On My Block feels deeply familiar in its coming-of-age stories, but fresh in its portrayal of characters and its perspective. What do I mean? Well, I’ll just start at the beginning, when four best friends—Monse, Cesar, Ruby, and Jamal—stand at the edge of a high school house party in the fictional neighborhood of Freeridge, located in very real South Central LA, sipping pilfered beers (and grimacing at the taste) while imagining how their lives will be different next year when they start high school. Soon, shots ring out and, as the four tweens flee the party, they argue over the gun caliber: “That was a .38,” one shouts. “Nooo, it was a .45,” calls back another. “It sounded like a .44.” “Wroooong.” And then, after a particularly loud shot, they all call out .357 in unison before running off down the dark street, laughing as they go. It sums up well what the show is about: Brown and black kids in a working-class neighborhood, navigating higher-stakes problems—like gangs, immigration issues, and gun violence—and lower-stakes issues—like crushes, puberty, and changing friendships—with humor, empathy, and honesty. Plus, it’s got a whole element of a Goonies-style quest for a rumored buried treasure, a former gang-member with a treasured collection of garden gnomes, and the best (and by best I’m sure you know by now, I mean snarkiest) abuelita ever. Not to mention Jasmine (Jessica Marie Garcia), who I’ll get to in a minute.
Monse, Cesar, Jamal, and Ruby have been a tight-knit group of somewhat nerdy (something we rarely see portrayed for black and brown kids) friends since kindergarten, and now, as they begin high school they see their lives as finally beginning. Monse (Sierra Capri), the only girl in the group, lives with her single father, dreams of becoming a writer, and wrestles with her identity. Jamal (Brett Gray), the ultimate goofy dork, dreams of finding the money rumored to have been stolen from a roller rink in the 80s (in part at least to try to save Cesar), and panics about following in his father’s footsteps by playing high school football. Cesar (Diego Tinoco) struggles to balance schoolwork and friendships, while accepting the expectations of his role in the Santos gang. Ruby (Jason Genao), who does people’s taxes on the side and plans parties with military discipline, dreams of getting his own room and losing his virginity. Violence—or the threat of violence—is part of their everyday lives, but rather than presenting it as the defining element—as many shows and movies about tough neighborhoods do—the show presents it as only one aspect of their existence. All of them live—whether it’s in a single-parent, two-parent, multigenerational, or gang-affiliated household—surrounded by love, support, and concern. It is always made clear that this neighborhood, like any child’s, is their home and that they see themselves as part of a community. This is not an othering after school special.
In the first season, we see the friends confronting their changing lives in different ways. Monse’s breasts have grown over the summer and she’s having to navigate all the crap that brings with it. Cesar wants to live up to his brother Oscar’s (Julio Macias) expectations by joining the Santos gang and to do well in school and hang out with his friends. Jamal fakes a string of increasingly more fantastical injuries (think: eye patch, neck brace, and leg brace) to avoid telling his father how much he hates football. And, Ruby, dead sure he would finally have his own room when his brother left for college, has to bunk with his abuela (Peggy Blow) when the teenage daughter of family friends, Olivia (Ronni Hawk), moves from Texas to live with his family after her parents are deported. Olivia, as she tries to adjust to life in a new place without her parents, joins the group, becoming Monse’s first female friend and the object of all Ruby’s emerging pubescent desires.
I think most shows, even those that work to be diverse, are centered on whiteness, but in this show almost the entire cast of characters is made up of people of color. White people show up as peripheral characters and, with the exception of a cop, are often cast in an unsympathetic light, like the kids at a party who wear costumes that appropriate gang culture. But let’s go back to the cop for a minute, because he’s a good example of how the show constantly undermines stereotypes. When we first meet him pulling up to Cesar, I fully expected the kind of exchange we normally see between a white cop and a Latinx kid—and if you don’t know what I mean, turn on the television for five minutes and you’ll understand. Instead, the cop is interested and invested, though without being a white savior. In a smaller way, there’s Olivia, the child of immigrants, who can’t speak Spanish well. And then there’s Oscar (often known as Spooky), Cesar’s brother, with his teardrop tattoo and more ink on his neck and arms, his life in the gang, and his overall imposing presence—the teens openly admit they find him terrifying—who is also shown to be loving, thoughtful, and incredibly smart. Over the course of the first season, we get to see how he became who he is and, in the second season, it’s Oscar who helps Ruby reenter the world after a traumatic event.
On his quest for the loot, Jamal meets a retired gang member who takes advice from his collection of ceramic garden gnomes and generally speaks in riddles. Ruby’s grandmother, with her illuminated manger scenes and pot smoking, is the first to join Jamal on his outlandish search for the money, and lays down truths left and right. She is also a whole person with a past that wasn’t all religious icons and watching Dateline. At one point she tells Ruby and the other kids, “Mijo, I wasn’t always old. I was once what you call a ‘Sure Thing.'” When Ruby makes a face, she snaps, “Don’t slut shame me!” A woman after my own heart.
It was Jasmine who gave me pause at first. She’s an outlier in the group—especially in the first season, they often work to avoid and exclude her—and her seeming neediness and her overt sexuality almost felt like stereotype. But once I gave Jasmine (and the show) time, I saw that maybe the problem was with my assumptions, because her character turned out to be much more nuanced, deep, and wise than I had seen. In the end she is, from her clothes to her words to her actions to her full-throated self love, wonderfully and unapologetically herself, at one point saying, “I mean, some people may not like me, but that just means I gotta love myself that much more.” Words to live by, right?
The other thing about On My Block is that it is a whole lot of fun to watch and highly bingeable. While watching I snort-laughed, I snort-cried, and I wrote in my notes that so many different characters were my “absolute favorite” that it became utterly meaningless. There’s more I want to tell you, but I also don’t want to spoil it for you, so go watch, report back, and then, if you like it, wait along with me for Season 3 to come out.