Last month I binged my new favorite show The Bear, now streaming on Hulu. The story follows the plight of a young, renowned chef named Carmy (played by Jeremy Allen White) who returns to his hometown of Chicago after the death of a family member. Upon returning, he is forced to take over the family’s Italian sandwich shop “The Beef,” and as soon as we are invited into this world, we are pulled right into an anxiety-inducing story about love, respect, and what food can do to heal a family. Right at the top, we are introduced to my favorite character Tina, a no-nonsense, long-time employee and family friend of “The Beef” who is played by the incomparable Nuyorican actress and writer Liza Colón-Zayas.
I had the pleasure of meeting Liza Colón-Zayas in 2012 when I produced, directed, and acted in a student production of a play called The Den of Thieves (written by Stephen Adly Guirgis in which Colón-Zayas originated the lead role). Colón-Zayas has been a long-time mentor from afar and when I had the opportunity to chat with her over Zoom about her experience working on The Bear (and her love of food), I jumped at it.
“What has worked for me is being as authentic as I can be, professional as I can be, driven [as I can be], because if I eliminate any of those three things, I’m just at more of a disadvantage,” Colón-Zayas tells me, referring to the struggles of being a woman of color in Hollywood and how it relates to Tina. “I’m already at a disadvantage but if I embrace all the stuff that I hate about myself and flip it, if it means telling that story, and being as specific as I can about this particular event or however it unfolds, I have to believe, even if I don’t believe that I’m worthy, that I’ve earned it.”
What has worked for me is being as authentic as I can be, professional as I can be, driven [as I can be].Liza Colón-Zayas
The reason The Bear is so impactful to me is because the food they cook isn’t fancy. It’s accessible, and it doesn’t look down on or “other” you. It presents us with sloppy, tasty sandwiches that anyone can enjoy and afford. In Latino households, food is one of the highest forms of intimacy because it is how we show our love regardless of what our budget may be. My Abuelito used to say that there is nothing that can’t be solved over a good meal. It unites us and forces us to partake in an activity that fills us with nourishment and unity. In The Bear, each person in that kitchen is referred to as “chef,” making it clear that nobody is above anyone else. Nobody is an “other” there – regardless of their background, they are family and see each other.
As we continued to chat, Colón-Zayas shared a bit about her experiences with food during her own adolescence in a low-income household and how, regardless of whether or not dinner came from a can of spam or corned beef, they made it taste “banging.”
“I absolutely remember the shame about eating that stuff, I mean, oh my god,” Colón-Zayas recounts. “But if I get a hankering I’ll buy pulpo, octopus out of the can.” She continues, “You know with the rice and garlic, and the onions, and peppers and the blah blah blah.” She takes a breath. “And it’s cheap and this is how I got through, during college, after college… And you know what? No shame if it comes out of a can.” Another pause. “I mean this was survival food and when I eat it, it reminds me of Abuela and Mami and home and the struggle. Because the struggles are real.”
I mean this was survival food and when I eat it, it reminds me of Abuela and Mami and home and the struggle. Because the struggles are real.Liza Colón-Zayas
This hit me hard because growing up nothing about dinner was ever phoned in by my mother or Abuelita. It was deliberate, regardless of how tight our budget was or the struggles we were enduring at that moment. I remember my mother dragging me from store to store in Washington Heights until we could find all the ingredients that we needed for that night’s dinner. At the time, it couldn’t have been more annoying to me, but now I realize how much it taught me about providing for myself and my loved ones. When my mother embarked on making a meal for us, she taught us a form of resilience. So now, at 30 years old, if I can’t find affordable platanos at one store, I’ll absolutely walk 20 minutes to another one that I know has them.
“I mean, f*ck it. Whole foods is cute and all…. if you can afford it,” Colón-Zayas jokes.
Throughout the season, Tina’s confidence and trust in her work family improve when she acknowledges her own self-doubt, letting her ego die so she can rebuild a relationship with her culinary craft. She is forced to accept that only she can control where she is and looking around at others who might have more “success” or “experience” than her isn’t productive.
What I love about Colón-Zayas‘ performance is that she has created such a rich inner life – can read it on her face anytime she looks in your direction. You see her strength as a Latina, her experiences as a petite woman of color, and her determination to earn her keep. You also see her connection to the act of preparing food and its relation to the women who raised her. No matter who is watching The Bear, Tina will fill viewers with empathy and validation every time she’s onscreen.
“To be an artist to me is about representing the truth whatever that may be.” Liza Colón-Zayas definitely accomplished that in The Bear.
To be an artist to me is about representing the truth whatever that may beLiza Colón-Zayas