'Part of that tribe': Afro Latino actor on owning his mixed heritage

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ABC’s reboot of “The Wonder Years” aims to take millions of viewers back in time to tell the story of a Black middle-class family in 1968 Montgomery, Alabama. But for Allen Maldonado, who plays Coach Long in the series, the power of his Afro Latino identity comes from making viewers who look and sound like him feel represented on television today.

“I just think that visibility is everything. Representation is everything. And visual representation is even more powerful,” Maldonado told NBC News. “This is something that I’m embracing more — knowing that there’s a lot of people, a lot of Latinos that are just like me — Afro Latinos that have darker skin and want to be recognized. I’m honored to be part of that tribe.”

Fans will know Maldonado for his roles as Curtis in “Black-ish” and Bobby in “The Last O.G.” But whereas those characters were still maturing into adulthood, his character in "The Wonder Years," Coach Long, is a “strong Black man.”

Maldonado, 38, draws inspiration to play his character from the Black history that his family taught him off screen.

“My mother’s from Ramer, which is 20 minutes south of Montgomery, from the sticks, where every house is like a mile,” he said. “My mother walked out of her middle school classroom when Martin Luther King got assassinated. My great uncle and my grandmother would tell me stories about them having to walk to school and the white kids and the white bus driver would purposely splash mud over them when it rained — even though the bus driver lived next door to my grandmother.”

The experience of listening to his family’s words and seeing the pain in their eyes as they shared their stories, Maldonado said, helped him connect their past with the reality of his character in 1968 Montgomery.

On screen, the TV show relies on nostalgia to recreate parts of that era. But it also tries to hook in viewers with familiar experiences that are happening today.

Image: Allen Maldonado, center, as Coach Long, on a camping trip on an episode of the
Image: Allen Maldonado, center, as Coach Long, on a camping trip on an episode of the

“Growing up, mom and dad gave me the police talk about how to handle yourself around cops,” Don Cheadle narrates at the beginning of the series' pilot as a much older version of Dean Williams (played by Elisha Williams), the 12-year-old protagonist of the series. “There was a presidential election that created a racial divide. And there was a flu pandemic that they said would kill a million people around the world. But it was 1968, and that’s the state our country was in.”

Maldonado grew up and went to high school in Rialto, California. But the actor spent many childhood summers with his dad’s Puerto Rican family in the Wagner Projects of East Harlem, New York, as well as his mother’s Black family in Ramer, Alabama.

When asked about the Latino side of his family, Maldonado said that his father moved with eight brothers and sisters from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New York when he was roughly 9 years old. The actor remembers meeting his father when he was 7, two weeks before his dad died. But spending time afterward with his Puerto Rican family nurtured his mixed identity.

“As many other people that are mixed, you definitely understand that you are more,” Maldonado said. “A lot of times growing up, early on, you felt like you weren’t enough, weren't Black enough or Latin enough. But as time grew on — I figured that I would be more.”

The idea of owning his heritage, and the recognition of what this means and signals to others, still drives him.

“There’s a kid right now that’s going to be able to look at the things that I’m doing and be inspired. When I was growing up, there really wasn’t a lot of people that look like me, sound like me, doing these particular roles,” he said.

“To all the mixed kids out there who may feel less, you’re more," Maldonado said, "and that’s something that I preach just because I know what it feels like.”

A major story arc involving Coach Long will be revealed Wednesday night (Oct. 27) in the ABC series' sixth episode.

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