How a kid from El Monte became one of Hollywood’s few Latino executives


Scouring his highschool class schedule, then-14-year-old Cris Abrego caught his breath.

TV Production.

It was 1986, and the incoming freshman, a self-described TV addict, assumed the course would train Latino teenagers like him learn how to construct tv units. After all, this was an period when college students in working-class communities, together with these at El Monte’s Mountain View High School, have been inspired to take auto or wooden store to arrange for a blue-collar life.

“When I found that it was actually to make television, I was blown away,” Abrego mentioned.

That class would show instrumental in shaping ambitions that will take him past El Monte. By his junior yr, Abrego was lugging round a cumbersome TV digital camera, interviewing fellow athletes, cheerleaders and the principal for a student-produced present, “What’s Up,” which borrowed closely from “The Arsenio Hall Show” — albeit with much less glitz.

Today, Abrego is one of Hollywood’s few high-ranking Latino executives, overseeing U.S. and Latin American operations for actuality TV juggernaut Banijay. The French-owned firm owns rights to such exhibits as “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and “MasterChef.”

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Still, the 50-year-old Abrego usually has felt out of place in a Business that has lengthy embraced white executives, many from privileged backgrounds. It bothers him that Hollywood has been sluggish to acknowledge the consequences of its insular attitudes, which may seep into programming consumed by tens of millions.

Latinos, particularly, have been shut out of leisure’s higher ranks even because the business has pledged to do higher. Rising considerations concerning the obvious disparity have reached boardrooms and Congress. Last fall, a Government Accountability Office report discovered that Latinos — 18% of the U.S. workforce and almost 40% of California’s — comprise solely 4% of Media executives.

Abrego has been making an attempt to pry open the business. He serves as chairman of the Television Academy’s basis, its charitable arm, the place he and different executives created an internship program to assist younger expertise from L.A.’s deprived communities.

“I’ve seen how hard it is to get into this Business,” Abrego mentioned. He’s additionally accustomed to assumptions made about Latinos. “I’ve had enough keys thrown at me while standing by a valet stand.”

Seeds of change have been planted throughout el movimiento.

Young Latinos within the Sixties have been impressed by the Chicano motion, together with Florentina Carrasco Abrego, the sixth of 9 youngsters born in Mexico to a homemaker and seasonal farm laborer who “worked the fields here in California,” she mentioned. She moved to L.A. on the age of 13 in 1963, the yr her mom died, leaving her older sisters in Boyle Heights to look after Tina and her youthful siblings.

Tina Abrego attended Lincoln High School and was among the many estimated 22,000 highschool college students who walked out of their school rooms in March 1968 to protest inequalities within the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We just wanted a better education,” she mentioned. “I’d never heard the word ‘college’ before the walkouts.”

Freddie Resendez rallies students at Lincoln High School in 1968.  (Los Angeles Times)

Freddie Resendez rallies college students at Lincoln High School in 1968. Tina Carrasco Abrego is pictured within the middle background, in entrance of a window. (Los Angeles Times)

(Los Angeles Times)

Determined to go, she enrolled at Cal State Long Beach. There, she met Silas H. Abrego.

The son of grape pickers, he was raised in Pomona and after highschool was a paratrooper within the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, stationed in Japan. He accomplished his tour simply weeks earlier than his unit mobilized for Vietnam and attended a vocational faculty. “I was going to be a machinist,” he mentioned. But a trainer who tutored him in math steered Sy Abrego towards school.

At the time, there have been so few Latinos at Cal State Long Beach that “I was often mistaken for being an Arab,” Sy Abrego mentioned. He was politically lively, serving as president of the campus United Mexican American Students.

“On weekends, we would get our signs and go to the Safeway markets and boycott the lettuce and grapes because of the farmworkers’ conditions,” Tina Abrego mentioned. “Then we got into protesting the Vietnam War. We just wanted to Help make change.”

They married in 1969 and had a son, Esteban. Their second son, Cristóbal, arrived in 1972, and the next yr, they purchased a modest residence in El Monte, 12 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. They may afford it, simply barely, as a result of Sy Abrego had been employed as the primary director of USC’s El Centro Chicano (Chicano Student Center).

“My dad was the only guy in the neighborhood who wore a tie to work,” Cris Abrego mentioned.

Education was pressured within the residence. Sy Abrego earned his grasp’s, then his doctorate in training. He joined Cal State Fullerton, the place he spent 27 years, retiring in 2012 as appearing vp for pupil affairs. Former Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the Cal State Board of Trustees and he helped oversee the 23-campus system till final yr.

For a long time, Sy Abrego gave speeches to college students and group teams. He spent hours working towards.

“Cris was always the one who had to listen to the speeches,” mentioned Tina Abrego, noting that she could be busy with housekeeping or her research. (She returned to varsity, incomes bachelor’s and grasp’s levels, and became a faculty administrator in Pomona.)

“Cris grew up learning about the inequities that minorities face,” Tina Abrego mentioned. “Cris grew up hearing our stories.”

He remembers his household’s boycott of grapes and its embrace of civil rights.

“We would talk about things that were unjust,” Abrego mentioned. “We would talk about creating equity.”

A high school boy holds up a video tape in front of AV equipment

Cris Abrego, pictured at Mountain View High School in El Monte, Calif., circa 1989, is one of the few Latinos from East Los Angeles who has efficiently climbed the company ladder in Hollywood.

(Cris Abrego / Mountain View High School)

Family life had a sure rhythm: work, faculty, sports activities — and TV.

“As a youngster, he used to sit with me all the time and watch TV,” Sy Abrego mentioned. “He wouldn’t miss any of those ‘Kung Fu’ episodes or old comedy shows.”

“Hill Street Blues,” the ‘80s police procedural, was a favorite, as were repeats of Norman Lear’s “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times.”

“It was the first time that I saw people of color on the screen,” Cris Abrego mentioned. “Those shows felt more real to me.”

Sports was his different love.

In highschool, Abrego became an All-American wrestler identified for shortly toppling opponents. To preserve his 175-pound weight, Abrego would run alongside the San Gabriel River sporting a black plastic trash bag.

He’s lengthy been pushed by a aggressive streak that served him on the wrestling mat and in life. “I believe that’s where he really got used to relying on himself to power through adversity and strive for the very top,” mentioned former Business associate Mark Cronin.

An older couple stands and smiles  next to a shelf with framed photos

Cris Abrego’s mother and father — Tina and Silas — of their West Covina residence.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Abrego attended Cal State Fullerton on a wrestling scholarship. During his freshman yr, he returned to El Monte and one afternoon was driving a bike with a pal, Carlos Hernandez Jr., on the again. Traveling about 50 miles per hour, Abrego made a flip, hit a curb and misplaced management. Both he and Hernandez went flying.

Hernandez slammed into a concrete mild pole and died. When Abrego regained consciousness, he was handcuffed to a hospital mattress. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter, a felony.

A jury convicted him the next yr, however the choose sentenced him for a misdemeanor. Abrego frolicked with Caltrans crews and prisoners, cleansing trash alongside freeways for group service.

But the ache minimize deep. He sports activities a tattoo above his left bicep — a sketch of Hernandez and the phrases “Memories of El Monte.”

After graduating from Cal State Fullerton, Abrego was prepared to interrupt into leisure.

But Hollywood wasn’t .

Seemingly numerous journeys to L.A. led to rejection. “It was hard to fit in because I didn’t have shared experiences with a majority of people in this Business,” Abrego mentioned. “I didn’t go to a school on the East Coast. I didn’t go to Europe for a summer.”

Finally, he answered an advert for a part-time sports activities editor at a Palm Springs-area TV station, KMIR. The interview went properly, and the task editor urged Abrego stick round to satisfy the sports activities anchor. But the anchor referred to as in sick. Now the station had a query for Abrego: Could he compile sports activities clips for the newscast?

He gamely pitched in, and afterward lingered within the foyer to observe the newscast.

“When my sports highlights came on over the TV … chills,” Abrego recalled. “I couldn’t believe it was going out to people’s homes. That cemented it, I wanted to be in this Business.”

He reported for work the subsequent day and spent 14 months producing dwell TV within the desert, shifting as much as turn out to be a director. But he was getting married, his soon-to-be (and now) spouse had a job in L.A. and he desperately needed to make it in Hollywood.

He nonetheless struggled to get interviews. But one of his mom’s associates had a daughter who labored in TV and she or he advisable Abrego to a pal who was placing collectively a recreation present for Fox. The interview went poorly, however undeterred Abrego made small speak about his large desires. He was employed as a manufacturing assistant.

The present, “Big Deal,” lasted simply six episodes. But Abrego lastly had a Hollywood credit score — and newfound business associates. One advisable him for a job at Bunim/Murray Productions, the powerhouse actuality TV producers of MTV’s “The Real World” and “Road Rules.”

Abrego began there as a “logger,” taking observe of video scenes and time codes. He beloved the fast-paced tradition and relished lunchtime pitch periods that Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray held within the atrium of their Van Nuys constructing.

Over Panda Express takeout, Abrego mentioned, “I learned to develop shows and understand the process.”

After a couple of years, Abrego grew stressed and, eager to turn out to be an govt producer, launched his personal firm in 2001 with a fellow producer, Rick Telles. “Survivor” had turn out to be a smash hit for CBS, and networks have been hungry for actuality TV.

An agent launched Abrego and Telles to Cronin, and so they pitched “The Surreal Life” to the WB community about fading TV stars residing collectively in Glen Campbell’s former Hollywood Hills mansion. Network executives urged they work with established producers.

They approached Bunim and Murray — however they couldn’t come to phrases.

“We took umbrage with the fact that the show felt so derivative of ‘The Real World,’” Murray mentioned. “A boneheaded move on our part turned out great for Cris. It really positioned him to move up in the industry.”

Because Abrego and Cronin owned the present (uncommon for a actuality present), they have been in a position to transfer it to VH1 when it completed its WB run. Around this time, Abrego had a falling out with Telles, who launched an eight-year authorized battle over present rights and earnings. Telles received an $8-million arbitration award.

Business was booming. “The Surreal Life” reenergized VH1, which ordered different Abrego- and Cronin-produced “celebreality” exhibits. The Times featured Abrego and Cronin in a story headlined “The kings of dubious TV.”

Two men in black shirts smile in front of a mansion and next to a school bus

In 2007, The Times featured Cris Abrego, left, and former Business associate, Mark Cronin (proper) in a story headlined “The kings of dubious TV.” The pair have been pictured right here on the Encino set of “Charm School,” one of the truth exhibits they produced for VH1.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

One of their exhibits, “Charm School,” centered on unsophisticated younger ladies taking classes on type and sophistication. The present’s first-season star was the outspoken comic Mo’Nique. On the primary day of manufacturing, she referred to as a day trip.

“The assistant director came running and said: ‘Mo’Nique has asked us to gather the entire production crew in front of her,’” Abrego recalled. “She wanted to see how many people of color were working on the production. … They’re talking to me, this brown kid from El Monte.”

Abrego was chagrined that the present, that includes a various forged, was being produced by a almost all-white crew.

“It hit me like a friggin’ ton of bricks,” Abrego mentioned. “Her point was that representation matters.”

group of mostly Black women in school uniforms posing in a classroom

Comedian Mo’Nique, middle, starred within the first season of VH1’s actuality present “Charm School,” produced by Cris Abrego and Mark Cronin by means of their manufacturing firm, 51 Minds Entertainment.

(VH1 )

Within a few years, Abrego discovered a option to apply the rules his mother and father lengthy talked about — alternative and equality — to his personal world of leisure.

Abrego and Cronin’s success attracted curiosity from Dutch actuality TV large Endemol. In 2008, Endemol USA purchased a majority stake of their firm, 51 Minds Entertainment. The pair remained one other six years as managers, and Abrego segued into the company suites.

In 2013, Abrego was provided the job as co-CEO of Endemol North America. He was reluctant: The desk job paid lower than producing — and he acknowledges being a bit intimidated as a result of he didn’t have an Ivy League training or an MBA.

“But my dad looked at me and said: ‘Mijo, son, you have a responsibility to take the CEO position,’” Abrego mentioned. “He said: ‘Those three letters will become more important to other people, other Latinos, than they will to you.’”

His father’s phrases weighed heavy.

Few Latinos have made it to the highest of main TV networks and studios. Latino executives usually have been steered into Spanish-language tv.

“That’s great, but that shouldn’t be the only place where you have Latino executives,” mentioned Ana-Christina Ramón, director of analysis and civic engagement for UCLA’s social sciences division and co-author of UCLA’s influential Hollywood Diversity Report.

“The U.S. Latinx consumer is very much into watching mainstream television, which is English-language programming,” she mentioned. “It’s not enough to just have Latinx actors on screen, you have to have executives that really understand the community.”

Now, Abrego lives in Sherman Oaks along with his spouse and three youngsters. As Banijay’s chairman of the Americas, he oversees greater than half a dozen manufacturing corporations, together with Endemol Shine North America and Bunim/Murray Productions — the place he received his begin. He’s decided to empower Latinos and he’s additionally aggressively championed his firm’s Spanish-language Business, promoting its exhibits to Telemundo, Univision and Netflix.

“I realized that from where I sit, is that those three little letters in my title — CEO — gave me the access to do more,” Abrego mentioned.

Four years in the past, his previous boss and now underling Murray urged creating a coaching program to offer substantial alternatives for younger individuals of coloration who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship or a low-paying assistant job — the everyday routes to a Hollywood profession.

“People from modest income families couldn’t afford to do that,” Murray mentioned.

Murray and Abrego raised greater than $1 million for an endowment to offer paid internships as half of the TV Academy Foundation’s Diversity and Inclusion Unscripted Internship Program. Beyond the inspiration, Abrego has been engaged on incubator tasks and different business hiring initiatives.

Such efforts come almost a decade after Abrego launched his personal self-funded initiative to Help pupil athletes from Mountain View High go to varsity. His mother, Tina, helped administer this system, which has offered tuition Money and different assist, reminiscent of computer systems, to almost two dozen college students since 2013. The program known as the Carlos Hernandez Jr. Memorial Scholarship.

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