Throughout the ‘90s, Beverly Hills 90210 gave us a glimpse inside one of the nation’s most recognizable zip codes. Audiences were taken beyond the manicured lawns and luxury cars and into the lives of eight privileged teens as they navigated their way into adulthood.
But though the show’s landscape was brimming with glamour and prestige, it did not accurately reflect Beverly Hills – much less Los Angeles – in the ‘90s. Los Angeles is home to nearly five million Latinos, and during its ten season run, the show only cast one person of color as a main character.
In the fourth season, we’re introduced to Jesse Vasquez (Mark Damon Espinoza), a law student at the fictitious California University. He’s handsome, he’s kind, and he’s Latino. He’s working as a bartender at the Walsh’s 20th-anniversary shindig and it’s here that he meets love interest Andrea Zuckerman (Gabrielle Carteris). They make a quick connection over their admiration for the Walsh’s long-lasting marriage, and before you can say “peach pit” Andrea and Jesse have fallen in love. Things move at lightning speed as Andrea becomes pregnant (Carteris became pregnant in real life) and the two decide to get married in a boring and stale civil ceremony. In fact, the entire relationship is boring and stale. Carteris was always an odd fit for the show (she was 29 years old when initially cast to play a teenager) and Espinoza never found his footing. The chemistry wasn’t strong between the two: rigid hugs, little to no physical touch, and dialogue that had no real depth.
Espinoza wasn’t given much to work with, and this is in part due to writer-producer Larry Mollin’s dislike of the actor. In a 2010 interview, Mollin expressed his candid frustration at the casting of Espinoza. “I was totally appalled that they cast this guy. He had ears as big as Botswana as far as I was concerned. I just could not believe it. I have no idea what happened in that room that day when they cast him. I just thought they totally blew it. To have a guy with a receding hairline– just everything I thought was wrong. And he [Espinoza] was a nice man but it just was never going to happen. And rather than getting like an Esai Morales, someone who was really sexy and good – I just had no idea what he was thinking, the old man [Aaron Spelling]. He was always difficult with minority casting.”
During Vasquez’s two-season run, he served as a roadblock for Zuckerman’s growth and happiness. She was the star student of West Beverly, poised to achieve great things. Instead, she became a teen mom and had to struggle with juggling parenthood and school. The showrunners didn’t do much with Vasquez’s character either, aside from cookie-cutter arguments over religious views and how to raise his daughter with Zuckerman. Being young parents, going to college and law school respectively, raising a child who was born prematurely, and being of two different religions (Zuckerman was Jewish and Vasquez a Catholic) could have served up so many intriguing storylines, however, each scene these two shared together fell flat. It’s as if the writers gave up on Carteris and anyone who fell in her arc.
There was one episode (out of all ten seasons) where the writers went off-brand to explore the conflicts of being brown in a white world, and they used Vasquez as the vessel for this narrative. Titled “Injustice for All”, Vasquez is working as an attorney for a single immigrant father who cannot afford legal representation. His children are taken away from him when the babysitter neglects them. Vasquez lets his frustrations out in a late night discussion with Steve Sanders (Ian Zering).
Sanders, who is reeling from getting court-mandated probation due to a house fire from a rave he hosted, whines to Vasquez, “This system is so screwed up.” To which Vasquez replies, “Now, wait… wait a minute, Steve. The legal system works fine for some people…I’ll just bet that if you weren’t a rich, spoiled white boy, you’d probably be sitting in jail right about now! So, don’t you ever… EVER, again say to me that we have a screwed up system! Is that clear?”
Tell that white boy, Jesse! Aside from one fleeting moment of woke-ness, Vasquez and Zuckerman’s plot sizzled out and they were cast off to Yale University to continue their studies and careers. They eventually divorced as both confessed to cheating on one another. What a waste.
Mark D. Espinoza brought the character of Jesse Vasquez to life the best he could with what little he was given. He’s been able to stretch his acting chops further since 90210, with guest roles on shows such as Mayans M.C., Criminal Minds, and Scandal.