Gordita Chronicles is a whole American Dream of a series, and it is an OUTRAGE and a CRIMINAL ACT that HBO didn’t renew it for a second season. Hopefully, it will get picked up somewhere else. For now, we have ten glorious episodes of this smart, warm, funny, insightful show, which tells the story of a Dominican family immigrating to the United States in the 1980s with so much tenderness, charisma, heart, and humor that I thought I might float away in a bubble of joy. Even so, and without losing a bit of its buoyancy, the show deftly addresses discrimination, stereotypes, barriers, and struggles through a socially conscious lens, often with unexpectedly acerbic and barbed humor. While the series is a deeply personal retelling of Latinx immigrant experiences—and I don’t intend to detract from that—the stories have threads that will feel likely feel familiar to anyone who has grappled with finding their place.
Twelve-year-old Cucu Castelli (Olivia Goncalves)—who may become your new favorite person—has always been the darling of her extended family. Called “gordita,” a term of endearment, Cucu is adored for chubbiness and her outgoing personality. In the Dominican Republic she and her family are surrounded by friends and family, some of whom can’t understand why they would choose to leave. But Cucu, her father Victor (Juan Javier Cardenas), her mother Adela (Diana Maria Riva), and her older sister Emilia (Savannah Nicole Ruiz) are only looking at the opportunities (and the Mr. Coffee machine for which Adela pines) awaiting them there. Cucu promises her friends that no matter how many amazing new people she meets in Miami, she won’t forget them. When they come to visit, she tells them, they can all eat at Burger King, visit Epcot, and meet Michael Jackson. Cucu isn’t the only one with ever-so-slightly unrealistic expectations about what life is going to look like when Victor starts work as the VP of Marketing for Latin America for Starboard Airlines. Adela is ready to accept nothing less than a house with a pool in a neighborhood with lampposts and big green lawns.
Almost no immigrant story is one of immediate ease and comfort, and the Castellis are no exception. When the taxi drops them across the street from their one-story, nondescript, clay colored motel in a less-than-lawn-filled side of town, Emilia takes one look, says she hates it, and threatens to go home to the DR. Cucu looks around, shakes her head, and says philosophically, “The song said ‘America the beautiful.’ I think they oversold it.” Adela mourns that they’re living in one room again, just like how she grew up. This is only the first among many choques that they’ll have in America. And while they won’t exactly conquer every calamity they face, they will find a way through together, and without losing their sense of self, dignity, culture, and place. Well, maybe sometimes the dignity goes missing momentarily, but usually only for comedic effect.
Instead of a strict Catholic school taught by nuns like in the DR, in Miami Cucu and Emilia attend a public school where Emilia notes that everyone “looks like Madonna. Even the boys.” She’s quick to adapt her clothing to look less parochial, and is snapped up by a blonde boy named Chad (London Cheshire) who offers to escort her to class. “Just like the boys in Tiger Beat,” she hisses to Cucu before letting herself be whisked away. (Later, after seeing them making out, Cucu reminds her “what Sister Ofelia said about the vas deferens. It’s the devil’s shotgun.”)
Sure, it’s the beginning of a fairly meteoric ascent for Emilia—though, not without first learning a hard but important life lesson about kissing boys named Chad—as she is soon accepted into the popular and powerful Bubblegum Girls clique, which does, of course, come with its own set of problems and cultural adjustments.
For Cucu the road is more outwardly rocky. With the help of the adult Cucu (Dascha Polanco), who narrates throughout the show, we learn how Cucu felt like she had landed on an entirely different planet and felt lost without any friends. A jock walks into her, calls her “fatso,” and then laughs when she politely sticks out her hand and explains her name is actually Cucu. It’s the moment she learns that while gordita is a term of endearment, fatso certainly is not. You can feel the searing pain and confusion that Cucu experiences in that moment, and Olivia Goncalves should be cast in everything for how she conveys it. However, it’s also the moment when we learn that Cucu is a bold, badass who doesn’t back down. She picks up the football the guy has dropped and, smiling, makes as if to hand it to him, but when he reaches for it she throws it over her shoulder, glares at him, and walks away without another word.
Later, after lying about her proximity to a Latin Pop Icon in order to get onto the dance committee she’s sure will be her way into school society, Cucu still doesn’t back down when threatened with junior high school social annihilation by Safi (Gabriela Rey), the popular girl who holds the reins of power. Instead, Cucu will make friends with a Cuban-American boy Yoshy (Noah Rico) and a blonde American girl Ashley (Cosette Hauer), who will help her understand American traditions (both good and bad) and help save her ass when needed.
At the same time, Victor learns about knotty things like payroll withholdings and how that house with a pool might be a dream more deferred than they ever could have imagined. Instead, they end up living in an apartment complex with other immigrants from all over Latin America where there is a pool, but you can’t swim in it. It does matter (and a lot), but they make it work because, ultimately, as grown up Cucu tells us, “you can make a home anywhere. As long as you’re surrounded by the people you love.”
Okay. Yes, that’s for sure a sweet sentiment (that’s largely true, but always easier assuming your basic needs are first covered), but the show also isn’t going to let you choke on too much syrupy saccharine sweetness overload. The Castelli family may have a home filled with the people they love, but they live in country overflowing with stereotypes, discrimination, and the daily indignities of restarting your life in a place where you have no history or fucking clue how things work. When Adela and Victor go to buy a house, the realtor assumes that they work for a drug cartel. Victor’s boss, Mr. Frank (Patrick Fabian), gets him confused with the janitor, a Nicaraguan man several years his senior. Mr. Frank also calls the only Black woman in the office Whoopi, though her name is really Betsy (Loni Love). Seemingly everyone wants to talk about chimichangas and other foods the Castellis know nothing about. Assumptions are also made about their ability to play certain sports and dance certain dances. Victor and Adela have to retake their driver’s test to get an American license, and Adela’s defensive Santo Domingo driving skills are vastly under-appreciated in Miami. Cucu faces a teacher intent on enforcing the English-only classroom to the letter of the law. She’s also deeply unimpressed when Cucu points out that words like déjà vu aren’t in English. The situations are handled in a Sitcom-style of socially aware set ups and solutions. In the case of the English only classroom, adult Cucu gives us a quick summary of the law before it launches into Cucu and her friends holding an English language boot camp. In the end, which I won’t spoil, Cucu learns important lessons about herself, her culture, and deftly sticks it to her bigoted teacher. This is a show that celebrates the mundane wins that are actually huge. Like when Adela, who doesn’t have a job or anything to do outside the house, manages to make friends, which anyone who has moved as a trailing spouse knows is a major accomplishment. Erect statues in Adela’s honor. On this spot in 1985 a person without connections or a ready made community figured shit out. Also, I adore Adela and Diana Maria Riva in this role.
The sitcom format keeps things contained and snappy, but not superficial. The characters aren’t caricatures, but feel real, or as real as they can in ten 30-minute episodes. (Which, again, is why we need a second season.) And they grow and evolve over the course of the season. The acting is fun to watch across the board, but Olivia Goncalves and Savannah Nicole Ruiz as Cucu and Emilia are particularly fantastic to watch. Which also reminds me that because the Castelli family is mixed, plus they’re living in a place with a large population of Latin American immigrants, there’s a pretty wide diversity in Latinx, which isn’t something that always makes it into shows.
And can we talk about Emilia’s eye-makeup? Because Holy Frosted Eyeshadow, what I would have given to have been able to get my lids to look like that! It’s always a bit of a crap shoot when series are set in eras like the 80s if they’re going to make the clothes completely distracting. Gordita Chronicles does not fall into that trap. It manages to evoke the 80s without smothering you in spandex and shoulder pads. I do appreciate their commitment to acid washed denim, big hair, and off-set ponytails of all varieties. Long may they reign! Actually, no, that’s absolutely not true. They’re a great thing to be nostalgic about, but may they reign no more. Except the big curly hair. I’m all for that. And maybe that eyeshadow.
One choice they made that is somewhat confusing to me is to have everyone speak English most of the time. Even in the scenes before they leave the Dominican Republic everyone is speaking English, though I presume they’re actually supposed to be speaking Spanish and through the magic of television we hear it as English? I understand the Castellis are supposed to be a middle to upper class bilingual family, but they still would have spoken Spanish in their home and with their extended family, right? And certainly in and around the apartment building in Miami that was filled with Cubans and other people from Central and South America, I would guess the dominant language would have been Spanish. Most of the time I could let it go, but it was pretty jarring in a series about new immigrants adjusting to life in America where more Spanish could have added another layer of depth. Especially in the episode where Cucu is grappling with how much she unconsciously slides into speaking Spanish. Or when Adela’s mother comes to visit and speaks to everyone in English. A lot of recent shows have eschewed this tactic in favor of more subtitled Spanish (see: Jane the Virgin, One Day at a Time, Gentefied, and others I’m blanking on), which I always find a welcome inclusion, and I’m curious why they chose not to with this one.
Look, here’s my idea—which I’m sure ALL the network executives are on tenterhooks waiting to hear—what if ABC picks up Gordita Chronicles and runs it either before or after Abbott Elementary? It’s the perfect pairing of two tender shows about community that ooze warmth and humor, but have just enough bite to keep them balanced. Couldn’t we all use that kind of back-to-back weekly escape from the world that is, well, what it currently is? But, presuming they’re not wise enough to take my sage advice, she says humbly, the existing episodes of Gordita Chronicles can still be your perfect escape watch right now.