It was a weird moment for all of us when The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air started its run on Nick at Night. For so many of us, the channel-within-a-channel had been our accidental late-night window into the sitcoms of yesteryear, when each night at 8 p.m. Nickelodeon’s wholesome, kid-oriented programming abruptly gave way to reruns of Mork & Mindy or The Jeffersons. Now, our own beloved childhood memories have become the subject of late-night reruns and nostalgic cultural reappropriations. Such is life. We’re getting old.
But now, as we look back upon that seemingly brighter time, when the colors were bolder (unless you lived in New York, where it was still all black) and we bought our singles on two-sided cassettes, we can begin to appreciate small details that we perhaps couldn’t fully grasp at the time. Let’s start with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: that groundbreaking and boundlessly funny sitcom about a well-to-do African-American family and their street-smart nephew.
Yeah, Latinos were runnin’ that. Okay, “runnin” may not be the best word for it, but few could appreciate at the time that Afro-Latino actors were front and center in one of the most beloved cultural phenomena of the early 90s. Her name was Tatyana Marisol Ali, although most of us remember her as cousin Ashley. Born in Brooklyn, NY, Ali is a classic Brooklyn Afro-Panamanian-Indo-Trinidadian mashup who brought a resplendent smile and buckets of little cousin cuteness to The Fresh Prince’s fictional African-American family.
While we’re at it, we might as well shout out Bronx-born Trini, Alfonso Ribeiro (Deleon), who made argyle sweaters and nerd dancing seem like the apex of cool as Will Smith’s type-A foil, Carlton Banks. Sure, he may not technically be Latino, but Trinidadians are our close cousins, and with a name like that, we’ll take him on the team any day.
Another undercover Afro-Latino who made it into the 90s pop-culture pantheon was green-eyed beauty Stacy Dash, born in the Bronx to an African-American father and Mexican-American mother. She may not be on the top of the Hollywood A-list these days, but her mark was made on the American psyche when she played Cher Horowitz’ co-conspirator and BFF, Dionne Davenport in 1995’s Clueless.
Then there’s Maryland-bred Afro-Panamanian J. August Richards, who after scraping through the 90s with minor roles on sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Family Matters (he even had an appearance on the Clueless TV series), struck gold as vampire hunter Charles Gunn on over 91 episodes of the Buffy spinoff Angel.
Yes, it feels good to know that Latinos were representing in some of the most emblematic portrayals of American life in the 1990s and beyond, even if the roles they played were of African-American characters. Now, almost 20 years on, we can appreciate that it’s easier and easier for Afro-Latinos to land roles being just what they are: Latinos. From Rosario Dawson and Zoe Saldaña to Laz Alonso and Amaury Nolasco, it seems Hollywood is finally moving away from the mustachioed, off-white Latino stereotype of years past and beginning to accept us in all our stunning diversity.
And, to switch things up, we’ll close off with a clip of African-American Brock Peters playing bad boy Latino gangster “Rodriguez” in Sydney Lumet’s East Harlem-set classic, The Pawnbroker. Remember, sometimes it goes both ways.