“Fun, juicy, sexy, glitzy glamoury,” that’s how star and veteran actor John Ortiz describes his new show, Promised Land, a made-up word and all. It’s a boozy soap set in wine country with Ortiz playing the patriarch Joe Sandoval, who’s at the swirling center of five kids, two wives, and one of the largest vineyards in California. And with thirty years of acting under his belt (and founding his own theater company), Ortiz says he feels like he did when he was just starting out: excited, humbled, and grateful to be representing our community.
Back in 1993, he made his debut in Carlito’s Way, a thriller starring Al Pacino as the Puerto Rican Carlito Brigante, trying to escape his criminal past. “Times have changed,” Ortiz declares, “folks are realizing that we not only have to be more inclusionary and diverse in our storytelling, but the manner in which we tell those stories and represent them is of utmost importance… [Pacino] is great. He’s a legend. We all know how wonderful of an actor he is. But he’s not Puerto Rican. So the days of him playing Carlito Brigante are essentially over.” Now shows like Promised Land are “claiming our heritage, claiming our identity” with Latine creatives leading the way both in front of and behind the camera.
Ortiz loves the set, saying it allows him to relax. Too often he’s been the only one, put in the unfair position of having to represent all of Latinidad. But with Promised Land and its multiple Latine characters and storylines, the pressure is lifted. They even jokingly refer to themselves as “la familia,” something Ortiz calls “hokey” but also a sign of everyone’s comfort level. Instead of engaging with cliches, the show can focus on what he calls “the bold, yet simplistic, beating heart of people.”
For his character, that means challenging some mainstays of the culture. Ortiz describes Joe as “old-school” but the writers don’t let him off the hook as just a man-of-his-time. Instead, his trajectory interrogates ideas of toxic masculinity like the consequences around repressing emotions and sacrificing to achieve economic success.
Indeed, Joe’s steep rise from farmworker to winery-owner is part of what makes the part so dynamic for Ortiz. But the show’s Latine creators don’t romanticize or villainize the character, but rather let him breathe, flaws and all. It’s that humanity that Ortiz believes makes the show “not exclusively a Latino immigrant story.”
It’s also what allows him to connect across nationalities – Ortiz is Puerto Rican and the Sandovals are Mexican. And in recognizing that we’re not a monolith, Promised Land furthers that by using creative consultant/dialogue coach Manuel Uriza to make the language authentically Mexican, in terms of slang, word choice, and accents.
The result is a show that deploys the specificity of Mexican immigrants in rural California to tell a fun and important story. There are “tons of twists and turns and surprises” in the show’s “escapist components.” But with its central family, Promised Land is asking viewers to see Mexicans as more than just the stereotypes. According to Ortiz, Promised Land is arguing, “that we have more in common than we [think], that love is stronger, and that healing can happen.” Ultimately, that’s freeing.