Prior to the recent boom in interest for content starring Latino actors, one of the very few television fixtures that made the community visible to mainstream audiences was comedian George Lopez. His sitcoms and comedy specials were often the only point of reference for Latino youth growing up in the new millennium, which forces us to note how long it took for studios and networks to pay attention. “Lately being Latino is the thing to be,” says Anthony “Citric” Campos, a musician and actor who currently shares the screen with the comedian on his new eponymous TV Land show Lopez. “Back in the day there was nobody on TV like us, and if there were, there weren’t even actually Latinos, but others portraying a Latino,” he adds about the lack of representation that prevailed for several decades.
Campos grew up during the 80s in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles, a part of the city that at the time was ridden with criminal activity and became the stereotypical cholo hood most Americans think of when referring to Mexican American gangs. As a teenager, the performer was himself involved in the gangbanger lifestyle, but eventually chose to part with that dangerous path in order to be more present in his son’s life.
Though he is aware of the problems that still affect his former stomping grounds, Citric’s connection to that part of his journey centers on its positive aspects. “The area is known for a lot of negativity but it also has a lot of culture. There are lots of treasures in Boyle Heights and East LA. The ganging activity has gone down, it’s not as bad as it was growing up in the 80s,” Campos confirms. “There are still gangs everywhere, but I still go down there and I still hang out with some of the people there. We eat over there and the vibes are still the same. It’s a beautiful thing no matter what.”
“The show is about bringing the reality of what’s going on in the hood and what’s going on out of the hood. They are showing both sides of it.”
In the 90s, his musical aspirations took him to join the hip-hop group Brown Town Looters, which resulted in a hit single on Japanese airwaves with Campos and his partners eventually traveling to Asia for a performance. On the acting front, opportunities were limited to stereotypical thug roles that didn’t require much depth. It wasn’t until an established Hollywood creator believed he could be more than a mere background actor that Campos was able stand out. “Mike Judge, who created King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-Head, gave me the opportunity and I caught the acting bug.” Judge cast Campos as the Secretary of Defense in his cult-classic Idiocracy and eventually offered him voice-acting jobs in some of his animated series.
Expanding his range, Campos is currently playing Manolo, George’s kindhearted and talented sidekick in the eponymously titled show Lopez, now airing its second season. His involvement in this new venture came about as a result of a previous relationship with writers John Altschuler and Dave Krisnky, who had him in mind while developing the project. “They wrote the character for me and they were happy with the way I portrayed it. It’s basically me, but with a little bit of comedy in there,” says the actor about the semi-autobiographical nature of his performance. Of course, working alongside Lopez was no small benchmark for him, “It’s a dream come true, there is no other way I could put it. He is a living legend. I’ve been learning a lot from him. “
Stylistically, the episodic comedy is a departure from Lopez’ previous efforts. Although he continues to deliver a fictionalized version of himself, visually the approach is cinéma vérité-like and with a single-camera in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office. This is in stark contrast to the conventional look of his early 2000s sitcom that was shot on a set with three cameras and using a laugh track. Reflecting its aesthetic, the show is not only shot in the real world but also deals with issues from an honest point of view as Campos explains, “The show is about bringing the reality of what’s going on in the hood and what’s going on out of the hood. They are showing both sides of it.”
This season, Citric’s character, Manolo, takes a young man he met in prison under his wing. Hector, played by Ray Diaz, is having a hard time adapting to life on the outside with the obstacles that being a felon bring about. For Campos, the lack of mentorship or positive role models available for young men of color in struggling communities is a key factor for the proliferation of gangs and vices. As Manolo, he takes on a mentor role that he also practices in his day-to-day life. “We need to look out for the younger cats. As an older cat you gotta put your negative experiences into a positive and teach these younger cats that there are other ways out,” he affirms. On the show, Manolo is trying to obtain his GED certificate to better himself and prove that is never to late to pursue education, which is another quality shared with the actor. “I always tell people, ‘I’m blessed to be where I’m at, but don’t ever take school for granted.’ Education is key. That’s the main thing. That’s how you elevate yourself in life, education.”
One of the ways in which Manolo and George help Hector adapt to his new circumstance as a free man with a criminal background is by encouraging him to get a job at the famed Homeboy Industries, an LA-based organization that provides training and employment for previously incarcerated people. Campos was aware of the charity’s outstanding work as some of his own homies benefited from its programs and is thankful that such a place exists. “Father Boyle didn’t have to do what he did for the homeboys. He could have just continued giving the mass every Sunday in church, but instead he took it to a whole other level and that’s a good thing because that gives hope to a lot of these cats that were locked up and when they come out they wanna do good,” he adds about the organization’s founder. “People come out of prison and a lot of times they don’t have the skills to function in society and that’s why they keep falling back into prison. The best thing anybody could do for a human being, give him education, teach him something, so they can survive on their own.”Even if laced with humor, that philosophy comes across through his portrayal of Manolo. Citric continues to create music and his band Pueblo Café’s new single “Toda la noche” will be featured in an upcoming episode of Lopez.
Lopez airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on TV Land.