across all eight episodes (now streaming on Amazon Prime and FreeVee), there is only one Spanish word uttered, and it happens to be the title of the show.
“Being Mexican doesn’t mean just one thing,” Serrano, who co-executive produced the show with Hollywood heavyweight Mike Schur, told me over a Zoom call recently. “In the same way that being white doesn’t mean one thing. It’s a big beautiful collage and this is just a small piece of that.”
Even other contemporary comedies that feature families of color, like Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever or Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, tackle representation in very insistent ways. After a few episodes of Primo, I realized that not only is this show not going to give us any more Spanish, it doesn’t care if the audience knows if the main characters are Mexican at all. The Gonzaleses, the family at its center, just get to tell jokes, do bits, and be themselves without having to force “very special moments” around identity. It’s a radical breakaway from convention that will bring up complicated feelings for some Tejano viewers.
Based on Serrano’s upbringing in San Antonio’s Southside, but not, as Serrano tells it, “a shot-for-shot remake of me growing up,” Primo follows high schooler Rafa as he parses the questionable advice and meddling of his five uncles and single mother while he comes of age in the Alamo City. “It’s like being inside a cloud of bees, except the bees are always cussing and punching at each other,” Rafa says to a friend of his uncle-filled life.
You might think, like I did, “Rafa from San Antonio doesn’t call his mom’s brothers his tíos?” But the choice to use the English “uncles” is rooted in Serrano’s truth. Fearful of ESL classes that might hold Serrano back when he was growing up in the eighties and nineties, his parents (unlike Rafa, Serrano did not grow up with a single mom) decided not to teach him Spanish when he was child. “There’s a whole generation of us who grew up like that,” he says. Making Rafa and his family also speak Spanish, he says, “would’ve felt like I was doing something that wasn’t real or natural. When people watch the show, they’ll learn, like, oh, there are other versions [of being Mexican].”
The lack of Spanish isn’t the only way that Primo subverts Latino television tropes. In the second episode, it’s revealed that Drea, Rafa’s calm and cool mom, has a complicated, and very funny, relationship with Mexican food. When a friend asks if there will be Mexican food at the family cookout, Rafa seems surprised. “It’s usually just a straight barbecue.” Imagine! No piñatas, no mariachis, nada. Even Rafa’s uncles—the way they look, the way they sound, and the jobs they have—do a good job representing the wide Mexican American diaspora. From Mondo, the long-haired free spirit who sells phallic sculptures, to Mike, the aggro military veteran and recruiter, Primo is a kaleidoscope of modern Mexican representation. It’s not lost on me the way this sounds (duh, people are different), but it’s worth mentioning, because for so long Mexicans have had to look and sound a certain way in Hollywood. No one in Primo is a papi chulo, a cholo, or a wise abuela.
Serrano told me that he had his hand in every aspect of creating the show, and viewers will be able to tell. Fans who have read any of his books deconstructing pop culture, or even just follow him on Twitter, will clock nods to Serrano favorites such as The Fast and the Furious, his beloved San Antonio Spurs, and, of course, Whataburger. “The other executive producers said, ‘We’re putting you through showrunner training camp,’ ” he says, which meant he wasn’t only working in the writers room on scripts, but also on location for shooting and even helping edit in the postproduction phase. Fans of Schur’s other hit series Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine will recognize the same gentle goofiness here. In Schur fashion, low-stakes nonsense is paired with surprising jolts of emotion.
The tone is a natural fit for Serrano’s take on San Antonio adolescence. He knows the show depicts an optimistic view, devoid of stories about the dangers of their neighborhood that were drilled into his head as a kid. “But when you’re there, and you’re in it, it just felt like everyone was living the same life and it was cool and great. I enjoyed the life I was living,” he says, reflecting on his youth full of playing basketball with friends and hitting on girls. “When I wanted to do a show, it made the most sense to me to do that version.”
In 2017, Shea tweeted that he was tired of waiting for Mexican representation on TV and had begun the journey of turning his life experience into a show. Almost six years later, I’m not sure Primo is what anyone would have expected. After I finished watching the season, I asked my Laredo friends group chat how much Spanish would realistically end up in our own autobiographical sitcoms. For some, there’d be a lot. I’d at least be calling my uncles tío, but not much beyond that. There will be some pushback from Tejanos who say this type of pocho representation isn’t good for the culture, but what’s the alternative for Serrano? Performative Mexican-ness? All my friends and I agreed: shows that try too hard with their sprinkling of mijas and te quieros are cringey at best. Luckily, we now get to live in a world where we can enjoy George Lopez and Shea Serrano.