I Love Lucy debuted on television in 1951. The show featured a daffy housewife (Lucille Ball) and her Cuban bandleader husband. The wife, Lucy Ricardo, wanted a show business career, but had no talent. Meanwhile, Ricky Ricardo was a talented band leader and singer. Ricky was played by Cuban actor Desi Arnaz. The network did not think Americans would welcome a Latin into their homes. Arnaz character had a thick accent, spoke Spanish, and often did Latin numbers on the show. Additionally, there was the added complication of interracial relations. Lucy got pregnant during the show’s run. In the end, the American public proved more accepting than the executives and Arnaz provided an important positive Latin role model.
The United States was a highly segregated society in the early fifties. The Brown decision ending legal segregation was three years away when I Love Lucy debuted. Many Americans were racist. Although Arnaz was not African-American, he was Latin. Latinos experienced racial prejudice just as African-Americans did. On top of this, Latinos dealt with two additional handicaps that African-Americans were spared. First, they did not understand the American system of prejudice and it confused and hurt them. They were not born in America and did not understand the racism. Second, they had to learn a new language. The language barrier combined with cultural and racial prejudice created a triple barrier Arnaz had to crack. The network did not want the Cuban character for all these reasons.
Lucille Ball fought hard for Desi and his character. The two toured the country. They brought a vaudeville act to the people. Audiences ate it up. Desi Arnaz was a hit. The successful tour forced the networks to acquiesce. I Love Lucy would be produced with the Cuban band leader.
The show avoided racial jokes. Occasionally, Lucy would mock Ricky’s accent or Ricky would break into Spanish. However, this was not mean-spirited nor demeaning. It was an endearing part of the characters’ makeup. Additionally, the Ricardos lived the American dream. By the end of the show, they moved from their New York apartment to a house in the countryside. Ricky works his way up from struggling band leader to club owner. All the while, his Cuban heritage is an asset as Ricardo’s act incorporated Latin music. I Love Lucy presented Ricky Ricardo positively and avoided racial stereotypes that permeated all levels of American society.
People remember Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King as great Civil Rights pioneers. For Latinos, Roberto Clemente and Caesar Chavez are heroes. However, people do not include Desi Arnaz in this company. This is unfortunate. Arnaz was a pioneer that predated all of these figures. His career began in 1939 and he achieved mainstream success in 1951. Although everyone knew Arnaz background, people did not care. Ricky was likeable. He provided the sane counterpoint to the zany Lucy. His character lived in a nuclear family and moved to the house in the country. In an era dominated by racial strife, it says something about the man, his wife, and the audience that allowed them into their home. In the end, his Cuban heritage became a source of pride as opposed to the butt of jokes.