Make no mistake, NBC’s Grand Crew is a Black show. It sports an all-Black cast, is written, produced, and directed by Phil Augusta Jackson (Insecure, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Key and Peele), and features lines like “stay Black, y’all.”
I spoke to one of its stars, Grasie Mercedes, who “called it a show about “Black joy and Black excellence.”
Mercedes is one of our own, a Dominicana from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her story starts like so many of ours: she remembers growing up in a multigenerational house with her mom, aunt, and grandmother. She describes her abuela as a “typical Latin Dominican grandmother” with her “shrine to Jesus” matching Mercedes’ Catholic schooling. When her mom was at work, her abuela took care of her, speaking only Spanish while the U.S.-born Mercedes responded in English.
To make her all the more relatable, Mercedes now says her Spanish “kind of sucks,” although she understands it pretty well.
Despite that quintessential Latinx upbringing, Mercedes struggles to have her Latinidad recognized as an actress. “I never get to play Latina,” she says, “because Hollywood doesn’t see Latinos who look like me.” With more than a decade in the business, she’s only auditioned for a Latina role once—“and that was recently.”
Identifying as Black, she’s happy to play African American roles but thinks “we should be able to show the world that (Latinx people) are super diverse and come in all shades, hair types, and features. There’s definitely a lack of representation not only for Afro-Latinxs, but Indigenous and Asian Latinxs too.”
That’s part of why she’s creating her own projects. Her podcast Not BLANK Enough explores identity with care and nuance. She calls feelings of inadequacy or not fitting in a “universal theme, especially for people of color,” noting that it’s particularly damaging in Latinx and Asian communities who believe their “closeness to whiteness makes you, quote-unquote, better, more desirable, or more beautiful.”
When creating TV, films, or web series, she’s intentional about centering ideas around race, gender, and identity. Like some other famous Latinx creators, she draws inspiration from her childhood block, titling her first script “Williamsburg” and declaring her biggest goal to have her own TV show exploring her experience as an Afro-Latina.
In Grand Crew, Mercedes plays Fay, a recently divorced New York transplant trying to find her way in L.A. with a new group of friends. As such, she’s usually involved in most of the show’s genuinely funny hijinks, like getting lost hiking (in matching outfits), supplying a family pie-fight, and wielding a samurai sword against bar furniture.
We don’t learn much about Fay’s background in the first season, which premiered December 14, but Mercedes is hopeful that if they get a second season, there’ll be more in there about her Latinidad. The show is about “exploring the Black experience for all different kinds of Black people,” after all.
And it’s telling that African American creators are making room for Afro-Latinxs while much of the Latino establishment remains quiet.
“Right now in Hollywood, there are so many Latinos who are doing it, making shows and are showrunners. But they’re almost all white Latinxs,” Mercedes says. “Indigenous and Black Latinxs (need) the opportunity to develop their own shows (so it’s) not always the same experience that we see.”
It’s a big deal to be represented on network TV —which still accounts for the majority of viewing— but the Latinx press has largely been quiet about Mercedes and Grand Crew. After all the noise around creating an expansive definition of Latinidad, it’s frustrating that we’re still here, erasing instead of honoring Black Latinx creativity and excellence.
Here’s hoping Latinx viewers do what the chattering class has yet to do by showing up for Grasie Mercedes and tuning into to Grand Crew.
Grand Crew airs Tuesdays on NBC at 8:30/7:30C.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade