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, Texas 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 -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!" 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 October 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 boys."
Taking this scene in 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 prime time 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 American dream.