Everyone wants Neon to succeed. The recently announced Netflix series will follow “three friends who move from a small town in Florida to Miami with the hopes of making it big in the world of reggaeton.”
The is the brainchild of Shea Serrano, the first Mexican American to become a three-time New York Times best-selling author, whose titles include The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed. And the series will star Puerto Rican actor Tyler Dean Flores as the would-be reggaetonero.
Sounds good right?
There’s just one problem, and it has the Puerto Rican film community up in arms: When Netflix announced the show, no Boricuas appeared to be behind the camera—either as producers, consultants, or in its eight-person writers’ room.
“Latinos, in general, are not interchangeable,” said one Puerto Rican filmmaker who spoke with Latino Rebels under the condition of anonymity for fear of being blacklisted and not wanting to publicly undercut fellow Latinx creatives.
As reggeatón has gone from Panama and Puerto Rico to become a worldwide phenomenon, centering a series about this very particular musical genre without a single voice from the countries that created and popularized the sound feels extractive.
“What if there was a show that was about Atlanta rap, and there was no one in the writers’ room that was even remotely tied to Atlanta, but they were like, ‘Oh, at least there are Black people’?” asked the filmmaker.
In fairness to the team behind Neon, they do have Panamian Katelina “Gata” Eccleston as a consultant—who was also an associate producer of Futuro Media’s LOUD podcast, in which host and reggaetón icon Ivy Queen guides listeners through a history of the genre. A Netflix rep also said they planned to engage lead actor Flores creatively in the show, although how much influence he’ll have is unclear, and they didn’t make him available for comment. The show also plans to film in Puerto Rico and hire local crew, talent, and vendors.
So that’s something.
But the writers’ room issue still sticks, particularly since, as Latino Rebels has confirmed, multiple Puerto Ricans with appropriate experience did apply—they just weren’t selected, their unique perspectives as Boricuas not valuable enough to earn them a spot in the otherwise very diverse writers’ room (of the eight writers on the show, three are Latinx and four are Black).
Plus, because it bears repeating, TV writers are still overwhelmingly white.
It’s worth remembering too that “being Puerto Rican is a very specific worldview,” as another Boricua filmmaker who asked to remain nameless told Latino Rebels. “It’s something that is absolutely ingrained in us since our birth. Basically, we’re being taught a specific set of cultural markers that define the way that we look at the world. And that isn’t to say that other people can’t interpret our culture, but it’s so much more meaningful and impactful when we have authentic representation, authentic voices, to lend nuance to the Puerto Rican identity.”
Puerto Rico is indeed unique. While the rest of Latin America grapples with the legacy of colonialism, the island still functions —or not— as a colony, making it an outlier in more ways than one. And its particular politics have directly influenced reggaetón.
“The fact that Puerto Ricans had passports, that we could travel between Puerto Rico and New York City or anywhere else in the globe, was really essential to spreading the sound throughout the world,” one source said.
“Just a few days ago, I was experiencing a blackout. I was sitting there in the dark. And I was thinking, ‘Can other Latinos write about this?’ No, not exactly,” said one filmmaker.
So why would a show with a Puerto Rican lead based on reggaetón not find one Boricua with the lived experience to at least help with the script?
Perhaps the problem is that it’s just so difficult to get a TV show made —especially when it stars Black and Latinx people— that show makers have to make a series of compromises. Creating a TV series is a million decisions, big and small, and when the powers that be don’t understand the nuances of Latinx communities, let alone respect them, it can be hard to get such nuances right.
Add in the fact that Latinx stories just get so few chances, and the pressure to get it right can become overwhelming.
It’s not clear if that’s what happened in the early stages of Neon—despite multiple attempts, no one from the creative team would speak to Latino Rebels. But the show is still in the early stages, still hiring, and perhaps they’ll be announcing some new Puerto Rican members of the team soon.
Which would make Neon all the more exciting. Every Puerto Rican filmmaker we spoke to —even those who didn’t get hired— wants the show to succeed.
Neon has the chance to authentically represent a community that is too often erased or portrayed stereotypically. It has the opportunity to find the joy, the rhythm, the absurdity, and the humor in being young, Boricua, Black, and talented today.
Here’s hoping the well-intentioned team behind the show doesn’t squander its opportunity.
And here’s hoping they hire at least one Boricua to help tell their Puerto Rican story.
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