Open Up, Man!

By: José Manuel Simián

The 11th installment of HBO Latino’s talk-to-the-camera Habla series, devoted to the topic of manhood, opens like a roller coaster on its way down: against the show’s signature white background, writer Junot Díaz riffs about growing up in a house where you couldn’t look your father in the eye, about how boys had many more rights than their sisters and how his own generation “would be voted off the island” if pitted against his parents’ generation.

None of these are new topics for Díaz—he has explored them at length in his three books of fiction, as well as in interviews and lectures—and he is a masterful storyteller, so his delivery is perfect, the ride is entertaining, even when he’s analyzing topics that are more fit for a classroom (i.e., boys being victims of the patriarchal system they apparently benefit from). Díaz is a tough act to follow and a brave way of starting the show, but director Alberto Ferreras is up to the task, with an expertly selected set of testimonies from Latino men (and a few women).

Some of the stories predictably revolve around the topic of immigration (and end up succeeding at it, especially in the case of Rubén, an undocumented immigrant narrating his dramatic story about crossing the border), but ultimately the triumph of Habla Men lies elsewhere: in challenging the stereotypes around Latino men, from machismo to more subtle stereotypes and common assumptions about a certain idea of Latino-ness. From the former marine turned stay-at-home-dad to the dreadlocked Colombian tattoo artist who happens to be a feminist, or tough-guy actor Danny Trejo jumping from life in prison to breaking down in front of little girls, these men open up and the emotions entertain for the length of the show in spite of the restless camera movements (which at times make you wish this was on the radio).

Habla Men also succeeds in challenging Latino stereotypes in other ways. There’s the constant switch between perfectly native English and Spanish, between the oral and the subtitled language, but mainly through the casting of unexpected characters: the mother of Texas politicians Julián and Joaquín Castro talking about how she raised them (read: made them exceptional men), Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz on coming out as gay, singer Barbara Herr on her sex change and even singer and actor Carlos Ponce on being a father (but more convincingly, just showing that Latino men can also be completely vanilla). And even when Habla Men dips into the stereotypes—a mostly insufferable mama’s boy who enjoys his “prince” status, actor Carmen Peláez waxing poetic about her love for “Latino men” (wasn’t the point of the show not to generalize?)—it’s the twists or personal details in each one of those stories that make them linger way after everybody has taken a break from talking and the camera has stopped bouncing.

LOGISTICS: Habla Men, premieres October 10 on HBO Latino, see schedule here

José Manuel Simián is the Executive Editor of Manero. He used to be a lawyer and is probably listening to Bob Dylan as you read this.