By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Montclair resident Jorge Aguirre is the new head writer for PBS Kids’ new show “Alma’s Way,” which follows the adventures of Alma Rivera, a 6-year-old New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage.
Aguirre, a Montclair resident originally from Ohio, dropped out of law school to become a writer. He’s focused his career on writing for younger audiences, with a portfolio that includes graphic novels and other children’s shows. His inspiration comes from his own life, both as a parent and as Latino.
“I have two kids. But also, I always gravitated towards funny stories,” Aguirre said. “I think that has to do something with my ‘kid-like’ sensitivities. I just really love writing for younger audiences. There’s so much fun.”
In “Alma’s Way,” which was created by Sonia Manzano, best known for playing “Maria” on “Sesame Street,” Aguirre said he wants children to learn skills they can use in their own lives.
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“We try to teach critical thinking, but I always try to weave that in organically in the story,” Aguirre said. “I want the kids to be entertained. I want the kids to laugh and I want the kids to want to watch more and to like Alma, and to watch more of her adventures.”
In one episode, Alma messes up her mom’s recipe for mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish made of fried plantains, by adding too much garlic and spices. Alma has to think her way out of the problem.
So she pauses and reflects. She flashes back to earlier in the episode, when her father, whom she calls “Papi,” asks her mother (“Mami”), for an opinion, and she tells him the truth. Alma realizes she should be honest with Mami about the mofongo.
“Alma thinks back to the actions she’s taken, or she imagines what would happen if she took a different action,” Aguirre said. “So, there’s a lesson there, but I think it’s done in a way that hopefully it’s still entertaining.”
The situations Alma encounters often comes from Manzano’s own life, growing up in the Bronx. But Aguirre said children of any cultural background can relate to them.
“Kids have so many challenges that they face, and they’re learning so much every day that you just have to pick a thing,” Aguirre said. “Like the mofongo episode is about fessing up when you mess up, or [the episode] ‘Bomba or Baseball’ is learning about making two different promises and wanting to do one thing more that you’ve already committed to something else.”
In addition to teaching critical thinking to younger audiences, Aguirre said, the show focuses on the Latino experience. Aguirre said the team works hard to try to present three-dimensional reflections of Latinos and other characters.
Most of the characters are based on real people Manzano knew. Aguirre said that helps the writers steer away from any stereotypical portrayals of characters.
“I think it also helps that we have educational consultants who read everything and they can tell us if we have a blind spot, because everybody has a blind spot,” Aguirre said. “I think that’s really helpful as well.”
Aguirre also said having a team of Latinos both in front and behind the camera helps in creating three-dimensional Latino characters. He said it is uncommon to have several Latino talents in one show, and for him, that’s important.
“One thing that sets our show apart from other shows is that we were created by a Latina and we also have Latinos behind the camera. Many of my freelance writers are Latino, the production company that animates [the show] are Colombian-Canadian,” Aguirre said. “The actors are Latinos. So, I feel like the whole show, just in its DNA, reflects Latinidad, and I think Latino kids will pick up on that.”
He said Latinidad, a term used to refer to the experiences of Latino people outside of Latin America, is reflected in the show in particular ways — like Alma referring to her parents as Mami and Papi, or her grandfather as Abuelito. And the show includes music ranging from salsa and bomba (a traditional Puerto Rican dance genre) to reggaeton.
In one episode, Aguirre said, the show introduces a Mexican American family who moves next to Alma. When Alma meets them, she says “chevere,” which means cool. Her new Mexican American friend doesn’t know what that means. When Alma explains to him what it means, the boy tells her that his family uses ‘que padre’ instead to mean the same thing.
“Then we have this kind of organic moment that comes out naturally where they talk about different words in different Latino cultures. I really liked the theme,” Aguirre said. “And they talk about corn. And he talks about elotes [another word for a kind of grilled corn in Mexico and Central America] and how much he loves elotes. Alma loves corn too. They bond over corn.”
These nuances can only be achieved when Latinos are part of the show, Aguirre said. It gives it authenticity, he said. He pointed to the example of an episode he is writing with his story editor, Dana Chan, that will take place in Puerto Rico.
“We’re making sure that every draft is read by two people from Puerto Rico, from the island, who tell us, ‘You’re getting this right’ or ‘You’re getting this wrong. You could use this Puerto Rican slang here just to make it real,’” Aguirre said. “If you’re writing, even if you’re Latino, but you’re writing about a different Latino group, you have to know what you don’t know and find out what’s the right way, what’s authentic.”
The show premiered this month. Aguirre said the reception has been positive and he hopes the show makes Latino kids proud.
“I hope that Latino kids see our show and they feel proud and they recognize themselves and they feel seen,” Aguirre said. “I also hope that non-Latino kids also recognize themselves because even if they’re not Latino, many of the issues Alma faces are issues those kids face no matter who they are.”