SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read if you haven’t watched the premiere of “Promised Land” on ABC or Hulu.
You could say that Matt Lopez was born to be the first to break new ground at ABC as the creator of a multi-generational series about a wealthy, intertwined Latino family vying for power and prestige in the Sonoma Valley.
Armed with the lived experience of the Latin American diaspora as the grandson of a Cuban immigrant – as well as a keen business acumen and training in corporate legalese from his days as a Lawyer for DreamWorks before getting into writing through the Disney Writers program — Lopez weaved a web of immigration issues and telenovela storylines in ‘Promised Land.’ While injecting heart and authenticity into a narrative that oscillates between “East of Eden” and “Days of Our Lives” levels of family drama, the creator and executive producer challenges stereotypes about Latinos in the United States. United, as well as assumptions about what themes Latin American shows “should” address.
Much of the strength of “Promised Land” is its cast, which is almost entirely 100% Latino – John Ortiz, Mariel Molino, Andres Velez, Christina Ochoa, star Cecilia Suárez, as well as Bellamy Young. The crew and writers room is also almost entirely Latino, a rarity for an English-language American network.
Lopez sat down with Variety to discuss how the portrayal of Latin and Hispanic heritage on “Promised Land” is like an aromatic glass of wine from the Sandoval vineyard – rich, complex and nuanced – and the pressures to ensure these notes translate with taste and authenticity on screen.
What is the meaning of the title “Promised Land”?
I feel like there’s something Dickens, Steinbeck, in the sense that the series and the title itself are grounded. The word “land” is in the title, and it’s a show about people working the land. One thing that my research on winemaking families, especially these old Napa and Sonoma families that have been in the business for two, three, sometimes four generations, is that they are farmers, through and through. Even the richest. They may clean well and attend formal events and galas, but at the end of the day, they are farmers with a deep connection to the land and to that aspect of the promise of the American dream. And that aspect of the American Dream is also part of the immigrant experience, which is integral to the show. Immigrants to this country, many of whom are Latino, are living the ideals and promise of the American Dream as well as, if not better than, people whose families have been here for generations. And I include my own immigrant family in that group, because we’ve been here for about three generations.
This show is about Latino families vying for power in California, but you noted earlier that Steinbeck and Dickens were two of the storyline muses. Could you talk more about that?
Dickens is a huge inspiration to me and to the scope of the show. From the first days that I started developing this idea at ABC, I knew that I didn’t want “Promised Land” to be another soap opera or another telenovela. It seems inevitable to draw those parallels, you know, given that this is an hour-long drama with an almost all-Latin cast. People want to give it the telenovela label, and on the one hand, I don’t reject it. “Promised Land” plays in some of the waters of the genre and does it very comfortably – it has a beautiful vineyard, the actors are handsome, and so on. There are twists and intrigues, but we yearn for something more than the modern telenovela, and that’s where Steinbeck and the Dickens come in. Dickens’s novels were truly popular “peak hour” entertainment. listening” from its peak, and they have just as much drama as what we see on television today. He also wrote many of his great works episodically. But, at the same time, in terms of depth of character and in terms of richness of themes, “Promised Land” goes for something far more than what is typically applied to Latino family tales on American television. Obviously, there are great works of literature and shows in Latinx and Spanish, but not so much on English TV channels.
The cast is almost 100% Latino – why is it important to have this level of authenticity in on-screen representation on one of the major English-language networks? How does it feel to carry the weight and responsibility of being one of the first creators of ABC shows to take on this?
Getting to know this cast and collaborating with the cast was perhaps the most rewarding part of the entire series making experience. I call them collaborators because they brought such a level of complexity and richness from their own lives to the show. I’m a third-generation Cuban-American from Tampa, but that’s only part of the immigrant experience, isn’t it? But, there is someone like Rolando Chusan, who plays young Billy, who came here from Ecuador. It’s an entirely different immigrant perspective than mine, and you can see both perspectives reflected on the show and in both timelines. I’ve always had this idea of portraying the immigrant experience from two different points in the journey and seeing how one set of characters morphs into another set of characters, with all the costs incurred along the way. Our casting director, Veronica Collins Rooney – who, despite those two Irish surnames, is Mexican-American – wanted, at first, to cast all Mexican-Americans but, strictly on the base level of actor availability, he became increasingly clear that this ambition was going to be extremely difficult to follow. So, we said, okay, let’s get the best Latino actors, regardless of their roots. We had such a wonderful experience because we ended up with actors from all over the Latino and Hispanic diaspora – we have Spaniards, we have a Cuban, we have Puerto Ricans, we have Mexicans, we have South Americans and Center, and I like to say that John Ortiz is from the Latin American Republic of Brooklyn. It was just fantastic because, I think we often know as Latinos that we come from different cultures and countries, and we often celebrate – and rightly so – those many differences between us and the pride that we have for our own backgrounds, but I think sometimes what gets overlooked in doing this is our many commonalities, not just in language, which is the most superficial, but in experience, food, family and culture. I think it also allowed the actors to play their characters in all their richness and complexity.
There’s also LGBTQ representation on the show, which we don’t see much of on network TV that has programs in English or Spanish.
It’s true, and it’s something I take very seriously. It grew out of experiences in my own life, and I wanted to challenge some assumptions that we constantly have about Latino families in Season 1. One assumption is that all Latino families are patriarchal, and a lot of between them certainly are. With the Sandovals, as you see in Episode 2 and more as the show goes on, there’s a matriarchal aspect to the show with Lettie’s character. So that’s a hypothesis I hope to address. Another hypothesis concerns LGBTQ representation, with the character of Antonio. I’m tired of the trope of the stern Latino father who says, “Oh! Homosexuality is a sin, get out of my house! And, look, this story is sadly true for many, and it’s often worn out, so I didn’t want to tell it again. When Antonio tells the story of what led to their spinoff, his dad, Joe, basically tells him that he can sleep with whoever he wants, but there are certain assumptions that people make in the industry, and he therefore wanted her son to basically stay in the closet in public and in front of non-family people. So in Joe’s mind he didn’t understand what the problem was, but of course Antonio was upset because he wasn’t allowed to live authentically as himself.
There’s a shocking revelation at the end of the first episode that unites these warring families in a unique way.
So essentially there are two brothers who basically fall in love with the same woman and, as we’ll see unfold in the first season tapestry, end up with one of them. In the current timeline, one of those men, Billy, returns under the guise of “Father Ramos,” and what led to this choice following a breakup, as we’ll see in the past timeline. We will also see how Joe, who climbed the wall with Lettie, ends up with young Margaret Honeycroft, who is the daughter of the original owner of the vineyard. There’s been intermarriage and mixed heritage from the beginning, and it’s been a wonderful lens through which to look at the immigrant experience. It is very common in mixed Latin American families to see the push and pull that occurs during the assimilation process. There is a cost to this assimilation, sometimes in terms of family, in terms of culture, language maintenance, etc., and we see all of this playing out in both timelines. I hope many viewers will be able to see reflections of their own family on screen.
Many of the shows we see these days about rich siblings — “Succession,” “Righteous Gemstones,” “Yellowstone” — have siblings who are constantly trying to tear each other apart. But, you see in “Promised Land” that there is genuine love between these siblings and cousins, despite the business fights going on.
Yeah, that’s something we talked about a lot in the writers room – we wanted to let them be bratty, and be petty and venal, because why do Latinos always have to be noble and humble, or cartel? It’s always one extreme or the other. You see a lot of this in the character of Carmen, in particular, who is quite conceited and superficial, which often leads to her not being taken seriously. She is underestimated by the other people in her family, and I would say also by herself, and as the season progresses, we see that she goes quite a way towards self-fulfillment. From my own experience with my family, even when there are rivalries and even when the daggers come out, there is love behind it. Antonio for example teams up with his mother and tries to bring down his father, but he’s not fueled by resentment and anger, or a desire for revenge, he’s mostly fueled by his need to win his father’s love. dad. And his dad happens to be the kind of man who will only come to love and respect Antonio if he can be as badass as him and bring him down – or, at least, that’s how. ‘Antonio sees this. We put pressure on a lot of the assumptions he has about his own father and his own siblings. Look, I mean, “Succession” is a work of art and this show is fantastic, and I think “Promised Land” certainly has some of its elements, but I also think it’s a bit more of a show for the heart rather than the head.
This interview has been edited and condensed.