Several years ago, I met a man with an extraordinary story.
"Ernesto" (since he would request anonymity, I'm not using his real name)
was a Mexican who had migrated to the States and applied for citizenship.
Living in Houston and waiting for final approval, Ernesto worked day and
night at three jobs, doing the kind of menial, minimum-wage labor -- washing
dishes in a restaurant late at night, delivering newspapers early in the
morning, and odd work here and there in between the two -- that no one else
wanted to do.
Saving his money meticulously, Ernesto finally accumulated
enough to open his own business with a little shop making spare parts for
aircraft. For him it was the American dream, but now he needed contracts.
Ernesto learned the U.S. Navy was requesting bids for spare parts for a
helicopter, so he tendered one. In time, a bureaucrat from Washington called
to tell him the application was filed incorrectly, that surely Ernesto meant
to submit an "8-A" minority bid. This, the man told him helpfully, would
guarantee Ernesto the job. Ernesto's answer was a classic: "You mean all I
have to do is declare that I'm a social cripple, a Mexican (END
ITAL) -American who's not quite American?"
No, no, the government agent answered, it's not like that. He
explained that Ernesto was competing against the behemoth Bell Helicopter
Corporation for this contract and simply wouldn't stand a chance unless he
went the minority status route, in which case it was all but guaranteed he'd
win the bid. Ernesto was undeterred. "I am an American (END
ITAL)!" he insisted. As a matter of principle he refused to change his
application, and his American dream came true. The formerly penniless day
laborer won, fair and square, a multi-million dollar contract.
It was a remarkable tale of perseverance, of achievement, the
kind of rags-to-riches, local-boy-makes-it-big story one never seems to hear
about anymore, especially in Hollywood, where all would-be successful
businessmen are portrayed on television as scheming J.R. Ewings. I told
Ernesto he was a true role model for all immigrants and his story was the
stuff of a made-for-TV movie but Hollywood, unfortunately, would never
appreciate the message.
Well, I was wrong. Now comes "The George Lopez Show" on ABC, and
it does just that. It stars comic George Lopez as a supervisor at a small
airplane-parts manufacturer. Amazingly, it is not too far from the field, or
the attitude, of Ernesto.
After years on the factory assembly line, George has only a few
months under his belt as management. At the Oct. 9 show's beginning, George
is crowing about a big presentation he's going to deliver in a business
meeting. But when he arrives with his papers and a laser pointer, corporate
reality hits. His two bosses say they just wanted him to bring the papers
and tell him to sit outside. The meeting, they explain, is only for "the big
Taking in this scene is a black man named Ben Adams, who works
for an airplane conglomerate called Aerocorp. Ben offers George the chance
to work at his place, where George can earn more money and receive the
self-respect he deserves. Touring the Aerocorp plant with Ben, George
notices that he's only being shown the executive dining room, the gym and
the putting green. He asks, "Where do you make the planes?" Ben dismisses
the need to examine the factory line, then adds that it's not even necessary
to conduct a formal interview. George is stunned. "Isn't there anything you
want to know about me, my background, my experience? What was it about me
that interested you in the first place?"
Ben hesitates, then replies, "Your name ... You know, it's a
numbers game. We need someone like you in the executive ranks if we're going
to land the government contracts." George protests that they don't seem to
care if he can do the job, but Ben waves the concern aside explaining that
they need a "dark brown Mexican hermano." He suggests all the benefits of
the new regime. Why, George can insult the CEO and not get fired! He can
even "grab a smoothie on the white man's dime."
George won't have it, insisting he'd rather work on the assembly
line forever than be someone's token minority. He returns to his old job and
patches up with his bosses, who promise to make him a respected manager.
Minority-group activists have pressed Hollywood to make
minorities more visible on primetime TV. If this is Hollywood's answer,
hooray for Hollywood. If this series is designed to attract a Latino
audience, I wish it all the success in the world. But I hope it garners a
larger following than that because its message transcends the Latino
audience. It's a message about universal human aspirations toward an