Greetings from Tucson is standard family-based sitcom fare, with generally low-budget production values, an overactive laugh track, and passable humor. But if it’s not going to win any awards for breaking generic sitcom molds, it does present non-whiteness as a fact of life, rather than a remarkable event. The only difference between this new series and, say, Growing Pains, is that the family is Mexican American.
Greetings from Tucson is multicultural in two ways. First, the Tiant family is a mix of Irish American through the mother. Elizabeth (Rebecca Creskoff), and Mexican American through father Joaquin (Julio Oscar Mechoso). Second, they’ve moved from the working class to a more upscale existence. The story is that Joaquin was recently promoted at the copper mine, and the family has moved from a working class existence to an upper-middle-class life, in which, as one character points out, there are “birds flying over the house instead of helicopters.”
The series is surely about being Mexican American. (It even has music provided by Los Lobos, America’s favorite Mexican American band.) But it is also about family and class. Greetings from Tucson focuses on a nuclear traditional family, with compassionate, feisty mother Elizabeth; hard-ass, proud patriarch Joaquin; a sassy cheerleader sister Maria (Aimee Garcia); and the youngest, 15-year-old David (Pablo Santos). And, like previous non-white sitcoms (for instance, The Hughleys), the neighbors include clueless white folks, one of whom makes the racist (and classist) assumption that Joaquin and his brother Ernesto (Jacob Vargas) are hired laborers because they are working in the yard. She attempts to make up for this by repeatedly giving the Tiant family baked goods—as though cookies can make up for prejudice.
As this joke (on the neighbor) suggests, Greetings is developing a complicated point of view. It can’t decide if it’s comedy because of being Mexican American or in spite of Mexican American—and that’s one thing working in its favor. We’ve come a long way from laughing at Cuban Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) for being hyper-Hispanic. Now we have a comedy both for and about ethnicity, and about race without too much stereotyping. This ambiguity occasionally costs the comedy, though. Family tenderness isn’t surefire funny, and Greetings tends to obscure the broad class issues that have been milked for humor by past series. It’s as though the Tiants’ former life has been forgotten amid their newfound comfort.
According to the WB, the show is autobiographical for creator Peter Murrieta, which accounts for its understanding of life in a multicultural family, and its focus on young David. In one of the show’s few actually funny lines, David caustically declares, “You know, of all the parts of my Mexican heritage that I’m most proud of, taking the extended family to the mall in one car to buy one item is probably my favorite.”
The item in question is a new suit for David to wear to a cotillion, and it becomes the episode’s focal point. David wants a shiny gold sharkskin suit, but his father wants him to wear a more “respectable” dull brown suit. The two suits represent the difficult decisions facing the Tiant family, with the sharkskin standing in for their lower class, “authentic” but also stereotypically flashier Mexican American background (and David’s desire to resist “assimilation”), and the brown suit symbolizing staid, upwardly mobile white America.
But these categories aren’t as fixed as they were in I Love Lucy, or even in the movin’ on up world of The Jeffersons. It is telling that David ends up with no suit at all: he doesn’t even make it to the dance, and is upset because he feels he let down his date. David isn’t identified as stereotypical Mexican American, or as stereotypical Anglo American, and neither he nor his father get what they want out of the suit episode. David refuses categorization; he can’t be neatly fit into one niche or the other, expanding what it means to be “Mexican American”—or “American” for that matter.
Along with the PBS series American Family and Showtime’s Resurrection Boulevard, Greetings is contributing to the “new” racial mix on television. Greetings appears on the WB, which, along with UPN and Fox, is where most shows featuring non-white characters appear. These networks openly aim for markets traditionally ignored by the big three, such as youth, black Americans, and now Hispanic Americans. The WB rarely sees ratings at the level of, say, NBC. But ratings and actual comic value aside, Greetings from Tucson is a welcome addition to TV’s largely white landscape.