'East Los High' Opens Doors For Latino Writers

By Elia Esparza, Latin Heat

Carlos Portugal, Kathryn Bedoya and Katie Elmore's East Los High (ELH) first season is one of the top five most viewed original series on Hulu – who count more than four million subscribers – and as a result ELH is not "just" a Latino show, it is a commercial, mainstream show in the same vein of Gossip Girls, 90210, and the film Grease.

ELH is a groundbreaking TV drama about teenagers dealing with life issues no different than what's going on across our nation, the struggles are all the same. What's different is that ELH's story is set in East Los Angeles, which is predominately Latino. The problems are the same, bullying is still bullying, but mix in a group of Latino teenagers living in an entirely unique cultural environment… well the results tend to be more edgy and addictive because of its telenovela feel.

It's a delicate tightrope the writers had to walk on as they created mainstream storylines while delivering a Latino perspective from an East Los Angeles point of view –  not easy.

So where do you find writers with the skills to write 24 episodes of a groundbreaking TV show set in East Los Angeles with an all Latino cast? Co-creator/Director/producer Carlos Portugal succeeded with a little help from his friends – literally.  He enlisted writers he had worked with in the past, like Cris Franco and others on the team.  To round out his writer's room he turned to the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and found three more of his writers through their Television Writers Program.

ELH writers Cris Franco. Joaquin Palma, Evangeline Ordaz, Shelley Acosta Smith, Sasha Stoman, Mary Feuer, and Zoila A. Galeano, had their work cut out for them. The instructions from Portugal was clear, "The number one rule: Write about what you know." As co-creator, along with Kathleen Bedoya, Portugal also served as head writer and had a clear vision of the direction he wanted the stories to go.

It's great when the powers of a new show albeit for television, digital or film, have the smarts to bring in a Latino writing team who have or live the Latino experience. It is for this reason that I wanted to talk with ELH writers about how this show has nurtured their career in the positive. And, also it is important to highlight how some of the industry's most prestigious writing programs romancing Latinos are now delivering qualified writers to the networks and studios.

Latin Heat: How does your background as a writer prepare you to write for a TV show like East Los High?

Evagenline Ordaz: My other TV writing gig was on a one-hour procedural drama…  so East Los High would appear to be very different. But in actuality both shows had mystery and suspense. While my last TV writing job called on me to wear my lawyer hat, ELH called on me to go home. I was born in East Los. I spent my entire professional career as an attorney and community activist in East Los so needless to say, I was writing what I knew. You must say I put the East Los in East Los High. I brought the language that I hear on the street everyday into each script I could not do that on my last show.

Joaquin Palma: My background is in feature length narratives. At the beginning it was shocking to see how condensed the scenes were, but it's something you get used to very fast. You have to remember that there's a clock ticking on the episode and you have to get all the necessary info across to the audience. The job of the writer is to make it all flow naturally writing that time frame.

Zoila A. Galeano: The biggest difference is that we had to write quickly and we had to get the story points in a short amount of time. Where an episode for a drama usually takes 59 pages, we had to find a way to get the story across in seven or ten and not make the viewer feel rushed or confused.

LH: How did you getting hired for ELH come about?

Joaquin: Carlos [Portugal] and I both worked with the same editor, Albert Cantu, on different projects simultaneously. It was through Albert that Carlos read a feature length script of mine while he was staffing. He contacted me soon after and we started to talk about the show.

Evangeline: Cris Franco has been a big fan and big supporter of my work for a long time. So he told the Executive Producer [Portugal] to hire me.

Shelley Acosta Smith: When Population Media Center (the nonprofit that produced the series), came to Los Angeles looking for writers, they reached out to the National Hispanic Media Coalition. I had been chosen to participate in the NHMC Television Writers Program a few years before, so Geoff Harris, the mentor of the writing program, recommended me, and a few others. Sasha [Stoman], Zoila [A. Galeano] and I got the job!

Zoila: I first heard about it through the National Hispanic Media Coalition. They sent my writing sample (A Good Wife) to Carlos and Kathleen [Bedoya]. Later I met with them in person and talked about the show. I was really excited about the project from the get-go and was thrilled when I got the call that I was hired as one of the staff writers.

LH: Tell us about how the writing process came about. Were you all in a writing room drumming out ideas?

Evangeline: At the very beginning it was just me, Carlos and Cris Franco reviewing the outline. Then the staff writers came in and we took that outline apart and all wrote pieces of it. Then, Carlos and Cris and I would review the scripts, decide what revisions they needed and I would take scripts home and do the re-writes. In this way it was very much like a typical writing staff – the producers always re-write the staff writers. After we had converted the entire outline into a script this way (500 pages), Carlos, Cris and I sat in a room with a projection of the script up on a screen and we went through it with a fine toothed comb re-writing even more as needed.

Joaquin: I remember people walking in on the first day and drilling these HUGE dry easel boards along the walls. Pretty soon every inch of those boards were filled with story beats that would eventually be broken down into individual episodes.

Zoila: We all sat in a room together and brainstormed ideas. From [this brainstorm session] we were assigned outlines and we went off to write episodes on our own. We table-read our first draft, which was great because we got to hear our dialogue come to life and were able to tweak anything that didn't work. It was a nerve-wracking but fun process that made our episodes really strong.

LH: Was it difficult to write as a collaborative?

Joaquin: Not difficult, rather it was different to what my previous experiences as a writer had me accustomed to. I think its great having a group of very talented people churning out story together. There are all these ideas floating in the air ranging from silly to awesome. The awesome ideas ended up on the board while the silly ideas ended up being the seedlings of other awesome ideas. It's like a magic trick.

Evangeline: I thought it was going to be hard to re-write off of a projected image on the wall with two other people, but it was actually a lot of fun and since we were always talking the script out loud as we reviewed it, this process really allowed my East Los voice to come out. Also, with this process you would get instant feedback on ideas you'd float and instant refinement of those ideas.

Shelly: Sometimes writers' rooms are difficult, but everyone at ELH were very happy to be there and we all got along great.

Zoila:  TV is all about the collaborative process. That's what attracted me to television versus other forms. If the team is strong, so are the stories. They're better for all the talent working on them.

LH: Any memorable challenges during the writing process you had to overcome?

Joaquin:  I'm a first generation American born in East Los Angeles. And I don't like stereotypes. I grew up around gang members, but I never joined a gang. I grew up in a lower-income neighborhood—but the inside and outside of all the houses around me were cleaner than the Getty Center! I know the world I was hired to write. And although it was a highly stylized version of it, failure would come in the form of writing characters that some might call borderline stereotype, stereotypically. So yes, there can be single mothers with low-income jobs and lazy sons with no real drive other than to get laid. I know these characters personally. But the thing is to not write them stereotypically. And I think the solution to that challenge came in the dialogue. To dumb a character down is to marginalize them. So the biggest challenge, for me, was to build out the characters through actions and decisions, rather than having every other sentence end with dogg, foo, coo, bitch and aye.

Evangeline: Speaking of the East Los voice, sometimes it was a challenge to keep the dialogue specific to East L.A. I believe good writing is specific writing, so I wanted our characters to have the authenticity of sounding how East L.A. kids really sound. But, I was the only one who lived and worked in East L.A. and had day-to-day interaction with East L.A. teenagers. It was basically on me to make this happen. I wrote in that voice, and I even had my homeboy Xavi Moreno read the scripts to make sure we was keepin' it real. But, sometimes I had to fight for lines that were so East LA. They sounded weird to other people. Like when Sparky's mom is talking about the $5,000 Maya gave her for Sparky's funeral. She says, 'That musta been some car wash.' Being from Miami, Carlos didn't get it and he wanted to take it out. But Cris Franco and I fought for it and it stayed in the script. Later after Carlos finished editing the show, he told me it was his favorite line of the whole season. That made my day, and also made me grateful to the great actress, Teresa Michelle Ruiz, who nailed the meaning.

LH: Each segment of each episode had its own story arc – which fit in great for commercial breaks—was this the way you were instructed to write or did this happen in the editing room?

Joaquin: That's the way the stories ended up on the wall. Carlos had one ultimate rule from what I remember: To always, ALWAYS end an act in a cliffhanger. He knows the audience very well. What was great was that when you were writing for a cliffhanger, it always made you give that portion of the story an arc. It just happened naturally in the story writing process.

Evangeline: This was a Carlos mandate to the writers from the very beginning. Carlos is the king of cliffhangers. One of the things he hammered at when Cris and I were reviewing with him the scripts, were the act breaks. He wanted to make sure that each act break left you in suspense. I think those act breaks are one of the reasons the show is so successful.

LH: As a result of ELH success and positive reviews, how has this project changed you as a writer?

Joaquin:  The thought of writing for television became very attractive after East Los High. It has nothing to do with any reviews or success… it's the process of breaking story and churning out an episode quickly that's exciting. There's a sense of urgency that isn't felt in writing features at your home office.

Evangeline: I am not sure that this project changed me as a writer, but I do know that I am grateful to Carlos, Cris and Katie [Mota] for giving me the opportunity to write something so close to my heart and home. As you can imagine opportunities to write characters like my li'l sisters, primas, and tias don't come around very often. I just had a producer who has known my work for a long time tell me that now with ELH, I have a different voice. But the fact is I always had this voice and I have a lot of other voices inside me and as a Latina who had to make it in the White male dominated legal profession, I can write the white lawyer voice too.

Shelley: ELH is the first thing I've worked on that's gotten produced on this scale, so it's thrilling to see it come to life. It's been amazing getting feedback by people who were entertained and touched by the project. On a personal note, it's very good for me as a new writer to have a produced work I can point people to.

Zoila: It's boosted my confidence as a writer. Knowing that we kept to our tight schedule and turned out great episodes with so many characters and story arcs gave me the boost I needed to know I'd succeed on other writing staffs.

LH: Now that ELH Season One is done. What are you working on now?

Joaquin: I am currently in post-production on a feature film I directed called Prayers In The Dark, and I am also finishing up a first draft for a feature length project I was hired to write. I can't really say much about it other than its an action/comedy and I think its awesome!

Evangeline: I was commissioned by the Center Theater Group (Mark Taper Forum/Ahmanson Theater/Kirk Douglas Theater) to write a play about Los Angeles, and I am currently deep in the development process on that play. I'm also always developing and pitching new ideas for other television projects.

Shelley: This year I was chosen for the CBS Writer's Mentoring Program, and worked with CBS execs to develop and write an original pilot. I just recently completed that. Right now I'm working on a new pilot.

Zoila: I am currently staffed on a drama for Mun2 and on The Fosters for ABC Family.

Thank you, East Los High writers! Your work speaks volume about your talent and your input here will help other up-and-coming writers who are also breaking into the industry.

Although East Los High ended its run on July 3rd, season one lives on the internet for audiences to watch the full 24 episodes either for the first time or all over again.  Watch on Hulu at: http://www.hulu.com/east-los-high

For the time being, the number one social media question is: Will there be a season two? We hope so.

East Los High fans can keep up with your favorite actors and behind-the-scenes gossip on Facebook and Twitter:

For more information about the NHMC TV Writers Program Fall 2013: http://www.nhmc.org/writersprogram

About ELH Writers

Joaquin F. Palma, Writer/Producer/Director
Indie film credits: Followed Home (directorial debut), Prayers In The Dark, According To Plan. He is a published writer in various short story anthologies, and is a member of the Horror Writers Association, a mentor to youth programs offered by NOSOTROS.

Evangeline Ordaz, Writer/Producer
TV credit:  Hulu's East Los High, ABC's Eyes and is a TV Writing Fellow from ABC-Disney Writing Fellowship. She is also a U.C. Berkeley trained attorney and in 2005, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed her to the City Housing Commission. She was born in Boyle Heights of East Los Angeles.

Shelley Acosta Smith, Writer
A graduate of NYU's Tisch School of Arts and American Film Institute, she started her career as a video editor, cutting the ten o'clock news and assisting on indie films. She is a recipient of the William J. Fadiman Screenwriting Award (AFI's top achievement in the screenwriting discipline). She has been selected for the prestigious Disney ABC Writing Program, National Hispanic Media Coalition's Writers' Workshop. After her work on East Los High, she was selected to take part in the prestigious CBS Writers' Mentoring Program

Zoila A. Galeano, Writer/Producer
TV credits: The Fosters, East Los High, The West Wing, Swingtown
She was accepted into Act One's writers' program, the National Hispanic Media Coalition's writing program, CBS Mentorship Writers' Program, NBC's Writer's On The Verge and ABC/Disney's Writing Fellowship. She is currently staffed ABC Family's The Fosters.