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Latins Anonymous Is More Than Name : Comedy: Troupe wants to work within the system, breaking through color barriers on television.


LOS ANGELES — Latino media invisibility may be a much-discussed topic, but hardly anyone agrees on the solution. For the comedy quartet known as Latins Anonymous, the answer isn't guerrilla warfare, nor even picket lines.

"We're not militant," admits Luisa Leschin. "We do not want to slam the system. We absolutely feel that we want to be a part of it and that we should be a part of it, and yet we feel excluded."

"We have a credo about being positive, about effecting change and saying that there is hope," adds Armando Molina. "We're not saying we can't do anything about the way things are. We're not victims. There's plenty of room and a huge void (in television and film) and we'd be more than happy to fill it."

Their new stage show, in fact, spoofs the industry by using one of its own rituals. "The LA LA LA Awards," a.k.a. "The Los Angeles Latins Anonymous Lifetime Achievement Awards," recently ended a run in Los Angeles and is set to run for three weeks at the San Diego Repertory Theater, beginning Jan. 20.

All is not rosy, though, at the LA LA LAs. That's because as celebratory as these glitzy award shows tend to be, they also fester some wounds.

"You go to the Desi Awards and it's glamorous," says Diane Rodriguez, referring to the recent nationally broadcast event that was taped at the Wiltern and featured a wide range of familiar Latino talents. "You sit there and think there's nothing wrong, that we're totally on a roll and successful. You become mesmerized by these images. Well, it's just a big lie."

"You go to the Emmys, and there're not any brown faces," adds Leschin, who grew up in Guatemala and New York. "Latinos were just not there. A four-hour Emmy show: Ruben Blades is nominated and that's it."

"Within the context of an awards show, our show is a look at the relationship between Latinos and the media right up to the moment--so of course it had to be a comedy," adds Cris Franco.

That's not to say, though, that the problem of Latino scarcity on special-event television is any different than in other quarters of American life. "The two go hand in hand," says Molina. "Once you start becoming a part of the entertainment palette, though, it'll start to spill over. TV is just the clearest metaphor in terms of what we don't have."

The original quartet of Latins Anonymous--Leschin, Molina, Rodriguez and Rick Najera--met in a theater workshop in 1987 and formed the group the following year. The first show, an autobiographically inspired panoply of sketches about Latino identity in a media-dominated society, has played in seven regional theaters since that time.

Recently, Najera took a leave of absence to write for "In Living Color" and Franco, a writer who's currently on hiatus from "El Show de Paul Rodriguez," has taken his place. Ironically, when Franco came on board, he had just completed writing the Desi Awards--although he didn't know that Latins Anonymous was developing a piece based on an award show parody, which is being directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela.

"It's a format that everybody understands," says the Mexican- born but L.A.-raised Franco, who quips that he's worked for "every failed Latino sitcom." "We are all media literate and that lets you structure your point of view around it."

Although Franco is the most experienced in matters TV, the other members of Latins Anonymous have also had some first-hand dealings with the gaping maw of show biz. Prior to this year, the group had a television deal for an ABC show. Although the contract ended up stretching out over two seasons, the pilot they wrote was never shot.

That hasn't soured the group on TV, though, and many of "The LA LA LA Awards" setups come straight off the tube. There is, for instance, a parody of TV personality Cristina, who's nominated for best talk-show host.

"The LA LA LA Awards" includes fictional sendups of two Cristina segments. In the first, Cristina/Leschin interviews a middle-class Latino family in Glendale, asking them how they were affected by the April-May unrest. In another, she questions a Pico-Union clan about the same issues--only she isn't as compassionate with these folks as she was with the bourgeois household.

Yet "The LA LA LA Awards" doesn't stick with the show itself. After the requisite dance number, the action switches perspective, flipping to backstage.

"On one level, the show is a parody of everything that goes on at every single awards show--how self-serving it is and how it's always the same celebrities," says Leschin.

It's also an excuse for a more comprehensive analysis. "It's about the relationship between the haves and the have-nots," explains Molina, who grew up in Queens and is of Colombian descent. "The award show itself represents the haves, the people who have access to the media. And the have-nots are represented by the people backstage, everybody who has to support this particular event. We show the juxtaposition."

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