Saturday nights for Latinos are usually family nights, and the variety show Sábado Gigante – the Miami-based Spanish-language hybrid of Benny Hill, Saturday Night Live and The Price is Right, which aired across the Americas for 53 years – has long been a big part of that. I didn’t watch the show of my own volition too much after immigrating to the US as a child (I was a nerd who preferred to read books), but it was often on at home following the family meal on Saturday evenings; if we had friends and family over at our apartment on Saturday night, spending time with them meant watching the show. If I happened to be at a friend’s house on a Saturday night, watching the show was a big part of our entertainment.
Sábado Gigante always gave America’s diverse Latinos a shared pop culture vernacular; for immigrant families, it gave us something to connect to with family back home. As long as they had televisions and understood Spanish, a grandmother living in El Salvador, a cousin living in the Dominican Republic, and an uncle living in Paraguay could all share a common reference point with family members living in the US and Canada – much like strangers use Twitter now to talk about Scandal or Game of Thrones.
And, for second generation Latinos who discreetly agonize over our Spanish language attrition. Spanish might be the first language we learned growing up in Latin America, or the first language we learned being born in the US, but many Latinos do most of our formal learning in English – and it influences our understanding of the grammar and vocabulary of our mother tongue. Sábado Gigante’s skits and segments are so over-the-top that it doesn’t matter whether we’ve lost our ability to conjugate verbs into the subjunctive mood, for instance – we will still get the basics and other family members can fill us in on any nuances we missed.
With an audience of about two million people, the 3-hour Univision show (which will come to an end this fall) has remarkably soothed generational, geographical and linguistic divides. Latino families in the US and throughout the Americas still gather around the television screen to watch it, as generations did before us, and many are mourning its end. When Latinos in the US say they’ll miss Sábado Gigante, they sometimes mean they’ll miss the way that it allowed them to connect with other Latinos, and the anxiety over losing the bond that only Sábado Gigante makes possible – and made possible for so long – is predictable.
But coupled with a certain willing silence over the show’s problematic themes, sketches and host, that melancholy illustrates how Latino misogyny and racism is perpetuated in the US. Sábado Gigante and its host are representative of some of the worst supposed Latino culture, and both should have been rejected ages ago.
Sábado Gigante’s host, Mario Kreutzberger – better known as Don Francisco – has become synonymous with Sábado Gigante for more than half a century. Those of us who grew up watching Don Francisco also grew up having to accept his persistent objectification of women to enjoy (or endure) his show. Although I didn’t have the words to articulate it as a child, seeing the way Don Francisco treats women made me cringe – and still does. One of the Sábado Gigante’s best-known segments, for instance, is Miss Colita (roughly translated, it means Miss Ass); a pageant in which women parade around the stage in thongs while Don Francisco comments and audience members vote for their favorite buttocks. Miss Colita contestants willingly sign up for the segment – but also have to cope with Don Francisco’s constant ogling and groping.
But it’s not just Miss Colita contestants who are objectified by Don Francisco on Sábado Gigante: the host also picks women out from the audience – grabbing women of all ages and body types by the hand, wrist, elbow or waist – and comments on their bodies. I don’t know that any woman ever directly rejected Don Francisco’s physical prodding on an aired episode of Sábado Gigante – but he was sued for sexual harassment by a cast member (it was settled out of court).
And, when he’s not busy groping women the show regularly uses little people as caricatures, employs exaggerated gay characters for laughter and regularly fat-shames people – including children.
When it comes to blatantly racist portrayals, the show’s mockery of indigenous peoples in the Americas is profoundly demeaning. Sábado Gigante’s interracial sketches illustrate the stubborn inequity among Latinos in the Americas: although we share a geographic region, Latinos are not one race of people. There are black, indigenous, white, Asian and mixed Latinos who are all subjected to a racial hierarchy – an order that Sábado Gigante doesn’t challenge. As a Latina who’s also indigenous, I connect with the show’s use of the Spanish language yet strongly reject the way that indigenous peoples are portrayed.
The show’s racism doesn’t end with its mockery of indigenous peoples: one of the Sábado Gigante’s best-known recurring characters is La Cuatro, which is short for La Cuatro Dientes (“Four Teeth”), a reference to the character’s social status – poor people, it’s assumed, can’t afford to fix their teeth. Although the actress who portrays her is light skinned and blonde, La Cuatro is often referred to as being savage and wild. In one episode from the show’s later years, viewers learned that La Cuatro is expecting an inheritance from an uncle in Africa, which is eventually delivered by an “African” character sporting a cheetah-print cloth and disheveled hair held together by a large bone.
As English language television struggles to figure out how to portray and serve a Latino audience – from Cristela to George Lopez to Jane the Virgin to Modern Family and beyond – I can’t imagine Sábado Gigante-type antics would ever hit mainstream screens. The stereotypes it employs don’t represent us – but we would also never want non-Latinos to know that those offensive stereotypes are humor in which any of us should continue to traffic. Sábado Gigante symbolizes an outdated thinking about Latinos and comedy that hinges on fetishizing and ridiculing people for ratings; it is ostensibly Latino, but it’s not an indication of who we are or who we’ve striving to become.
Sábado Gigante brought Latinos together across continents and generations, it’s true, but its misogyny and racism became its hallmarks even as the Latinos watching outgrew them. It’s probably too much to hope that the hatred for women, people of color and other marginalized people it perpetuated and institutionalized will die when Univision pulls the show’s plug on 19 September 2015 – but I can dream.