Remembering When A.C. Slater Became a Chicano Activist on ‘Saved by the Bell’

Mario Lopez attends the NBC Boston Health & Fitness Expo sponsored by Celsius at Hynes Convention Center on June 12, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Gail Oskin/Getty Images for Celsius

We all know Saved By the Bell as the campy ’90s Saturday morning sitcom that revolved around Zach Morris and his group of friends. While the Bayside pals were always up to G-rated antics, the show didn’t delve too much into the social concerns of teens. Sure, there was Jessie Spano’s caffeine pill addiction storyline and her overly dramatic breakdown but other than a handful of “special” episodes the writers didn’t get too deep.

That is until Saved by the Bell: The College Years where resident jock A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) learns that he is Chicano. Now, The College Years was canceled after one season (and for good reason), but you gotta give the writers props for trying to tackle racial identity and portraying Slater’s newfound wokeness.

Titled “Slater’s War,” the episode begins (like all The College Years ones do) with Zach trying to get laid. This time, it’s with his dormmate, Leslie, as he plans an impromptu ski weekend in Lake Tahoe. Of course, Slater is down for the trip and has to find a date. Enter Theresa Alvarez, a student in his journalism class where the topic of the day is reporting in the media without bias. Slater immediately sets his sights on this Latina beauty and sits behind her. She turns around and starts speaking to him in Spanish as if they’re old pals. When Slater confesses that he doesn’t understand what she’s saying, she’s shocked. Undeterred, Slater asks her to lunch after class, but we quickly learn that she has other things on her mind like rallying for Chicano studies at Cal U. “Mexican-Americans are ignored in the media and we need an independent Chicano studies class,” she tells Slater. He couldn’t care less about what she’s saying and is more interested in locking her down for the ski trip in Tahoe.

“I just think of myself as an American,” he tells Theresa. She replies, “Knowing where you come from doesn’t make you less of an American, it makes you more of a person.” Boom! We see Slater wake up and realize he’s brown.

Theresa invites him to a meeting later that day where other Latino students will be discussing how to get a Chicano studies program at the school. “It might do you some good to be among your own people. Don’t you think it’s time to stop ignoring your roots?”

As it all sinks in, Slater becomes super defensive towards white people. Later that day, as he’s bussing tables at the Falcon Nest, Zach comes to tell him that he found a date for him for the ski trip. “She has blonde hair and blue eyes, just your type!” he says. “Why do you think that’s my type?” Slater responds critically. Now that he’s Chicano, he doesn’t have time for white girls. Anyway, he doesn’t have time to think about the ski trip because he’s going to an important meeting tonight. Zach doesn’t understand why he wants to go to some boring meeting about Chicano studies, but Slater snaps back, “Because I’m Chicano, in case you never noticed!”

At the meeting, we see that central casting really put in the effort because Latinos were representing. After learning that the school doesn’t want to create a Chicano studies program, Slater suggests staging a sit-in at the Chancellor’s office the night of the ski trip. This pisses Zach off because he’s a self-centered misogynist who only cares about getting into Leslie’s pants.

“Why did you have to pick this weekend to be Chicano?” Zach whines. “You still don’t get it,” Slater hits back. He then goes on to school Zach that he just learned his real last name is Sanchez. That’s right. He’s Albert Clifford Sanchez. His father changed his surname 25 years prior to get into the military academy. His dad felt he had to hide his heritage to be accepted, and Slater – I mean, Sanchez – doesn’t want to hide it anymore.

Zach responds like the true ass he is with, “If you want to be a Chicano, be a Chicano, just be one in Lake Tahoe.” Sanchez is not about to cancel something this important for a ski trip and storms out.

At the sit-in, the Latino background actors are really working their screen time while Zach enters the room. He tries to be the white savior by blurting out, “These people have something to say. You may not agree with them, and I may not agree with them, but at least they have the right to be heard.”

Thanks, Zach. No one asked for your opinion and it wasn’t needed because the Chancellor had already decided to speak with the coalition the next morning. All it proved was that Zach is a privileged ass who still doesn’t get it. But it was enough for Slater (Sanchez) to accept his half-hearted apology.

It’s too bad The College Years had to end because it would have been amazing to see Slater really embrace his Latino roots, make new brown friends, and quote hard-core Chicano poets while bussing tables at the Falcon Nest.