‘American Crime’ Makes Network TV History With Episode Featuring Nahuatl Speakers

This season of ABC’s critically acclaimed show American Crime is tackling the issue of human trafficking and slave labor in the United States. Set mostly in a tomato farm in North Carolina, the anthology series is putting a face to the farm workers who every year come into this country to pick the food we see in our supermarkets. The blatant exploitation and wage theft that is all too common frames this season’s story of a Mexican father who crosses the border illegally to go in search of his son Teo who’s gone missing. But as Luis (played by Benito Martinez) probes further and further into his son’s whereabouts, he discovers the lawlessness that marks the lives of many undocumented workers trying to make a living.

In this Sunday’s episode, Luis gets closer to finding out what might have happened to his daydreaming son. Even after being told that “Workers go missing all the time” and that “Nobody cares,” he’s finally led to people who have information on Teo. And, in what might be a first for a network television series, we see a scene mostly spoken in Nahuatl.

The episode’s Latino writers, Janine Salinas Schoenberg, and Moisés Zamora, pushed for the scene to more accurately portray the population of people who find themselves working in the fields in the United States. They wanted to give a face and a voice to those of indigenous descent who come to the U.S. with an even greater disadvantage when they don’t speak neither English or Spanish. That meant casting actors who could handle the task of carrying a scene in Nahuatl, a language that, while spoken by close to 2 million people in Mexico today, is rarely captured on screen in American media.

Hansel Ramirez, whose breakout role in Jaime Ruiz Ibáñez’s La mitad del mundo earned him an Ariel Award nomination, prepped for his callback by learning a lullaby in Nahuatl so that the producers could hear the musicality that he associates with the language. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. “I’m glad I took that decision because it helped me book the role.” But where Ramirez’s role in the episode is to play translator, Despierta America correspondent, Nitzia Chama had the harder role as Itzel, a young woman who was very close to Teo.

As Chama told Remezcla, she felt the role was meant to be. “It was God who put it in front of my eye.” She actually found a listing for the audition on Facebook. One of her friends had posted that ABC was looking for someone who’s able to speak Nahuatl. She knew that could be her. So while she wasn’t fluent she made it clear that she was willing to learn as much as she needed to pull off the role. She even enlisted the help of a friend in Mexico who’s a professor and speaks the language to coach her ahead of the audition.

“We’re living in a very sensitive moment right now,” Chama shared. “The responsibility was even bigger for us with these roles. But at the same time I felt very proud of being Mexican and representing this kind of woman who exists, and is very real. For us it’s a powerful platform for us to project the best of Mexico, the best of our people.”

For Ramirez even just being a part of this show and this specific storyline was rewarding in itself. “A lot of people talk in Hollywood about fame and money but, you know what? I respect that point of view but honestly for me, as an actor I have the commitment and the responsibility of delivering a message. And this episode is definitely a big career goal because it has those characteristics of what I look for as an actor.”

Both actors acknowledged how rare these kind of challenging and rewarding roles can be in today’s television landscape. With a dialect coach on hand (which, to their surprise, was American) the intricacies of working in a language they weren’t familiar with just made the whole endeavor that much more satisfying even as it proved to be much more difficult than anyone could have foreseen. As Chama put it, “It wasn’t just about the acting or the emotions, about being real and being in the moment. It was now about bringing all of those feelings to this moment but in a different language.” On set, though, they found that this added an extra layer of complication. When the scene started running long, director Victoria Mahoney wanted lines cut here and there which would have butchered the very syntax of the Nahuatl dialogue that had been written for the scene.

Instead they opted to take a bit of an artistic license in how the scene plays out. While Ramirez’s character is supposed to be translating Itzel’s words for Luis’ sake, Mahoney pushed for them to speak their lines almost simultaneously to move the scene along. It’s just proof that even the more noble attempts at authenticity can fall prey to the demands of network television.

But as Ramirez reminded us, the fact that a network show was going to great lengths to tell this kind of story and casting actors who would do it justice is a welcome change of pace. “I feel proud of the result that we are seeing with this show. For a long time, TV and movies chose actors who didn’t really look or speak in the way they were supposed to. Like this guy is supposed to be Cuban but he speaks like he’s from Guatemala or Puerto Rico. Being in a production that wanted to respect the details of the story they’d written was a blessing.”

American Crime airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on ABC.