The El Rey Channel’s Original Series Offer A Vision of Working-Class Millennial Latino Masculinity
El Rey was a cable channel targeted toward Latinx audiences that was launched by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in 2013 and had 45 million subscribers as of 2018. It was one of a few TV channels for bilingual Latinx audiences that were launched or rebranded in the 2010s, including MTV Tres and NBC Universo. In a new article in NCA’s Critical Studies in Media Communication, Benjamin M. Han argues that El Rey was a departure from such channels because most of the programming was originally targeted toward young Latino men, and the channel featured shows that emphasized themes associated with working-class millennial masculinity. Han examined two El Rey programs: Man at Arms: Art of War and Lucha Underground.
Representation of Latinx People on Television
In the early 2000s, when many Latinx channels and shows were launched, content often featured middle-class narratives and targeted Latina women, in part because advertisers wanted access to their growing purchasing power. These representations of Latina women tended to emphasize “their ethnic ambiguity, exoticism, and sexually appealing attributes.” Furthermore, these representations did not challenge dominant cultural narratives and thus were appealing to advertisers and mainstream audiences. Recently, there has been a shift toward depictions of working-class Latina characters, such as in the Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time.
The number of networks that targeted the Latinx population expanded dramatically between 2001 and 2012, from just 12 to 100. In this competitive environment, Han argues that El Rey distinguished itself by explicitly targeting working-class millennial Latino men. According to Han, “[El Rey] aimed to capitalize on the interplay between working class [identity] and masculinity through established genres such as sports, wrestling, action, and martial arts,” genres that are associated with masculinity through machismo, risk-taking, and other elements. El Rey’s sports, wrestling, action, and martial arts shows also engaged with themes of capitalist exploitation and used machismo and working-class themes as a way to respond to that oppression.
Man at Arms: Art of War
Man at Arms was hosted by Danny Trejo, an actor from Los Angeles who served time in prison as a young man. Trejo is particularly well-known for starring in Robert Rodriguez’s film, Machete, which is emblematic of the actor’s performance of working-class Latino masculinity. Trejo still maintains ties to Los Angeles as a resident and through community outreach, which grants authenticity to Trejo’s working-class persona.
In its two seasons, Man at Arms introduced the culture and history associated with various weapons seen in popular culture, such as machetes, which have been featured in Mexican films, or ji, which have been featured in Chinese films. The emphasis on weapons aligned with traditional masculine tropes about violence. Man at Arms also highlighted the expert craftmanship that goes into creating such weapons. The focus on craftsmanship pointed to the traditional association between working-class masculinity and working with one’s hands.
Lucha Underground aired from 2014 to 2018. It fused wrestling, action, and lucha libre, a wrestling style associated with the working-class in Mexico. Because luchar can mean both “to wrestle” and “to struggle,” luchadores, or wrestlers, have played off the dual meaning of “struggling” against oppression by advocating for social causes. Lucha libre shows have served as cheap entertainment with political and social messages. The pilot episode of Lucha Underground begins with an action sequence that includes both martial arts and wrestling. The show then introduces an origin story that associates lucha libre with the warriors of the Aztec empire. The main plot of the episode revolves around a scripted wrestling match hosted by a wealthy businessman for a $100,000 prize. After the luchadores finish their fight, the businessman calls in additional wrestlers to stop the winner from claiming the prize. According to Han, this narrative “not only provides a spectacle as a form of entertainment for the audience but also offers a critique of [how] capitalism… exploits working-class labor and engenders economic inequalities.”
Although the show erred in casting white wrestlers as the protagonists of the pilot episode, Han argues that it also attempted to develop connections with Boyle Heights, the predominantly Latinx working-class neighborhood in which Lucha Underground was filmed. Han argues that by filming the show in front of a live audience, “the site of the lucha libre is constructed as a safe haven space where working-class men are not disciplined or constrained from asserting their acts of hypermasculinity as it explicitly places men at the center of attention while women dressed in scanty clothes on the wrestling ring are featured to provide visual pleasure for the male spectators.”
Han argues that these original series show that El Rey differed from its competitors by targeting shows to millennial Latino men who increasingly identify themselves as working-class. However, the channel’s focus on masculinity was narrow and precluded the representation of progressive feminism and more complex depictions of masculinity. In recent years, El Rey shifted away from an exclusive focus on working-class masculinity to program offerings that also catered to Latina women. In original programming, the channel incorporated representations of Latina women, and, according to Han, “aim[ed] to find ways to reconcile and integrate working-class masculinity and feminism into the larger struggle against capitalism.” In December 2020, El Rey ceased its operations after breaking up its partnership with Univision a month earlier.