Why Ricky Ricardo was more groundbreaking than you remember

ilovelucy_lucydesiIt’s hard to imagine since it’s been in the public conscience for decades but this year, I Love Lucy will celebrate 66 years! It’s an incredible milestone for a show that hasn’t been off the air since it went on the air in October of 1951.

I Love Lucy is remembered and celebrated for its hilarious comedy and the standout performance of Lucille Ball but looking back on the show, it’s amazing to see just how groundbreaking it was. We take for granted the couple of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz because of all that we know about them but for audiences in 1951 seeing a Caucasian woman married to a Cuban man was really a sight that wasn’t all that common and at worst, not easily accepted.

Arnaz and Ball were very vocal about this during the production of the series and in retrospectives. The story goes that Ball wanted Arnaz to play her husband on the show but studio execs said no because no one would buy that the two would be married because of their differences but the duo fought back pointing out that they had already been married for 13 years!

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Beyond the interracial relationship, one can not deny what Ricky Ricardo means to Hispanic and Latino culture. It’s easy to point the finger at his broken English to say Ricardo was a stereotype but in actuality, he was a more groundbreaking character than you think. Ricardo was a loving husband and father, he spoke Spanish, English, and even though his Spanglish was a point of comedy on the show, nobody made a big deal about Ricardo being Cuban. It was accepted and appreciated. He’s one of the most positive representations of a Latino character we’ve ever seen on television.

For starters, in the Ricardo household, Ricky was the breadwinner with a successful nightclub act. At his job, he was a leader and we see that in many episodes where he interacts with his band and the club manager. In his nightclub act, he was always pushing the envelope infusing Spanish music, dance and costumes. Later on in the series, Ricardo took full control by opening up his own club, Club Babalu, referencing his most famous song.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated on I Love Lucy is how they dealt with the cultural differences between Lucy and Ricky in a way that was relatable. In the episode ‘Be a Pal’, Lucy thinks Ricky is losing interest in her and tries several methods to win back his affection. With the help of Ethel, she tries to transform their home into Cuba or what she thinks is Cuba by going out and buying a bunch of things she believes will remind him of his childhood home. She takes it up a notch even further by dressing up as Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda. The situation she gets herself into is even more hilarious when you see that the only things she could find were what America in the 50’s and even now thinks is Spanish when it’s actually more of a Mexican influence: donkeys, ponchos, chickens and fruit. Then she sings a song in Portuguese but she thinks it’s Spanish. All of this makes Ricardo’s reaction even funnier because he’s so lost in the situation. None of this is anything like what he grew up with. It’s a very American situation that displays the lack of cultural knowledge, but Ricardo reminds her of his love for her, that he’s happy in America just the way things are and tops it off with a sweet kiss.

Ricardo’s English is always a source of comedy on the show, and there are moments on the show where Lucy tries her hardest to communicate with Latino characters specifically Ricky’s mother and other members of his family. Arnaz was committed to pointing out multiculturalism in the United States and worked with the writers to address that. One of my favorite moments of the series is when Ricardo reads a bedtime story to his son, little Ricky. There are two things at play here. One, we see a Latino character caught between two worlds trying to tell a bedtime story to his son who will grow up to be bilingual. Two, we see a Latino character as a devoted father when often times society tells us that isn’t the case. The touching and hilarious moment below:

I love the episodes where we meet Ricky’s family most notably when Ricky’s mother visits New York and ‘The Ricardos visit Cuba.’ The episodes showed the audience his relationships with his mother and uncle. For a 30-minute situation comedy in the 50s it’s easy to skim through them but as I revisit these episodes, I see the added depth these relationships had on Ricardo as a character. Ricardo, like Arnaz, never forget where he came from and was always committed to being the best he could be in America, the place that gave him a shot. That was something very important to Arnaz that he spoke about often. In this moving clip from Ed Sullivan’s ‘Toast of the Town,’ he describes this transition giving a deeper insight into his legacy.

Desi Arnaz was a television pioneer whose commitment to the industry is still thriving. If it wasn’t for Desi Arnaz, you wouldn’t have reruns, tv shows wouldn’t be shot with multiple cameras, writers wouldn’t be acknowledge at the Emmy awards, the list goes on but never forget his acting and what he brought to American audiences when it comes to Latino representation.

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