How Benjamin Bratt Changed the Representation of Peruvian-Americans on TV

Benjamin Bratt at the U.S. Premiere of Disney-Pixar’s 'Coco' at El Capitan Theatre on November 8, 2017. Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

Throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, there were reruns on U.S. television of a series that starred a Peruvian character–perhaps the most internationally known English-speaking Peruvian character of all time. He was brown, wore a blue coat, and really really loved marmalade. He was from the “deepest, darkest” Peru, and made his way to England to seek a better life, since his retired aunt could no longer care for him. His name was Paddington–and Paddington was a bear.

As a Peruvian-American kid in the ‘90s, I thought a playful, curious Andean bear on TV was pretty cool. After all, how many countries can claim anthropomorphic bears as their own? Plus, the thought of relating to a character on an English-speaking TV series never crossed my mind. Representation in real life was already non-existent. In the Los Angeles area, I rarely came across other Peruvians who weren’t my own family.

Peruvians in the U.S. are the 11th largest group of Hispanic origin–making up a whopping 1.2 percent of Latinos as of 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. And, about one-third of that sliver were born in the U.S. Despite being a small minority of the population images of Peruvians appeared on-screen in the early days of Hollywood. Yet, it wasn’t until Benjamin Bratt starred in the Emmy-nominated role of Detective Reynaldo Curtis in the ‘95-’99 seasons of Law & Order that a Peruvian-American character appeared on television in the United States and wasn’t exoticized due to his ethnicity.

In 2005, Johanna Botta joined the cast of MTV’s The Real World: Austin. I was 17, impressionable and in complete awe to see a California-raised Peruvian girl on a show I actually watched. It was the first time I remember seeing someone be their Peruvian-American English-speaking self on TV.

In 2016, Gilmore Girls found its way back into the headlines nine years after its last episode aired when the show confirmed a four-episode revival on Netflix. But the announcement made its way into my social media streams because of one line: “We’ll meet Berta and Alejandro, a Peruvian couple.” Alas, it wasn’t much. What could’ve been a win for Peruvian representation on U.S. television ended up being “Gyspy [played by Rose Abdoo] in a bad curly wig.”

“The best entertainment gives you an escape and exposes truths. Jahil’s character will give us a platform to address important social issues for the Latino community.”

But all was not lost.

At the end of 2016, Empire creator Lee Daniels released his girl group musical drama series Star featuring Queen Latifah and our favorite Peruvian, Benjamin Bratt. The show is currently in its second season. With Empire and Star, Daniels has put people of color in lead roles and hasn’t been afraid to make casting choices that are true to the characters. Star actress Amiyah Scott is one of the few openly trans actors to play a major trans character (Cotton Brown) in a scripted television drama in the U.S.

As for Bratt’s character: “[Bratt] requested his character to be Peruvian. Lee Daniels believes that the best storytelling comes from art mirroring real life. You get a raw performance when an actor can personally relate to a fictitious character. I think it becomes a bridge, the mirror between raw life and great art,” Moisés Zamora, writer for Star, told Remezcla.

There’s just one thing–Bratt doesn’t exactly play a redeemable character. Jahil Rivera is a charming, but shady, Atlanta-based talent manager who starts off the series by becoming the manager of a hot new girl group, and spoiler alert, loses his position due to unforeseen events. A character loosely based on the show’s creator Lee Daniels. Jahil has no interest in trying to kick his cocaine habit, and continually deals with money problems (the latter being relatable to a certain extent). In a way, it was predictable. According to a 2016 report fom Columbia’s Media and Idea Lab, between the 2008-2009 and the 2014-2015 seasons, the number of Latinos playing stereotypical roles like maids, cops, gang bangers, and drug addicts increased from 34 to 52.5 percent.

Naomi Campbell, Lee Daniels, Jude Demorest and Benjamin Bratt attend a reception for Fox’s ‘Star.’ Photo by Al Periera. Courtesy of Fox
Read more

I have faith that Bratt (and the writers) will take his character and continue to make sure he’s well developed and humanized with his storyline. It’s hard to root for representation when Peru continually is connected with cocaine, like it is in every rap song. But what I can root for is Bratt requesting to play his second Peruvian-American character on U.S. TV and the small moments in the script where the distinction is made that his character is “not Mexican.”

In the first episode of the series, Jahil’s Latinidad doesn’t come into play, but his last name is Rivera, so you just assume Latino. It isn’t until the second episode where Miss Bruce (Miss Lawrence) playfully throws shade at Jahil, calling him a “trifling Mexican,” that Carlotta (Queen Latifah) corrects her, and casually mentions that he’s “from Peru.” My mouth dropped the first time I heard it. Bratt playing a Peruvian character gave me life.

“We may not have a lot of opportunities to explore the subject, but it’s always wonderful to be able to address that not all Latinos are Mexican,” said Zamora, the only Latino in the writers’ room for Star.

The topic came up again in one of the season’s most sincere and touching moments: the reveal that Cotton (Amiyah Scott) is Jahil’s child. The conversation went like this:

Jahil: “You know, you remind me of my mother. You look like her, too.”
Cotton: “See, I always wondered where I got this good hair from. I’m half-Mexican.”
Jahil: [laughs] “Actually, I’m from Peru.”
Cotton: “Oh.”
Jahil: “You Peruvian.”
Cotton: “Okay, I could be that, too.”

It was a sweet bonding moment between the two characters where Cotton finds out she’s part Latina. At the end of season one, the tally for Peruvian characters ends at two. And in 2017, Star’s second season introduced even more Peruvians.

“At the beginning of the second season, the current season, we meet Jahil’s brother and nephew. At first, we thought it would’ve been great to have them be in Peru, but as we continued to the develop the story beats for the rest of the season, it made more sense to keep Jahil and his family in the United States,” said Zamora. “That’s why we meet them in Miami. However, Jahil’s back story will be explored further and it’ll open the door to more complex and fascinating Latino characters in our show.”

Although Zamora himself isn’t of Peruvian descent, he makes sure to reach out to his network to learn how he could continue in helping make Jahil authentically Peruvian. “I’m Mexican-American. Luckily, my Latino network of friends and family is widely represented, so when it came down to getting authentic Peruvian slang for one of Jahil’s scenes, I consulted with a Peruvian friend to make sure the dialogue sounded fresh and specifically Peruvian,” said Zamora. “I learned the new word: chorear.”

Star is currently in the middle of its second season, and in October, Fox ordered five more episodes to round out season two with 18 episodes.

“Jahil’s back story will be explored in the second half of season two,” said Zamora. “In today’s political climate, it’s impossible to ignore what’s going on in real life. The best entertainment gives you an escape and exposes truths. Jahil’s character will give us a platform to address important social issues for the Latino community.”

As for a Peruvian presence on U.S. television, as long as actors and writers keep advocating for diverse characters, we’ll have a chance to see all groups represented. Because amongst the nearly 58 million Latinos living in this country, Peruvians–even though they only make up 1.2 percent–want to be seen too.