By Jon Higgins
The first season of Netflix’s On My Block won over viewers by telling a story that’s rarely told, focusing on the challenges for young Black and brown people growing up in inner-city Los Angeles. Throughout the show, we see the core group’s sole female member Monse (Sierra Capri) navigating complex relationships with her family and friends, while often being the glue for her small circle. But it’s the show’s charismatic introduction to its male protagonists — Ruby, Jamal, and Cesar — and their rich, personal backstories that makes On My Block so impactful.
The critically-acclaimed show is anchored by performances from stars Jason Genao, Brett Gray, and Diego Tinoco, and, thanks to its popularity among young viewers, it was quickly renewed for a third season after Season 2 dropped. Its funny but realistic commentary on growing up in South Central L.A. is led by an unconventional approach for television and film: unpacking the complex issues that marginalized men face as they’re coming of age.
For many, what makes the show a must-watch is how it offers a different side of Black and brown inner-city youth than the overused archetype that renders them cold and unavailable. Whereas shows like East Los High and 13 Reasons Why feature Black and brown male characters who wear machismo like a badge of honor, On My Block allows its characters to show who they are and what they’ve been through; we see the beauty in giving young, marginalized men freedom to be their true selves.
In Season 2, the production was intentional about how they developed the stories of each of the young men on the show. From Ruby’s (Genao) impassioned declaration to "not [live] a life of fear and regret" and to live a life of love after being shot, to Jamal (Gray) demanding the respect and attention of his friends — something he rarely got in the previous season — this show reminds us that young Black and brown men’s lived experiences are complicated and multi-faceted.
Take Cesar’s (Tinoco) internal feelings of guilt that spawned from disappointing his brother and gang superior, Oscar (Julio Macias), after he didn’t carry out Oscar’s charge to kill a rival gang member who threatened him in Season 1. The tension that lives between the siblings after Oscar disowns Cesar goes beyond the familial ties that they share with the gang — it’s about the brotherhood code that Cesar broke by not doing what Oscar trusted him to do. The portrayal of his struggle with losing the relationship with his only family member is not only explicit but honest, true to so many experiences that young men of color must go through when living and growing in certain communities of L.A.
At the same time, Cesar carries a great deal of guilt from putting all of his friends in harm's way as a result of his gang involvement — a feeling that intensifies while he deals with the ramifications of the Season 1 finale, when Ruby was shot and his ex-girlfriend, Olivia (Ronni Hawk), was killed by said rival gang member.
In fact, it’s that same deep care that Ruby, Jamal, and Cesar have for their one another that solidifies one of the most touching aspects of the show: how accepting they are of one another. The show flourishes when we see the young men be unapologetically themselves with one another; we celebrate with Ruby and Jamal when they break out into random moments of song and dance, and again when they lean on each other for emotional and mental support.
Jamal, for example, challenges concepts of toxic masculinity that are often held in Black communities through his vulnerability. He’s extremely vocal about being fearful of Oscar and even opens up about how angry he felt after Oscar took the Roller World money from him. And, when Cesar needs to kept safe from the Prophets, Jamal doesn’t hesitate to share a room and bed with him.
Season 2 reminds us of the importance of giving young Black and brown men space and freedom to process their pain. Throughout the season, there are several moments where we see a much-needed softer and more sensual side to masculinity. These are young men who say they love each other, who embrace one another, and who aren't afraid to communicate their feelings. Jamal and Cesar’s concern for Ruby when New Year’s Eve fireworks trigger a post-shooting anxiety attack, and Ruby and Jamal’s unrelenting fight to help secure Cesar’s safety after his brother kicks him out of his home — these acts of care remind us how crucial supportive, platonic relationships are to the development of young cis-men.
This season challenges the viewer to think about how young Black and brown men can express their emotions. We see the tears in Cesar’s eyes as his brother tells him that, because he failed to carry out the job assigned to him by the Santos, he can’t come home. In that moment, Cesar is scared. And later, after reparations are made, as we watch them embrace, his words to Oscar about needing his brother for emotional support show a tenderness we rarely see in depictions of Latinx male relationships.
Similarly, when Ruby’s brother Mario (Danny Ramirez) gives him a kiss on the forehead after they discussed Mario’s fear of becoming a new father, their fears of “manhood” are put on display. As Ruby reassures Mario that all will work out, we’re seeing young men of color overcome years of ingrained toxic masculinity together.
Throughout its latest season, On My Block actively challenges the way viewers see young men of color: Cesar’s struggles to make it on his own and the loss of acceptance from his brother; Ruby processing his emotions after surviving gun violence; Jamal’s fearless vulnerability.
On My Block’s second season was a breath of fresh air from the “machismo” tropes we have come to expect. In what can be seen as a show about agency and authenticity, On My Block reminds us why it’s so important to challenge the norms and expectations we put on Black and brown men in society and how successful a show can be by crafting narratives that tenderly portray them as real and human.