Recently, the actor Will Smith shared a photo on his Instagram account of a 30-year-reunion of the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast. The reunion is the subject of an upcoming HBO special about the show. Notably missing is the great James Avery, who played “Uncle Phil,” and sadly passed away in 2014.
It’s hard to put into words what this show meant to me, but I’ll try. When I left Cuba in 1995, I left without both of my parents. That alone was hard enough to deal with as an 11-year-old kid, not to mention the newness of everything; new language, new school, and hopefully new friends.
One of the ways I decided to learn English was to watch TV. Unbeknownst to me, I would catch the last season of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air just three months after arriving in South Florida.
The show was about an outsider (Will Smith) coming into a land of opulence (Bel-Air) and wanting to fit in, while at the same time trying to stay true to his roots. If that’s not the immigrant experience, then I don’t know what is. On top of that, Will left his mom behind to be raised by his aunt and uncle. Well, I too was now being raised by my aunt and uncle, along with my two cousins.
To be sure, Miami, or at least my neighborhood wasn’t anything like Bel-Air, but compared to what I left behind in Cuba, it felt like it. Everything was new, shiny and illuminated.
While my father wasn’t exactly like Will’s on the show, my father did in a sense walk out on our family the moment he decided to have an affair. All divorce kids deal with a sense of abandonment that stays with us long after our parents’ sign the official papers. We’re victims caught in the middle, unsure of our loyalties and our safety.
When Will’s father come back into his life, only to later disappoint him, I felt that. I cried with him. His father walks out and Will tries to play it cool at first, as if it doesn’t bother him, only to later embrace his uncle as he cries, “How come he don’t want me, man?” Right then and there Will promises to be a better father, and so did I, even thought I was barely a teenager when I watched that episode.
But it wasn’t only heartbreak that the show taught me. It also taught me how to love Hip-Hop. From the catchy opening song, to several rap artists appearing on the show, Hip-Hop and its culture was front and center. 1995 was also the year that Tupac Shakur released Me Against the World, an album that featured Dear Mama, a song so beautiful and heartbreaking that it still brings me to tears today.
When Tupac released All Eyez on Me in 1996, I remember begging my aunt and uncle to buy me the CD. They did, despite not knowing anything about 2Pac or hip hop. When he was murdered, his popularity soared even more. That same year me and a few of my close friends I made in middle school started our own “rap group”. Our band name was “Apocalypse” and when each one of us had to pick up a stage name, mine was “Prince.”
I grew up listening to Juan Gabriel, Julio Iglesias, Willy Chirino and the like. I had no idea who “Prince” was. I took my cue from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I wanted to honor the show that I identified so much with, that while Will Smith was the “Fresh Prince,” I was just “Prince.” Whenever I engaged in freestyle battles or the like, many-a-jokes were made at the expense of my stage name. I didn’t care. I never changed it.
As a 12-year-old, the show also helped me, or so I thought, how to talk to girls that I liked. In reality, I was more like the shy and introverted Carlton around girls, than the smooth-talking Will. But still, I watched and tried to take notes. And what kid my age didn’t have a crush on Ashley Banks, played by Tatyana Ali?
In high school, I had asked my grandmother to buy me a really expensive and over-sized Nautica jacket. It was a yellow jacket that had the words “Nautica” on the right sleeve. When I got to the school-bus stop , one of the kids there said to me, “It looks like you stepped out of a Hip-Hop music video.” That was high praise, to be sure. By then I had already discovered Nas, Jay-Z and Outkast. I even had joined an online freestyling forum board where I’d won many “battles” and had proven myself as a dope MC. I was reading Neruda and Jay-Z as equals, interpreting both as important parts of my life.
The Fresh Prince World
Also in high school, one of my English teachers prompted us to write about our weekend and I straight up ripped off a plot from the show. I don’t remember the details now, but I remember that “Carlton” became “Carlos” in my story and that something hilarious had happened to us. The teacher gave me an “A” with a suspicious look on his face. Was this skinny immigrant kid really that interesting?
I didn’t know I was watching the last season when it was airing. I only learned that at the final episode, when the entire house was empty and Will goes back to look at it one last time. That scene reminded me of walking the tarmac to the airplane that would take me away from my island and my parents. I looked back one more time at Cuba, a beautiful island filled with so much sadness and potential.
The show much meant so much to me. It still does. Ironically, a lot of the jokes didn’t land at the time because I was still learning English, but I connected with it, with its characters, with its story and with its culture.
I think it’s time for a re-watch.