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Latino TV personalities juggle a bilingual stage

For energetic young hosts like LATV's Pili Montilla and MTV Tr3s' Carlos Santos, their playful Spanish-English fusion comes spiked with a dose of media savvy.

October 04, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal

They say things like "Antes de la break" and "Mira que cute." One is a clownish, Puerto Rican-born 28-year-old who ditched studying engineering to pursue a career in entertainment, another is an outspoken SoCal native who once had a penchant for crashing cars. The Spanglish? It just comes naturally.

They're a new generation of Latino television personalities: attractive, plugged in and conversant not only in Spanglish argot but in a complex, shifting culture. Their employers believe they are offering young viewers a cool, and marketable, connection to this culture. Don Francisco, cuidado.

With U.S.-born Latinos accounting for more than 60% of all Latinos in the country, according to recent census data, a group of bilingual networks has arisen in the last few years to tap into an audience interested in bicultural programming.

In a fragmented media environment in which young viewers can watch mainstream and Spanish-language media, channels MTV Tr3s, mun2, SiTV and LATV aim to bridge the gap between American culture and the roots of their youthful -- and sometimes out-of-touch -- viewers. In August, mun2 achieved its best numbers since it was launched eight years ago with the broadcast of the U.S.A. versus Mexico qualifying soccer match for the World Cup; the game averaged 322,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. With the help of teen telenovela "Isa TKM," MTV Tr3s ranked No. 2 among Hispanic females ages 12-17 for a week in August, second only to Disney Channel at the 5-6 p.m. time slot.

From telenovelas and in- vestigative documentaries to sports programming and shows highlighting the latest in American and Latin music, the networks offer a variety of programming to compete with all networks, not just with one another and not just Spanish-language programming, says Jose Tillan, general manager of New York-based MTV Tr3s.

"Our audience is a hybrid of all markets," agrees Alex Pels, general manager of mun2in Universal City. "They're people who live in both worlds and are comfortable in both worlds. They can tune in to a telenovela one hour and 'Family Guy' the next. Networks like ours are a one-stop destination for the bicultural viewer."

The multicultural approach is appealing to advertisers hoping to tap into the expanding Hispanic market. LATV counts Honda, McDonald's, T-Mobile, Wrigley and the U.S. Army among its advertisers, while MTV Tr3s features Toyota, Target and Verizon Wireless. "It is unrealistic to expect a single-language strategy to work successfully for the entire Hispanic consumer market," says Laura Sonderup, director of Heinrich Hispanidad, an ad agency in Denver.

The style of these young, upwardly mobile entertainers -- from their wardrobe to the shows they watch -- reflects the juggling that millions face every day in an effort to maintain their Latin roots while living in the U.S. Born in America or elsewhere, they each add a different flavor to the audience.

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Don't typecast her

She may have flowing blond locks, but don't call Pili Montilla a gringa -- it gets her slightly upset. Just ask Akwid. The L.A.-based Chicano urban rap duo made the mistake -- on camera -- of insinuating her golden mane was an attempt to be more American.

But Montilla didn't stay mum on-air. "I was so glad it happened that way," she says. "I called them out. They're actually digging a hole for Latinos by sticking to the stereotypes." Before she was interviewing Latin music artists for LATV, Montilla was a Jane-of-all-trades in her homeland of Puerto Rico: soap opera ingenue, theater actress, radio show host and MTV Puerto Rico personality. "I had basically done everything I could within that market," Montilla says.

There wasn't actually an opening for a new host at LATV, but a determined Montilla found executive producer Lalo Marron's contact information online and sent him her resume. And it worked. She began as a correspondent in Puerto Rico and eventually landed the gig here.

She now hosts the music program "En la Zona" and "En Concierto," where she interviews artists such as Calle 13 and Luis Fonsi for a half-hour in front of a live audience.

"We're an alternative for the alternative Latino," Montilla says. "We're for those people who don't want to see girls in tangas shaking their booty. The networks like Channel 62 . . . they are criticizing the Latino. They're stereotyping us and they're saying we can't be challenged intellectually."

So she's offering her hosting skills to provide that stimulation. "There are people on TV, like me, who want to help the youth get reconnected," she says. "We're telling them, 'You know what? You're welcome in both cultures. Embrace both cultures and be happy in both. It's 2009. You can't just be attached to one thing. . . . The more you know, the better."

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A Latin Seacrest?

Carlos Santos salsa dances with Beyonce. He does skits with Paulina Rubio. Daddy Yankee? Yup. He knows him too.

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