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Writing the Immigrant Experience with HBO Max's 'Gordita Chronicles' Creator Claudia Forestieri and Showrunner Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz

Claudia Forestieri and Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz speak with Script about the show's conception, their approach to finding the comedy within their lived experiences, staffing their room with diverse voices, the importance of telling and seeing immigrant stories, and why they became writers themselves.

The year is 1985 and Cucu “Gordita” Castelli (Olivia Goncalves) has just said goodbye to all of her friends and family in Santo Domingo and moved to Miami with her marketing executive father Víctor (Juan Javier Cardenas), bold and vivacious mother Adela (Diana Maria Riva), and suddenly status-obsessed older sister Emilia (Savannah Nicole Ruiz). While life in America is far from what they imagined, the Castellis are determined to take charge of their strange new world. A uniquely funny coming-of-age series, Gordita Chronicles is about family, opportunity, love, resilience, and boldly defying the status quo in pursuit of the “American Dream.”

Gordita Chronicles is the family comedy show you didn't know you needed in your life. The beating heart of the show is the fish out of water immigrant Castelli family from the Dominican Republic that wants only the best for their new lives in the United States. While there is heart and a lot of laughs, there's also a great message at the core of this series and historical lessons to boot. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this show is also breaking down barriers for the BIPOC creative community, making Claudia Forestieri and Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz the first female Latinx creator and showrunner duo. Plus, their writer's room is 80% immigrants or children of immigrants (8 out of 10 writers) and 80% are also BIPOC. In addition, 30% of their writers also came from Sony's Diversity program.

I had the great honor of speaking with both Claudia and Brigitte about the show's conception, their approach to finding the comedy within their lived experiences, staffing their room with diverse voices, the importance of telling and seeing immigrant stories, and why they became writers themselves.

[L-R] Olivia Goncalves as Cucu Castelli, Savannah Nicole Ruiz as Emilia Castelli, Diana Maria Riva as Adela Torres Castelli and Juan Javier Cardenas as Victor Castelli in Gordita Chronicles. Photograph by Laura Solanki/HBO Max.

[L-R] Olivia Goncalves as Cucu Castelli, Savannah Nicole Ruiz as Emilia Castelli, Diana Maria Riva as Adela Torres Castelli and Juan Javier Cardenas as Victor Castelli in Gordita Chronicles. Photograph by Laura Solanki/HBO Max.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Claudia, how long was this story kicking around in your head until you decided you had to get it on the page as a television series?

Claudia Forestieri: Well, it started in 2016, I met Brigitte in 2013, in the NBC Writers on the Verge; but by 2016, Brigitte, who was a few years ahead of me, the comedy goddess, she had already gotten staffed on a few shows, I had yet to get staffed. Everybody tells you write something very personal, right? Something only you could write. So, then I started thinking about my life. And Carole Kirschner, who does all these wonderful seminars, said, ‘Well, if you can't think about what's interesting about your life, divide your life in five year chunks. And think about the biggest thing that happened.’ I did that. And at seven years old, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. The biggest time of my life was moving to the United States. And I didn't speak the language. And it was such a culture shock.’ We went from being kind of middle class to immigrant class, and it was like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna write about that.’

Claudia Forestieri

Claudia Forestieri

At the same time, in 2016, Trump was running for president, and he said all these horrible things about immigrants. And that was not my experience growing up; I didn't know one drug dealer growing up, even though I lived in Miami in the 80s, with the cocaine cowboys and everything. So, I was like, ‘OK, this is a good time.’ That’s why the show has voiceover because it's adult Cucu looking back on her life from the present, and what it was like. That was a time I saw a parallel between, even though it's a comedy, I saw a parallel between what we were living in 2016 and 2017. And with the Trump presidency, and that anti-immigrant sentiment, and the anti-immigrant sentiments of the 80s in Miami, with all the influx of like Cuban immigrants and immigrants from Columbia and Haiti. So, I thought this is a great time to write about it.

At first, it just started as a sample. It used to be a one-hour drama. An executive at Sony read it, Frank Ochoa, and he's like, ‘Hey, have you considered making this into a TV show?’ I was like, ‘Well, no, you think it could be one of these?’ And he's like, ‘Well, would you make it a half-hour comedy?’ Because I write both drama and comedy. And then I was like, ‘I will turn this into a frickin’ procedural if you think it will sell. Are you kidding me? Like a musical, whatever you want!’ So then we started developing it. And then we sold it. And that's where Bridgette came in.

Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz: Just like Claudia said, right after they got a pilot order, Frank at Sony approached me and asked if I would read the script. And I actually had read an earlier draft to help with punch-up and thought it was just so special. And so darling. And I really connected with the material. My mom immigrated from Colombia when she was twelve. And I'm first-generation, I grew up with my mom and my grandma, both speaking Spanish in the home, and our experience was similar and their experience was very similar in a lot of ways. And I grew up hearing all those stories, and really connected to the experiences. And not just their experiences but Cucu's attitude about the world and optimism despite the challenges, despite people's perceptions of her having this dream and going for it, and I thought that was a positive message and so inspiring.

And as Claudia said, we never see immigrant stories – people running from violence, people crossing over in the middle of the night, and not to invalidate any of those stories - but also, I think that was the only way many Americans thought about immigration, they didn't necessarily see the people. In that experience, they only saw the crisis. And so, it was an interesting angle to focus on the family and not the situation necessarily.

Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz

Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz

My grandmother was a school principal. And when she came to the States, she was doing factory work. And I would help her, you know, like piecework they would send it home. Not that there's any shame or anything bad about that kind of work, but what I want to shine a light on is that it's a big life change. And it's a big sacrifice for a lot of people. But it's worth it to them to have an opportunity. And there are so many opportunities here.

Sadie: When staffing the writer’s room, what were you looking for in voices to round out this specific world?

Claudia: Well, I have Brigitte, I have been a fan of her writing for years, and her comedy chops are so strong. So just having her was amazing. When we got greenlit to series, we were flooded with hundreds of scripts - not to toot our own horn, but Sony said they had never gotten so many scripts in recent memory. So, we were like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ So we came to an agreement, ‘OK, we both have to really love the script.’ We read like crazy. And then I always knew that like I wanted one Dominican writer. My parents are both Dominican and my dad was Dominican Italian, but I was actually born - my life story is a little bit more complex than Cucu's the fictional version - I was actually born in Puerto Rico, and I came when I was seven. So, I was like, ‘OK, I want a writer who lived in the Dominican Republic.’ And then we also wanted writers that would represent different facets of not only the Miami immigrant experience, but the American experience.

Brigitte: It was a very tough rubric to tick all the boxes for actually. But we really wanted people who had experience with immigration themselves or were first generation, people who had hard comedy experience, and people who were fun and funny to be with and their scripts were good. Specifically, the immigration perspective, because that's where we were going to be mining all of our stories from. Claudia and I have stories for days, but you want variety, you want people to share their perspectives. We have a whole bunch of writers representing various immigration experiences, which I think is what makes our show feel so honest and authentic.

In terms of comedy, we have an incredible gamut of comedy writers and comedians, on our staff. We have stand-ups, we have improvisers, and we have actors. We've got all these wonderful ingredients that when we put it all together, it was a fun and funny room that, in my opinion, doesn't look like any other room that I've seen or been in - and I've been in a lot of comedy rooms. And I just think when you include those high-quality ingredients, the product is just so much better.

[Mining the Comedy from Uncomfortable Situations: An Interview with ‘Pen15’ Co-Creator Anna Konkle]

Sadie: I really enjoyed how you implemented historical events into the storylines, that I’m sure many viewers are either not aware of or just frankly forgot. How did you creatively approach interweaving history and comedy within these storylines?

Claudia: It was different for every story. And as Brigitte said, a lot of the stories were based on real-life immigrant experiences, whether mine or Brigitte's or somebody from the room. Sometimes it would be like a real-life experience that might not have necessarily been funny, and then making that like for episode two, that Brigitte and I co-wrote, that was inspired by something that happened to me when I first got to the United States, and I didn't speak English. And a teacher punished me by putting me outside. At that time, I was seven, and then I started crying, and my mom had to come. It was a little bit of a sad story. But then Brigitte, with her freakin’ comedy genius, thought of a way to make that funny and translate that to our world. And so sometimes it would happen like that. But sometimes you just come up with like, a funny idea. And then figure out like,’ OK, how do we kind of like ground it a little bit in an episode?’ But then sometimes we would come up with a funny situation I would remember something from Miami in the 80s, ‘OK, we've got to do it like this or that was dialogue.’ So it was a combination. Sometimes the real-life story came first as inspiration. Sometimes it was a funny story, that we grounded and added those authentic details.

[L-R] Showrunner Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz producers Zoe, Cisely and Mariel Saldaña, Eva Longoria and creator Claudia Forestieri. Courtesy HBO Max.

[L-R] Showrunner Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz producers Zoe, Cisely and Mariel Saldaña, Eva Longoria and creator Claudia Forestieri. Courtesy HBO Max.

Brigitte: Yeah, and in terms of the historical context, what we wanted to do with that was to expose people who hadn't heard of it, who didn't understand, who had never been to Miami in the 80s, essentially, to understand what the climate was for a person immigrating there then and how hostile it really was. And for the adults that didn't have that historical understanding. And for kids, who, thankfully, a lot of things are better, I mean, not totally better, but kids are a lot more educated and they have more exposure to how people should be treated - not that it's so much better, but we weren't always this polite, it was a very hard and it is a very hard time, you know, to be a person of color in America. And so, we were trying to just educate a little bit for historical context for the story, but then in terms of the fun stuff like in the 80s, we had press on nails, that helped bring some of the flavor of that time to help sell the period.

[L-R] Olivia Goncalves as Cucu Castelli, Noah Rico as Yoshy Hernandez, and Cosette Hauer as Ashley Bell in Gordita Chronicles. Photograph by Laura Magruder/HBO Max.

[L-R] Olivia Goncalves as Cucu Castelli, Noah Rico as Yoshy Hernandez, and Cosette Hauer as Ashley Bell in Gordita Chronicles. Photograph by Laura Magruder/HBO Max.

Sadie: I’m curious about your individual writing journeys and inspired you to become a writer?

Brigitte: I'm sure you hear this a lot - I always loved television, that it was one of those things that I grew up in a very, very white part of California. And I was not only Latina, but Jewish in a town that wasn't any of that. And so, I felt very othered in that environment. And also, I wasn't allowed to watch TV, which made me love it even more. My mom's an educator and really just preferred that I read books and do music [laughs] which was absolutely the right thing, probably. My grandmother, my dad's mom would tape shows off the television and then mail them to me in like secret care packages so that I could watch them so that I could know the pop culture, I could assimilate a little bit more. I remember the day that I saw Friends for the first time and my mind was blown. And then I went to school the next day and I could chime in on that conversation about it, like kid watercooler talk. [laughs] It sounds so stupid, but it was really a passport for me to join the rest of my peers. And my love for television and comedy just grew for them. My grandmother also really fostered comedy for me. She would send me old audio tapes of old radio shows like The Jack Paar Show, The Bob Hope Show – I grew up with all those old comedy shows. In our house, old comedy matters. My mom was really great about fostering my writing as well. She is an educator and she was always really encouraging about that.

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I went to USC for writing for screen and television, not knowing what I was going to be getting from that experience. I was so young to have made that choice. I'm glad I did. But when I graduated, I was 21. And I just had written a bunch of scripts from my childhood experience, there wasn't a lot for me to say yet, I don't think. And so, no managers or agents wanted to represent me, I started to get really panicked about it. And I was like, I think I have to go back to grad school to do more school. When I was an undergrad, I had worked at the American Film Institute, working with their graduate program, helping them do producing type stuff. And I realized it was something I really liked. And then I applied to grad school at Columbia for producing. I got my masters in producing there and stayed in New York to do indie film producing. I worked as a line producer and a production manager in the indie world and commercial space for a while, all the while just being like, ‘I miss my writing, and I miss comedy.’ I was taking improv classes and taking sketch comedy classes. Producing was always meant to be a means to an end to help me be able to produce my own writing. And at a certain point, I was realizing that I was just producing and producing and producing and not writing. And so, I made a change. I asked my line producing mentor, Robin Sweet, who's an incredible producer if she knew anyone that was going on a TV project, and she said, ‘Actually, I am. Do you want to come?’ And it was Person of Interest, the pilot, and she said, ‘You'll have to take a big step back.’ And I said, ‘I don't care.’ So I went from producing to being a production secretary all over again, I was going from the indie features to TV, I was immigrating. [laughs]

Claudia: [laughs] Yeah, immigrating.

Brigitte: And so, from that, I actually became the script coordinator on that show, because I knew the software from when I was producing. And I got to be friendly with the showrunner and the creator. And I started to write a little sample, even though I didn't do drama. I was like, it's in the right direction. It's TV. And I wrote a little sample. And when they got picked up, I said, ‘Would you consider me as a writer's assistant?’ And they said, ‘Sure.’ So, I packed up all my stuff; and they told me on Monday that I got the job and the job started Wednesday. I like packed up my stuff from New York, came out and just started working. And so, I was support staff on that show for two and a half seasons and I was like, ‘Well, how do I move from drama to comedy?’ I started taking more comedy classes out here and building up a comedy portfolio just writing, applying to the workshops, applying to labs, and just trying to meet more people who were comedy writers. The drama and the comedy, it's not like now, they kind of overlap a little bit. They were very separate at that time. My only real in was through the labs, I thought as a way to make that full transition. I ended up getting into the lab the same year as Claudia. But ironically, I did not get my first job through the lab. My first job came through somebody I met at USC, another writer from the program had become an agent. And she had seen one of my short films and read my scripts. And when a spot opened up on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, my sample just happened to be about women in law enforcement. And so, it was the right place, right time. I was very fortunate.

[Telling Your Truth on the Page with 'Ted Lasso' Writer Jane Becker]

Sadie: That's an incredible journey. And a big thanks to your grandmother for fostering your comedy side. Claudia, what was your writing journey that led you to telling this story?

Claudia: When I was in fourth grade, there was an essay contest, and I wrote an essay called I Wish I Was Skinny. And a week later, they read that winning essay over the PA system, and I was mortified, because I didn't know it was going to be read out loud. But then, my teacher started being nicer to me. The bullies were nicer to me, and that's when I got hooked on writing. And I was like, ‘Wait a second, I can share my deepest, darkest, desires, and people will like me for it, what?’ So then, I went to college, I didn't know how to become a TV writer, I wanted to become one, but I didn't know how to do it. The role model that I had was Oprah Winfrey. And Oprah started in news. So, I was like, ‘I'm gonna do news. That's storytelling.’ I worked for Telemundo, first as a reporter in the bay area and then in Chicago. Also, I worked behind the scenes in Miami, and then all these years passed.

In 2008, Alex Nogales the head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition - they did a Latino writers lab, and they came recruiting that was the only other one for different cities to recruit people, I was in Miami - and he's like, encouraging people to be writers. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is what I've always wanted to do.’ I applied to the program, but didn’t’ get in - it was too late. I was already obsessed to become a TV writer, and moved to LA. And I thought I used to be a journalist, and I'm Latina, they need Latino writers, I'm going to get a job. But yeah, cut to six months later, I'm working in catering. [laughs] Just trying to pay my rent, ‘What am I gonna do? What have I done?’ I was 35 I'm like, ‘I'm crazy.’

I started educating myself, going to seminars at WGA, and took some UCLA Extension classes, and I kept figuring out what I had to do. I got back into news this time, behind the scenes in LA, because I realized I need a day job to support my writing habit. Got into NBC’s Writers on the Verge, but then it still took a few more years for me to get staffed. And after that, finally, through Disney/ABC, I got staffed on Good Trouble for a season, wrote my first script of TV, produced my first script for TV, and then I got on Selena. And Selena was a very challenging show and we had to rewrite a lot. And I got to take on a lot of responsibility on that show, because some writers left, and I got promoted. I always just wanted to tell stories about the Latino community. First, I started off in journalism, but then I realized I just want to really tell stories that are a bit lighter, and really touch people's hearts, not just inform them.

Sadie: I love that story and just goes to prove the power of storytelling and the written word, like with your school essay as a child. What do you hope audiences will take away from watching your show?

Claudia: That immigrants are the biggest fans of the United States of America. You don't leave everybody you love and come to a place unless you love the country. Most of them, like 99%. I just also want to say anybody who's kind of like either Gordita or Gordito or whoever has been criticized for something whether a physical flaw or some other personality flaw, I just want them to know that at the end of the day, we all get criticized sometimes when we're children. If somebody tells you no, you can't do something, the one thing about Cucu, is she never takes no for an answer. She doesn't let the fact that somebody tells her no, you can't do something, stop her. So, we want, especially the younger viewers, just to know just because somebody tells you that you can't do something doesn't mean it's true. Just because somebody criticizes you for a flaw doesn't mean that it's not something that you can turn into an asset.

Brigitte: Yeah, I want people to see themselves in our family. Whether or not you've immigrated, I want people to look at our family and be like, ‘Oh, we're the same.’

Watch Gordita Chronicles starting June 23, only on HBO Max


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