Desi Arnaz, seen in 1955, was one of the first characters to speak Spanish on English-language television.
Desi Arnaz, seen in 1955, was one of the first characters to speak Spanish on English-language television. AP
NPR has recently started a new series called "2 Languages, Many Voices: Latinos In The U.S." Pop culture will be one of many elements the series examines, as it does in a timeline out today, From Ricky Ricardo To Dora: Latinos On Television. While that's a more comprehensive look at everyone from Freddie Prinze to Sofia Vergara, in this short essay, Luis Clemens reflects on why hearing Spanish spoken on television made an impression on him as a kid in Miami. Stay tuned for more from this series.
I remember being wowed the first time I heard Spanish spoken on English-language television. It was a 1970s re-run of an I Love Lucy episode. I do not remember what was said. Just that Ricky Ricardo said it en español. And I remember how it made me feel — wondrous, proud, confused.
I was confused because it was disorienting to hear Spanish used on English-language television. As a Cuban-American kid growing up in Miami, I watched English and Spanish-language television but the two languages didn't overlap on-screen. There was the local newscast and then there was el noticiero local; each in a separate tongue and each with a different worldview.
It made me feel proud to see a Latino actor in a leading role, Desi Arnaz. For many, perhaps for most, Ricky Ricardo was a punch line. His mangled English and thick accent were the subject of recurring jokes to this day. But Arnaz owned that humor. He knew he spoke funny. So what? He knew, too, that an accent didn't make him less of a man or less American.
I admit it may seem silly for a television character to inspire wonder. More so when you consider that, in real life, Arnaz had his share of faults.
But to me, the character and the actor were special because Arnaz/Ricardo adjusted easily to American life while embracing his Cuban culture and music and sabor.
As a child, Ricky spoke to me in a language I could understand. He made Spanish seem special.