The Netflix series On My Block was one of the rare high-school shows to center people of color. Across its four seasons, the show told the story of a group of four Latinx and Black friends. Not the best friends of white leads or one part of a larger friend group—they were the group.
And On My Block made stars of its young actors. Sierra Capri, who played Monse, headlined a film at Sundance this year, and Jessica Marie Garcia has amassed nearly two million Instagram followers, received a spread in People magazine, and became part of the family in Lopez vs. Lopez.
And that’s just the women!
Now show creators Eddie Gonzalez, Jeremy Haft, and Lauren Iungerich are back with a spinoff, Freeridge. Set in the same troubled L.A. neighborhood and at the same high school, the new show follows a different set of friends, still four in number, still mixed gender, all people of color —this time Latinx and Asian— and still fast-talking and mystery-solving.
The group’s de facto leader is (who else?) eldest Latina daughter Gloria, played by Keyla Monterroso Mejia with exasperation and verve. She’s trailed by younger sister Ines, played by Bryana Salaz, who’s has a penchant for reckless behavior she doesn’t shy away from. Rounding out the group is Ciara Riley Wilson as hippy-dippy Demi and Tenzing Norgay Trainor as unlucky-in-love (or too lucky, depending on the day) Cameron.
And the Freeridge universe still has Black people, most noticeably in Michael Solomon’s Rusty, Gloria’s love interest whose emotional intelligence is off the charts. In the way that Jessica Marie Garcia’s character Jasmin was a sleeper hit in the first series, growing into a virtual fifth member of the group, I hope Rusty becomes a principal player in this show too. His outsider status —in more ways than one— gives the show a much-needed contrast to play with.
One way Freeridge departs from its predecessor is with the lack of a gang plot. A lot (but not all) of the On My Block action had to deal with Diego Tinoco’s Cesar negotiating his membership in the Santos gang. But in Freeridge, the whole Santos vs. Prophets conflict is mostly kept in the background: Demi’s older sister references the fact that her boyfriend is in a gang, and there’s violence in the ultimate episode. I appreciate this change, as it neither minimizes the effects of gangs nor pretends that having them in your community is always a defining factor—for the most part, Gloria, Ines, Demi, and Cameron are able to live their lives despite an ambient level of violence around them.
And of course, just because they’re not threatened by gang violence, doesn’t mean the Freeridge characters have charmed or conflict-free-lives. Gloria and Ines have already lost their mother to cancer, with Gloria taking on the labor of managing the emotions of everyone in her household. When their father gets sick, she feels cursed—it’s a very bad hand she’s been dealt. Keyla Monterroso Mejia excels here as the quick-to-fight elder sister to all, protective and dismissive, seeking escape and stuck in responsibilities of her own making. It’s a particularly Latinx archetype and one that’s nice to see dramatized with laughs and empathy in a teen space.
We certainly need many, many more of these stories. Tuning in to Freeridge, I was originally concerned, as the first few episodes felt flat to me. The show is shot in a way that closes the frame —characters alone in the center of their shots— and too reliant on an Aaron Sorkin-esque walk-and-talk. But I kept watching because we’re still in an entertainment landscape where the access to representation for our entire 60-million-strong group of U.S.-based Latinx people seems to ride with the fate of each show that features us.
Thankfully, Freeridge got better as it progressed, with the characters growing beyond their types into more interesting individuals. The gnomes returned (if you know, you know), and the mystery/love triangles/drama caught their footing. By the end, I was wishing for more—more Freeridge, yes, and of course, more Latinx representation in and outside of the On My Block universe.
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
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