American Family Home
American Family

Interactive Map

Explore East LA's
Past and Present.

An Interview with Barbara Martinez Jitner

“It’s a dream come true.”
– Ms. Martinez Jitner on making “American Family.”

Barbara Martinez Jitner
Barbara Martinez Jitner

Tell us how “American Family” came to be.
“American Family” originated about a year and a half ago when Greg and myself were approached by CBS, NBC, ABC. All the networks were really interested in doing a Latino show. There’s a growing Latino demographic that the networks are losing viewership to. People are going to cable, and they wanted to bring this youthful audience to their networks. So these three networks approached Greg and me, to bring a Latino family drama to the air. We chose to work with CBS.

We developed “American Family,” which was loosely based on the adventures of my own family in East LA. We put it together and had a wonderful time. We had a great cast: Sonia Braga, Raquel Welch, Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales, Constance Marie – an all-star cast.

Everybody loved the pilot. It was the highest-rated pilot that CBS had that season. It was beautifully reviewed by Howard Rosenberg for the LA Times, but unfortunately, CBS decided not to do it. I don’t know why.

So I said, well, we’ve done this incredible thing, we’ve brought this great cast together, with Gregory Nava writing and directing the pilot, and it just seemed unbelievable to me that this Latino family could not be on television. I didn’t understand that. “Why is everybody else’s family on TV, but not ours?” It didn’t make sense. I got upset about it, and thought I’m not going to rest until my family’s on TV, and we become part of the whole landscape of America. Because if you don’t see yourself reflected by television, which is the storyteller of America right now, you don’t exist, and that’s a very painful thing. I didn’t like that, so I said let’s some how find a way that “American Family” can hit the airwaves.

What was the biggest challenge in making this series?
When you’re working this fast in television and you’re telling stories from the heart – and this is a very heartfelt series – you want to make sure that you’re hitting every note just right, and that you’re trying to be all things for all peopleIt’s very difficult, because we’re the only Latino family drama on broadcast television. It’s something that our community has so long awaited You want to be everything for everybody, but that’s very difficult. You want to have everyone represented and everybody’s story told, and to celebrate the whole community.

Are you happy with the program?
Ah, it’s a dream come true. You know, the first time I walked onto the sound stage and I saw the house...I started to cry, because, for so long, I didn’t know that this was even going to happen. It’s like my grandmother’s house, it’s loosely based on that and it was very emotional for me. One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to open people’s minds about our community and who we are, and to fight the stereotypes that you see so often on television. The best way to do it, is to have a show like this that portrays characters with depth and emotion. To know that I’ve somehow contributed to that and opened people’s mind to the Latino, means a tremendous amount to me.

You’ve worn a lot of hats on this show.
I am doing a lot of stuff. I’m a DP, a director, a writer and a producer and often all at the same time.

Talk a little about the program.
The story is loosely narrated by Cisco, who’s the youngest member of the family. He is trying to define himself as a young Latino today in the new millennium with America changing so radically as we speak – with the world at war. He’s trying to define himself and where he fits in, and his way of doing it is sort of documenting everything that goes around him. I am the eyes of Cisco, so I do all the Cisco camera, the videotape, the Super 8, going through the family archives and journaling everything. We have a dual screen web site, which is really very exciting, where Cisco - because he’s a cutting edge artist - puts all of his home movies, all his secret videotaping. He posts them on his web site so everyone can see. And it’s sort of his journal, his way of saying, “Hey world, hey America, look at me, this is who I am.” And so we’re creating that, we’re creating a web site so that everybody can get Cisco’s point of view.

How is the show unique?
Conceptually, it’s really interesting, because the show is supposed to be a show that’s being videotaped by the youngest member of the family. The Gonzalez family is coming to you via Cisco through his web site. He’s posting it. And there’s even an episode later where all these fans get together and inform the family that their whole life has been on the web site, and that all their family secrets are revealed.

So it made sense then to use tape rather than film. That’s the medium that he’s using. And we are using HDTV (high definition television. It’s a beautiful medium. It’s different than film, it has a different look, but it’s equally as arresting and beautiful. It gives you so much freedom, so much mobility. It also helps us work very fast. We can create very spontaneous moments, because we can roll three cameras. We can do something totally different. We can have the master and several close-ups going at the same time so you can synchronize everything. And also, because we don’t have to change our roles of film, we can have these really long takes. We are doing one show which we called the one-shot-show, where we’re actually doing it all on one piece of tape. So it’s like in real-time, you start, you rehearse something and you shoot it all in one shot.

What’s your typical day like?
Usually, my day starts extremely early. When I’m writing, I’m also distributing all my new pages for my script and dealing with all the writers and getting the scripts together. That’s about three or four hours, and begins around 5:00AM. It depends when the shoot is, too. And it depends whether I’m directing. If it’s a show that I wrote, I’d like to be present and work with the director. As a producer, I come onto the set and want to make sure that we’re running on time and that we’re getting our day and that everybody’s needs are being met.

A lot of it’s about communication. Often I’m the center point of communication. You know – what color the living room should be, or somebody’s dress – a lot of these things are being coordinated through me, which is really wonderful, because so much of it is intuitive. It’s about my own personal experiences and my family and memories and things that I’d love to share with people. It’s wonderful to think that all these people are focusing on my personal memories, recollections and cherished thoughts about my own family, and that they’re re-creating it for everybody to watch.

What does family mean to you?
Family to me is really America right now. It’s about community, and it’s about us forming an identity through things that we believe in and who we are. I think the show is about a group of people who are dealing with a lot of different issues. There are crises, but the most important thing is that you work together and you find a way of finding love and comfort.

What are your hopes for the series?
Lots of things.I hope that it helps redefine Latinos to a lot of people who have never had the opportunity spend time with the Latino community. I would love for it to open people’s minds about America today, and about who is America, and who makes up America, and all the different voices and people. I hope that viewers really enjoy it, that they find that it’s funny and heartwarming, and that they can have a beautiful evening with their own family watching it.

© 2004 Public Broadcasting Service. All Rights Reserved.