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My Memories of ‘Sábado Gigante’

Photograph by Getty Images

Like many Latinos, my childhood was marked by the bright glow of "Sabado Gigante" emanating into our dimmed living room on Saturday nights. Last month it was announced that the show will end in September after a 53-year run. I had neither thought about nor watched the show in years, but was flooded with memories as I sat down to watch it again, now in my own living room.

Beyond the cheesiness, the metallic blast of El Chacal's trumpet, and modelos in skimpy outfits, the show is, in some ways, a microcosm of Latinidad. The show has been rightfully criticized for sexism, and for employing racial and gender stereotypes. But let's be frank: These are problems within our culture as well, even though many believe it to be generational issue more than anything. One thing the variety show did very well was connect Latinos. I'm not just talking about our individual families watching the shows together (or apart since the show has an international viewership). For Latinos in the United States, it became a way to connect to Latino stories, interviews, artists, performers and contestants. And therein lies the show's heart.

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The show has been rightfully criticized for sexism, and for employing racial and gender stereotypes. But let's be frank: These are problems within our culture as well, even though many believe it to be generational issue more than anything.

Outside of my childhood home, I imagine my parents often felt like strangers in a strange land. Language mediates so much of how we encounter and experience everyday life and my parents struggled with English. But at home, where it was private and sacred, we spoke Spanish. And Spanish TV programming is what they watched. I'm sure that for many Latinos in the U.S., "Sábado Gigante" filled a pop culture gap they could tap into each weekend.

It wasn't all cheesy. There were recurring segments in which the show connected family members who hadn't seen each other in years — a classic tale among immigrants. I remember my mom tearing up at the sight of those reunions, even though I didn't yet grasp that she too was separated from family by space and time. I distinctly remember watching Don Francisco interview Selena and then watching her washing-machine shimmy to "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" to my heart's content. In fact, there were interviews with celebrities and common people alike.

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I called my mom and asked her, "What are you going to watch on Saturday nights now?" Her voice was immediately sullen, "No sé. Nada."

And then there's El Chacal, the cloaked trumpeter who was a love-him-or-hate-him kind of character. I love him for what he represents: The sharp-as-a-dagger side of Latino humor, the kind that likes to laugh at awful singing and mercilessly declare, "¡Fuera!"

A good sense of humor is valued in our culture and watching the show recently, I caught tidbits I would have missed as a child. For instance, one segment featured an accused adulterer, who of course, denied the charge. His tagline read, "Soy amiguero, no mujeriego." You have to love the Spanish language! In this segment, Don Francisco teased the man administering a polygraph test to the alleged mujeriego for his poor Spanish. It struck me as an interesting role reversal — here, one was allowed to chuckle at someone else struggling with language. Yes, I cringed at the foot fungal cream ad spots and at the light raunch that colored many of the sketches. As always, I cheered for the contestant vying to win a car.

The end of the show feels like the twilight of a complicated era in Latinidad and my hope is that it's also the dawn of something new. As I took stock of my thoughts, I called my mom and asked her, "What are you going to watch on Saturday nights now?" Her voice was immediately sullen, "No sé. Nada."

From now on, I think everyone needs to give their mom or abuelita a call on Saturday nights to fill the void.

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