The Man Who Made Generation Ñ
Angie Martinez, an alluring, curly-haired entertainment lawyer, poses near a walk-in closet exploding with limited-edition Pumas, heels, and secondhand purses.
It's a random steamy Thursday afternoon in Coral Gables.
"Tell me about this outfit," says Bill Teck, a 40-year-old in blue jeans, as he turns his Sony video camera on Martinez.
"I bought this in LA," explains the 31-year-old, referring to her clingy white and brown tank dress. "I have big bazongas, so this thins me out." Then she raises her leg to display a lace-up leather camel boot. "These are my shit kickers," she adds.
"For you being so stylish, you're actually being pretty medida," says Teck, meaning her outfit is more moderate than usual.
"Así," she says, to end the style segment. "This is generation ñ."
Welcome to ñ redux. Teck dropped from the public eye soon after Newsweek named him one of the top 20 young Latinos to watch in 2000. Now he's back, a graying beard contrasting the youthful glint in his eyes, and he hopes to capitalize on the term he coined to describe millions of young, bilingual Americans influenced by their heritage. His plan: Market a new website catering to that group that dishes up locally produced content including sitcoms, documentaries, blogs, music, and indie film downloads.
"On the web, for the first time, like-minded people can really build their own channel," he asserts. "I know it sounds really bullshit Internet bubble but, unfortunately, I believe it."
He believes English-speaking Latinos are underserved. Media companies pander to them as if they're all one group rather than treating Mexicans as being unique from Cubans or Venezuelans. "You're not walking around in a Carmen Miranda wig or like, 'Hi, I'm Latina,' but it's part of you,'" he says. "I would rather create something that's really emphatic that people take to heart."
Among the current choices on his site — www.generation-n.com — are Novela, a sexy sitcom with short episodes that gives a behind-the-scenes look at four Miami guys creating a telenovela, and Planet Rosemary, which stars a self-described Cuban-American princess who offers astrological insight and wardrobe tips ("Make sure to wear a lot of bright colors," she advises when the moon is in Leo). Both are produced by Teck and his partners.
Teck is the only child of parents from the two worlds that made modern Miami. His father hailed from a New York Jewish family. His mother was Cuban. They fell in love in high school. His father, a salesman, worked nights and weekends at an adult bookstore. His mother was a secretary and managed real estate properties.
The family lived near Coral Way and SW 37th Avenue. He spoke English at home and Spanish to his Cuban grandmother, who had a place next door. He grew up watching Star Trek, drinking his abuela's café con leche, and listening to rockers such as Bob Seger (introduced by his Cuban mom).
Young Bill later attended military school, and his passion for cinema bloomed when he'd ride his bike to see art-house flicks at the University of Miami. At age 18, he enrolled in Miami-Dade Community College, where — he chortles — he was on the nine-year plan. By age 23, he had earned associate's degrees in broadcasting and cinematography.
He worked as a teacher and bummed around South Beach until, a few years later, he had an epiphany after watching the film Slacker. Maybe it happened while he was in the shower. It was 1995. He was in his late twenties.
His clutch of Cuban-American and Latino friends didn't connect with Generation X, the tag popularized by Canadian author Douglas Coupland to describe millions of that era's twentysomethings. His friends weren't slackers; they were bilingual go-getters nostalgic about their family roots. They were generation ñ.
His then-girlfriend, now wife, Lynn Norman — also Cuban-American — loved the idea. "I thought, What a great name! It's an interpretation of pop culture by someone who is bilingual. We laughed about being arroz con pollo and apple pie. It was 'God bless America' and abuelita too."
Teck trademarked the term immediately and began hawking ñ shirts on South Beach. The next year, he and Lynn wrangled $3,000 to start a magazine. Teck became publisher and editor. They printed Rolling Stone-style interviews with Celia Cruz and Tito Puente and his son Tito Jr., as well as articles featuring the Beastie Boys and Andy Warhol.
And they freely mixed languages. "People really responded to the Spanglish because no one was doing it at that time," Teck says. "My partner asked me if we should use footnotes. I said, 'We're in Miami. People can just take it to a Latin person.'" One early fan was Delio Nuñez-Menocal, who was then 21 years old and selling advertising for a Spanish-language entertainment weekly. "It was about me," explains the Cuban-American. "It was about life on the hyphen, growing up with Celia Cruz but knowing the words to every Led Zeppelin song."
The two met over burgers after the first or second issue. "In walks Bill in Chuck Taylors and a jean shirt, and I said, 'Dude, I thought you were rich.'" Nuñez-Menocal remembers. "And he's like, 'No, dude, we're broke.'"
Soon they became partners, and Nuñez-Menocal sold advertising to national companies that were hungry to tap into a burgeoning market. Witty, engaging, and self-effacing, Teck immediately became the voice of a bilingual generation. He nabbed attention from the New York Times, Newsweek, and even newspapers in London and Japan.
But at the magazine's peak, in November 1997, Teck's 57-year-old mother climbed into her bathtub and shot herself in the heart with a .38-caliber revolver. Teck was blindsided, but kept working. A month later, he signed a deal for The Official Spanglish Dictionary and by 1998 was hosting a pair of TV shows and a daily radio show, as well as writing a column in El Nuevo Herald. Then his father developed cancer, fell into a comalike state, and died in November 1998. "All my dreams came true — and my worst nightmare," says Teck, who was close to both parents.
In 1999, Teck began filming his first movie, El Florida, which he co-wrote and directed. Then Newsweek named him one of the top 20 young latinos to watch in 2000. The clipping, which he posted online at www.billteck.com, puts him in the company of singer Marc Anthony, writer Junot Díaz, and boxer Oscar De La Hoya.
But he began suffering anxiety attacks and spiraled into depression. Though he finished the movie, he couldn't muster the will to work on the magazine, which folded in April 2000. Two months later, El Florida opened at the Tower Theater in Little Havana. Teck says it grossed about $8,000 each week during a short run. It later showed at a few film festivals and colleges, but he didn't aggressively pursue wider distribution. "I so blew that," he confesses. "It was just a shutdown."
He married Lynn in 2001, and the couple moved into a friend's home. He couldn't sleep and began jogging at 3 a.m. to quell the anxiety. He spent days in bed. They lived off past profits, and Lynn did public relations work. "For Cuban-Americans, we don't deal with mental illness well," she explains. "We just think, Pull yourself together. I was afraid that he'd end up just like his mom."
Teck continued hosting a PBS series, New Florida, and dabbled in other projects. Two years later, he and Lynn found their own place, and Teck discovered a remedy: cognitive behavioral therapy. An analyst told him to write a letter to a person with whom he was angry. "I wrote a letter to myself — How corny, right? — 'You dumb bastard. How could you not see the signs [of your mother's depression].'"
By 2003, Lynn was pregnant. "You have to get better, and it's time for you to get a J-O-B," she told him. Soon he started Bill Teck Media and produced videos, documentaries, and advertising for businesses. The venture continues to pay the bills. Their only child, Vince, arrived in 2004.
In the years that followed, Teck stayed healthy and began developing shows. A friend, René Granado, suggested reviving generation ñ as a podcast. That evolved into the website, and Rafael Iglesias, who worked in marketing, signed on as director of development. Granado is charged with molding content. Teck is CEO. "It's three dudes," Teck says. "It's very homemade."
The trio has invested about $50,000 in HD cameras, servers, and computers. They launched in late January and so far have collected nearly 400,000 hits worldwide. Beginning in May, they plan to bring out new shows such as 45 rpm, a music production, and Barrios, a documentary series. They recently contracted with Hola Networks, an online advertising company, and Teck hopes to be profitable by the end of the first year.
Product placement could help. "If the Novela guys are at a bar, they can consume whatever beverage a company will sponsor as long as it works within the story," he explains. Eventually the trio hopes to branch out to New York and Los Angeles.
Will it work? More people are watching video on their computers. Most networks offer content on the web. NBC Universal and News Corp. combined last year to bring in $100 million in private investment for www.hulu.com, where people can watch shows and clips for free. "The bottom line is that people don't make money online, but TV makes tons of money, and the TV and the computer have met," Teck explains confidently. "It's just a TV network. But one that can get around the gatekeepers to find an actual audience. And people will watch commercials in order to watch TV."
For Teck, it's a second chance. "Before it was life-and-death," he explains. "Now it's just a cool thing to do."
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