Every time we see Ugly Betty's Ignacio Suarez pull a batch of enchiladas out of the oven, or offer unsolicited (but straight from the heart) advice to his daughters Betty and Hilda, we secretly wish we were in their shoes. Endlessly nurturing and intensely protective, Ignacio has become this generation's iconoclastic Latino father figure. But Tony Plana, the man who puts on an apron over his short-sleeved shirt week after week to play Ignacio, is no stranger to fatherhood himself.
With a daughter (Isabel) entering high school, and a son (Alex) headed to Yale this fall, Tony has managed to beat the odds and raise compassionate, motivated kids in a generation plagued by increasing teen pregnancies and adolescent crime. In honor of Father's Day, Tony spoke to us about bringing up teenagers in America, his conventionally-dysfunctional Cuban family, and what makes Ignacio Suarez TV's favorite papi.
You were born in Cuba and lived there for several years before immigrating to the United States. What was your family like back home?
Dysfunctional! We were poor, but passionate. We had a live-in grandmother that was always fighting with my grandfather and us children watching it all and suffering right along with them, but at the same time we were very much there for each other, very involved with each other.
Our father was very distant, as a of lot Latino fathers are, so my father did not interact with us in terms of activities in school, sports and all that. He was a very much a detached individual. I think that has been the M.O. of the stereotypical Latino father.
Did you use any of that as background for Ignacio Suarez, your character on Ugly Betty?
Yeah, I went the opposite of that. I think [Ignacio] is one of the few Latino men on the planet that likes to cook clean and do laundry, and is very fulfilled by it. He feels that the mother has passed, no one is there to do it, the kids are busy doing their thing. So I am very proud of that because there is a very feminine side to Ignacio.
What do you think the show has meant for the image of the Latino family in America?
It has shown that we are normal people who are imperfect and rely on each other to make life better and I truly value the show for that. It represents Latino family in such a positive light. We have our positives aspects and our negative aspects were beautiful and ugly, funny and sad, comedic, and tragic just like everyone’s life in one way or another. I think people respond to that, I think it is the most effective Latino family portrayed on television.
They fight but they love and they support, they are defined by each other and ultimately that is a healthy way to live, in contrast to the more affluent characters of Mode [the fictitious magazine where the show's title character Betty Suarez works], it is really an upstairs downstairs scenario and contrast in the series.
You've managed to raise two well-rounded, down-to-earth kids in Hollywood. What's the secret?
I think finding time, really good quality time. I wasn't always good at that but I think I've gotten better as I got older. It cant be just through a cell phone or email, although those things are wonderful, but nothing ever replaces just hanging out. My wife has helped me realize that.
What kinds of values did you want to pass on to your kids?
They know how much I value education as a key to personal growth. My wife has taught me that yes, quality time together is important but it's also important to allow them to see how you live your life, and to live a full life, one that is committed to others dedicated to bettering the world.Kids learn more from watching you and observing your behavior than from listening to what you have to say. So, they see me go to church every Sunday and they know I value that. Both my son and my daughter have turned out very close what we wanted for them. They are spiritual people, socially conscious and very balanced.
What surprised you most about being a father?
You know one thing you do learn about raising children is that nothing ever last very long, they are always going through multiple phases and one phase evolves into the next. It's like they say about Seattle, "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes!" Well, it's the same with kids.
Betty Suarez is often describes as the heart of Ugly Betty, so then Ignacio is...
The soul! One of my favorite lines this year was when I said to Betty, "you're too old, mija, for me to make you cupcakes." And she says to me, "Daddy, I will always need your cupcakes!" It's a funny line, but it means she will always need her father, what he is to her what he gives to her. It's beautiful. It's magnificent writing for television because its simple and yet profound at the same time and entertains us and makes us laugh about human nature and reminds us about human needs.
We heard it's official, Ugly Betty is moving production to New York this fall. What does the move mean for your family?
Well, it's hard for us because my wife and I have such a base out there [in Los Angeles]—parents, grandparents, work—but the timing couldn't have been better. It's really a dream come true. My eldest starts Yale in the fall, so we'll be closer to him, and for my daughter to have the privilege to experience high school in New York City—this couldn't be a better place for her.