East Los High: More than TV Drama

What happens when health workers and social scientists team up with creatives? Quality TV is what happens.

There has always been conversation about the high rates of teen pregnancies in black and Latino households. And although we are seeing a steady decline in the rates at which all teen populations in the US have unwanted pregnancies, these rates still remain highest among Latino youth.

So, in an unlikely collaboration between scientists and TV producers anxious to find solutions to Latino teen pregnancy rates, East Los High was created.

Now awaiting a fifth season on Hulu, this teen drama explores the lives of a group of Latino high schoolers in a fictional high school in Boyle Heights, a suburb in Los Angeles with a dense Latino population. The series centers on a group of friends who are all in a dance troupe as they deal with immigration, LGBTQIA, mental and reproductive health issues. Though the series is not without gratuitous amounts of grit, sex and “real life drama” (which undoubtedly explains its success), this series also manages to seamlessly incorporate educational moments for its target audience: Latino youth.

Edutainment Uses Television to Educate

East Los High is indeed an homage to the history of educational entertainment (or “Edutainment”) made popular in Latin America. Edutainment’s popularity soared in the 60’s and 70’s when TV producers used telenovelas to entertain and educate viewers on social issues pertinent to their experiences. Pioneers of this movement like Miguel Sabido created a framework for injecting social commentary into telenovelas that would be well-received by viewers.

The Story of East Los High

East Los High upholds this edutainment tradition with most of its storylines. The more dramatic storyline is centered on two cousins, Jessie and Maya, who both vie for the attention of Jacob, the school’s popular football star. Jessie, who is a virgin, struggles with whether or not she should become intimate with Jacob. But, because of the weird love triangle between Jacob and the two cousins, Jessie reels from her experience and eventually ends up pregnant and ignorant of who the father is. Jessie’s pregnancy is preceded by another cast member, Ceci, who demonstrates the challenges pregnant young women face. Not only is she pregnant, she eventually is abandoned by her boyfriend Abe and becomes homeless after the birth of her baby. Ceci’s storyline highlights the challenges,  but also demonstrates resources that young women can access when they find themselves in similar situations. East Los High makes a point in showing how a community (in Ceci’s case, the women at the shelter where she lives) can come together to support young women. Ceci’s storyline is emblematic of the overall purpose of the show: to spark conversations about health-related issues and to highlight resources available.

East Los High Engages Today’s Young People

It isn’t just the drama that contributes to this show’s success. The producers of the show have discovered how best to reach today’s entertainment-savvy youth by providing several ways to engage in the show’s content. Recognizing that teens spend a significant amount of time on the internet, the producers of East Los High focus on a comprehensive experience both on and offline. At the end of each episode, viewers are encouraged to visit the East Los High website. The website offers video extras, social media engagement, recipes, and storyline extras like “Ceci’s Vlog” where Ceci, the pregnant and homeless teen, shares her experience on having a child without much support.

This website also offers a comprehensive list of NGO partners and resources young people can access to find more information on the issues addressed in each episode. NGOs have tracked successful outreach brought by the show with promising results. Planned Parenthood, for example, reported that during season one, 22% of total widget visits were accessed through the East Los High website. Additionally, Stayteen.org, an organization dedicated to providing sex education resources to teens, saw more than double the amount of their usual web traffic to their site on season premiere day.

Youth Want Information About Pregnancy Prevention

Why is this important? The increase in traffic to these sites show that youth are seeking more information about their options when it comes to pregnancy prevention. It also shows that there is still a place for the edutainment drama in the 21st century. As more young people look to social media instead of news outlets and traditional education to inform them on pertinent issues, all of us must make a conscious effort to support media that brings issues to youths’ televisions and smartphones in unique creative ways. A brochure may not get a young person’s attention, but a teenage soap opera with a massive social media presence and quality online content seems to be doing the trick.