Work It Out

In the pilot episode of the now-cancelled Work It television series on ABC, where two guys dress as women in order to get jobs, the character played by actor Amaury Nolasco is pleading with his friend to help him find work at a pharmaceutical company, telling him, “I’m Puerto Rican. I would be great at selling drugs.”

The line drew an immediate negative reaction from many Puerto Ricans, including New York members of Congress Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano, both natives of the island whose majority-Latino congressional districts include many constituents of Puerto Rican descent.

“This is simply unacceptable,” said Velázquez. “ABC needs to apologize.”

A campaign criticizing ABC grew on social media sites, and a grassroots group Boricuas for Positive Image held a demonstration in front of ABC’s Manhattan studios, carrying signs that said “I am Puerto Rican and not a drug dealer.”

Nolasco, a native of Puerto Rico, took to Twitter to defend himself, saying it was not meant to be offensive. “Seems like a few of you felt uncomfortable with a line my character said on #Workit,” he wrote. “I understand your feelings. The show is a comedy and is meant to be viewed in that context. I am proud of our culture and I’ve always strived to uphold the positive image of my beautiful island and our people in both my career and personal lives.”

Congressman Serrano said stereotypes in mainstream media are hurtful. “There is no explanation for allowing an insensitive and hurtful stereotype on a national television network. Puerto Ricans deserve far more respect than to be portrayed in this light in prime time. We demand that this line be edited out of any future version of this program whether online, on rerun, or on DVD. Nothing less than this is acceptable.”

The chances of the controversial line ever showing up again are slim to none, as the show was canceled after only two episodes because of dismal ratings, but there is a larger point to consider about the whole controversy, said Félix Sánchez, a Washington, D.C. lawyer and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, a group whose mission is to advance the presence of Latinos in front and behind the cameras.

“The fault lies with the writers, not the actors. We can’t blame Amaury Nolasco for saying that line. The actors don’t just get up and say something. It doesn’t work like that,” Sánchez told LATINO. “We simply don’t have enough Latinos in writing, producing and directing, in decision-making decisions in Hollywood behind-the-scenes. We haven’t gotten there as much as other groups have.”

Additionally, Sánchez says, the show had debuted already under a cloud of controversy because women’s groups and the LGBT community complained about it. “They are very powerful; when they say something people pay attention. The Latino community is not there yet. We have a long way to go still.” Women groups complained it was blatantly sexist, and before the show even aired, The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) said the premise of Work It was “outdated” and that it should be boycotted. The group took out a full-page ad in the magazine Variety, calling it offensive and with the “potential to jeopardize the safety of many transgender Americans in the process.”

ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said he never understood the controversy. “I didn’t get it. But that’s probably me. We thought there was room for a very, very, very silly show,” he said earlier this year at the annual Television Critics Tour in Pasadena.

The show was also universally panned by critics, quite a difference from the last time a show aired material considered offensive by many Puerto Ricans. In May 1998, the hugely popular, well-written and long-running Seinfeld television show aired an episode depicting one of the characters stomping on a Puerto Rican flag that had caught fire and which caused a near-riot during the Puerto Rican Day Parade. The episode created a furor, with activists sending letters of protest and staging demonstrations. NBC apologized and did not initially include the episode in syndication. In the Seinfeld case, it was a coalition of groups---not just Puerto Rican---that had protested the episode.

“That’s what disappointing about what happened on Work It,” said Sánchez. “It would have been helpful had the gay and lesbian community said something about that line. Many times we are all alone, having to stand up for ourselves.”


Patricia Guadalupe