The success achieved by the Miami-based weekly extravaganza has pretty much defined the entry experience for millions of Latin American immigrants to the U.S. in the last 26 years. When Don Francisco was first tapped to start a network show for Univision in 1986, it was designed to accelerate the growth of Spanish-language television as a platform to reach a growing number of Hispanic consumers.
Sabado Gigante began with a concept that unified U.S. television strategies with the need to focus the consumer market for an emerging Latino population. "We came up with the idea that we are Hispanic," says Kreutzberger. "We are far away from home, but united by language. That was our tagline. Separado por la distancia, unidos por un idioma."
These sentiments were part of an idea that was not only about marketing, but actually creating a Hispanic identity where national-origin groups, despite their differences, were brought under a single umbrella, united by language. NYU Professor Arlene Dávila puts it this way in her book Latinos Inc.: "Not only did [Spanish-language network television] create a dependable and steady base for placing advertising by providing continuous programming for Spanish-speaking populations, but it also formed the basis for the conceptualization of Hispanics as a nationwide community, linked and imagined by the networks."
"Sabado Gigante continues to be the highest-rated program in the Western Hemisphere," says Federico Subervi, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media & Markets at Texas State University and author of numerous studies on Latinos and media. "It combines farándula with the town square that maintains diversity and allows friends and neighbors to mingle."
My mother, Maria Morales, has her own reasons for remaining loyal to the show: "You get the opportunity to learn about the dances and music from all the different countries — bachata and merengue from the Dominican Republic, the norteño music from Mexico. They have all the musicians — recently they had Elvis Crespo and Kany García."
There is also a vicarious sense of participation, whether through the constant involvement of audience members to judge what are essentially karaoke contests and dancing throw-downs – a formula that has worked remarkably well on reality talent competition shows like America's Got Talent and American Idol.
Then there is the dramatization of the aspirational Latino consumer. "Everyone watches the part when they give away the car," adds my mother. "Everyone wonders what they would do with the car, everyone imagines whether they would just hold onto the modest amount of prize money rather than risk it all."
My mother's favorite part of the show, however, is not about the music or the prizes – it's about family. Los niños de la conversación, as that part of the show is called, is the convergence of the well-worn stereotype of Latinos as placing children at the center of all activity and the brave new world of social media. This segment, which features a roundtable of regularly appearing children, might have been destined to the corny dustbin, but is suddenly re-emergent in our world of photo- and video-posting excesses that we have grown to not only tolerate, but crave. Along with the endless array of kitten and dancing salsa dog videos, Sábado Gigante traffics heavily in the culture of cute, avoiding obsolescence.