There’s a great scene in Spike Lee’s 2006 movie Inside Man, when cops, frustrated by their inability to identify a foreign language, simply play the audio to a random gathering of New Yorkers until a guy on the street recognizes it: His ex-wife is from Albania, and that’s the language she speaks with her parents. When the ex-wife is summoned, she’s a spitfire who speaks perfect English, with a charming Albanian accent. It’s a wonderful reminder that even in a melting pot like New York City, many immigrant families speak the language of the old country at home.
This week’s Grimm is the best mainstream acknowledgment of our multilingual nation that I’ve seen on network television. The detectives on the NBC series, described by Wikipedia as a “police procedural fantasy television drama,” typically battle a ghoul of the week, and for the Halloween episode that monster is La Llorona, a weeping woman who steals children in Mexican folklore.
The case takes them into the home of a Mexican-American whose son has disappeared with a mysterious woman in white, and since he doesn’t speak English, the episode features lots of Spanish dialogue. When Spanish-speaking characters talk together, there are usually English subtitles. When they are trying to communicate with English speakers, we hear what they’re saying through an interpreter. And sometimes, when they’re trying to talk to someone who does not know Spanish, and there’s no interpreter available—the Portland, Ore., police department’s Spanish-language specialist happens to be on vacation—we just hear the Spanish, and we see how difficult and frustrating such language barriers can be. And the stakes are high: Time is wasted when cops could be looking for the missing child. These scenes were nearly as powerful as the communication challenges that some deaf characters face on ABC Family’s moving Switched at Birth.*
The Mexican-American characters have their own culture, but the differences are subtle. When the cops visit the Alvarez family home, they comment on the Halloween decorations, and the interpreter—who is also the main detective’s girlfriend—politely points out that they’re actually commemorating Day of the Dead. And it’s refreshing to have a Latino character shown on TV in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood amid a supportive community.
The legend of La Llorona is a perfect choice for a show that’s trying to broaden its appeal to Latino viewers. Though it’s usually said to originate in Mexico, the story is employed, boogeyman-style, across Central and Southern America, in an attempt to get kids to behave. (Oddly enough, it was used—as “the woman in white”—in the pilot episode of the WB/CW series Supernatural.) “La Llorona” is also a famous Latin American folk song recorded by numerous artists. Middle-aged Anglos are perhaps most likely to know Joan Baez’s version, while slightly younger folks may remember Chavela Vargas’ performance in the 2002 movie Frida.
NBC is also smartly taking advantage of corporate synergy with the “La Llorona” episode of Grimm, which features Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. Del Castillo is probably best known to English speakers for her role as Pilar on Weeds, but she recently had a huge hit on NBCUniversal’s Telemundo channel playing a drug queenpin in the telenovela La Reina del Sur. And in a fabulous bit of cross-promotion, tonight’s episode will be shown in Spanish on Telemundo next Monday at 11:35 p.m.
Spanish-language television has been booming in recent years: Telemundo’s audience is growing fast, and the 800-kilo gorilla of the category, Univision, regularly outperforms English-language networks. Many of the folks who watch the telenovelas and news shows on Telemundo and Univision also speak English. But watching television, like using a first language, is something we often do with family members. It seems that TV networks are starting to recognize that: Univision recently launched UVideos, a bilingual catch-up service that makes the network’s shows available with English subtitles. And with this episodio muy especial of Grimm, Telemundo is closing the gap between English- and Spanish-language viewers.
* Correction, Oct. 26, 2012: This story originally used the wrong title for the ABC Family show Switched at Birth.