5 Latinas Discuss Cristela, Jane the Virgin, and Representation on TV
This fall, two television shows starring Latinas, and featuring American Latina culture, made it to primetime. In Cristela, we’ve seen a milestone: it’s the first-ever primetime sitcom not only starring a Latina (any Latina!) but also created, written, and produced by her as well. Cristela Alonzo, a 35-year-old, Mexican-American comedian/writer from San Juan, Tejas, is blazing through barriers and has created a show based on her family, to boot. On the other hand, this fall we’ve also got Jane the Virgin, based on the novela Juana la Virgen, which is maybe a bit more fantastical given its origins, but also shows a Latina family (including Puerto Rican-American actor Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanuevas) in a light that hasn’t necessarily been seen, barring maybe Ugly Betty (RIP!), in a primetime, network-TV setting.
I wanted to do a mid-season temp check with these shows, and to dig in to TV representations of Latinas in general, I assembled four fellow Mexican-American writers to discuss: Andie Flores (Austin, TX), Marina Garcia-Vasquez (New York, NY), Blanca Méndez (Seoul, South Korea), and Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles, CA). And I live in New York. We chatted about the impact of these shows, whether we even liked them, and what they might mean for representations of us in the future.
Julianne: I’ve been thinking a lot about both shows, both from a representational and artistic perspective, and one thing I keep coming back to is the pressure the writers and actors must feel—depictions of Latinas, especially Mexican-Americans, on television, is oppressively one-dimensional, so we get these two examples and it seems like so much is riding on them to be both relatable to us, and to communicate to a broader public that hey, la raza isn’t exactly what we’re so often portrayed as, if at all.
I have so many questions for you all. First of all, the basics: how do you like these shows, as art? How do you like them as depictions of Mexican American women? Do you think they’re comparable? What are your feelings? Especially inherent to this, obvs, are important questions of identity and politics. (I consider myself a Feminist Chicana/Xicanista, btw, fyi.)
Andie: Although they don’t have to, both Cristela and Jane the Virgin keep things relatable, at least to someone who was raised in a Spanglish-speaking household as a hardcore Catholic. I see myself and my friends in both women. Sometimes, both shows can feel like they’re trying too hard to be relatable—one too many “Ay!”s, which add to the cheese factor more than any canned laughter could. (I wonder if the pressure of trying to please la raza y la non-raza alike feels like you’ve got the responsibility to squeeze in as many “Ay!”s in as possible.)
My analysis of both shows is umbrella’d under a few questions. What, by standards of network television/media/pop culture, makes a story worth being told? In this same light, what makes our stories as Latin@s “worthy” of being told? How much emphasis is safe to place on the “our”?
The characters Cristela and Jane are bubbly, adorable, determined, and firm in their ways. They know how to hustle and understand that it’s a necessity. They are kind and observant. They’re the kinds of ladies who are deeply rooted in their origins but conflicted in their desire to establish difference from their mothers. Both remind me of young women I could have met at any point in my upbringing in San Antonio, Texas, who could have easily been part of mi familia tambien.
The identities of these women bring up a question of, what kind of Mexicanas/Latinas do we want to see on T.V.? This question is often answered in a contrast to what kind of Latinas TV and pop culture has given us so far. We’ve put Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara on a pedestal and we’ve subjected much of the rest to narratives of the help—both silent and sexualized. (When Devious Maids first premiered, a good friend of mine said, “If you want to know more about a day in the life of a maid, go ask one. Ask how her day was.”) We can’t expect Cristela and Jane to be “the Latinas we need,” but they can be the Latinas that so often go unseen by the camera because they shine by living in a tangible “real life.” While Cristela is the fruit of the labor of Texan Cristela Alonzo’s family life and stand-up, Jane, an adaptation from the 2002 Venezuelan telenovela, reminds us that instead of new, original stories, the T.V. Latina is most comfortably viewed through a fantastical lens. We’ve got a Puerto-Rican actress playing a (possibly Mexican-American?) mother-to-be in an adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela. It’s sort of a stinging reminder that it’s 2014 and network execs are still clumping vastly diverse narratives together.
Can American television handle us outside of the fantastic, the twisted, the prolonged dramatic stares of telenovela dramas? Can they love us in the day-to-day? Do we need them to love us? What is the day-to-day as it exists for “non-characterized” versions of Latin@s? What gets written off as just another show “for Brown people” and what is a show that is cool and relatable and happens to be full of Brown people?
Yes, Jane the Virgin is a rehashing of an already-told story, but the insertion of it into a network typically filled with tales of pretty White women is important. Sure, Cristela is multi-cam. It’s got a laugh track. It’s not perfect. But the show talks about all the things we need it to right now—racism, sexism, body image—in a way other prime time shows haven’t before. Both shows give us examples of some different ways Latina life can play out, without claiming to be the final word or ultimate universality. Being involved, however actively, in pop culture means being thrust headfirst into a big world that easily feels jammed with White normality and narratives. I just want to feel like a person with a story worth being told. It feels good to interrupt network television in any way with culture that feels so beautifully MINE. Ours.
Marina: Let me be honest. I am skeptical: I have never been one to trust in mainstream media, especially the primetime television industry. Here we are at the advent of something clearly momentous and I have reservations. Can a television series be an instrument to social and cultural change?
If I were not on assignment I would not be willing watch these series, and in doing so, it was like watching an accident happen in front of you—terrifying to see someone you’ve held so closely for such a long time—a family member or metaphorically speaking your identity and culture, splayed for all to see.
In watching these shows I am at once mortified and mesmerized. Is this a mirror of who I am? Does it need to be? Can I relax and just enjoy the fact that our stories are making their way into the world? I am proud of those writers and actors who make these shows. I’ve chuckled and genuinely hope for the best. Yet at the same time I hesitate. I can’t move past the stereotypes: the trap of religion, unrealistic familiar duties, the virgin/whore complex, and the storylines where we all still live with our meddlesome mothers.
In Juana la Virgen, isn’t it enough that Juana just wants a better life different from her mothers? Why must she carry the burden of purity? And in Cristela, isn’t it enough for her to be intelligent and pursuing law? Why must her character be so self-deprecating? We do that enough in real life.
Blanca: I didn’t know these shows were happening until they started, so I had very little time to build any sort of expectations for them or to think too hard about what they mean for representations of Latinas on TV before watching. (Not to mention I’ve gotten used to zero representation while watching mostly Korean television this past year.) Maybe that’s why I went into this looking out more for details I could connect with rather than a reflection of myself.
I immediately recognized Cristela‘s María Canals Barrera as the Wizards of Waverly Place mom and Carlos Ponce from every novela. Canals Barrera, especially, was comforting because Wizards was a show that was important to me as an adult who consumes youth culture and cares about representation not so much for myself but the generation after mine. And on Jane the Virgin, there’s Ivonne Coll, who I know from Switched At Birth and Teen Wolf. Now that you know my consumption habits, I think it’s easy to see why Jane the Virgin got me on the hook immediately. I like it for the big drama and big acting and insane situations that get me like, that did not just happen TELL ME MORE. My usual rotation of teen and Korean dramas have me in a place where Cristela might take longer for me to warm up to, simply because not enough is happening.
Though I wasn’t looking for a reflection of myself in either of the shows’ leads, I found it in both. When, in the pilot, we have the flashback to Jane’s convo with Rafael about her future plans and she talks about her practical versus brave aspirations, I totally got that and remembered the convos I’ve had with many of my Latina friends about precisely that dilemma. I also identify with Cristela taking longer than she planned to get where she wants to be in her career, and I respect her hustle, as well as Jane’s and am looking forward to seeing their characters develop even more.
Tina: I heard the buzz about Cristela and initially, chose to avoid watching the show. I may be jaded in that I don’t expect anything from mainstream media when it comes to realistic depictions of people of color, but naively, I also get very excited when it seems a Latina is on the come up.
I’m happy I gave Cristela a chance, and I think the show will prove to be groundbreaking. The way Cristela handles overt racism and microaggressions is very relatable to me. When the boss’ daughter mistakes her for a cleaning lady, when her future boss mimics a stereotypical Mexican accent when interviewing her for an internship, her, “Did that just fucking happen?” reaction is excellent, and exactly my response when dealing with clueless white people as the only Latina in a work situation. I also love her interactions with her mom, who from what we can gather is an immigrant who had a rough life growing up. Every time Cristela’s mom opens her mouth, it’s to shame her children for how easy she thinks they’ve had it in comparison to her, which is kind of my relationship with my immigrant father in a nutshell. In those interactions, the genius of the show’s writing is very apparent to me. It’s so easy to fall into cheesy, needlessly emotional territory with storylines like that, but Cristela boldly sidesteps all of the bullshit, opting for humor instead of sentimentality, and that’s endlessly refreshing.
I’m surprised I’m enjoying Jane the Virgin as much as I am, though for different reasons than Cristela. I can relate to Cristela as a character. In Jane the Virgin, I’m watching because it’s fast-paced, clever, and full of the dramatic twists and turns we expect from novelas. I am disappointed the entire premise of the show is based on two, tired Latina tropes: We have Jane, the good girl and virgin who did everything right. Jane is trying to avoid the fate of her mother, the sexy, “spicy” Latina-type, who had Jane as a teenager and continues to be man crazy. It’s the whole Madonna/whore thing, but on steroids. While watching the first episode, I kept thinking of the feminist saying, “Ni putas, ni santa—sólo mujeres.”
I also keep thinking about how few Latina leading ladies are given the opportunity to excel at this level, which places an unreasonable amount of pressure on them to succeed. In turn, I feel like there’s also this weird pressure for Latinos—and Latinas in particular—to show up for these women; to watch their shows; to give them the viewership they need to be able to keep doing their thing. White people don’t feel this pressure, on either side.
Julianne: Tina, I really like and agree with what you said about these particular Latinas being saddled with an “unreasonable amount of pressure” to succeed, and that we as Latinas feel like we’re somehow betraying the culture if we DON’T show up, and how this feeling is unique to women of color in particular. And I think that point really speaks to the anxieties it seems like all of us are having around these shows: that we need them around, if not for us than for the youth, so to speak. There’s also that constant latent fear that if they are canceled, it could be years before we see another Latina star on TV who’s not hyper-sexualized and hyper-otherized by her white counterparts, a la Vergara. Of course, corporations have been seeing us as a marketable demographic (cause all Latinas are the same, right?!?!) for at least a decade, so if the money truly talks, maybe the future isn’t as worrisome. OR we just keep relying on Univision/Telemundo, which brings up a whole other set of issues (of whiteness, and of class—but that’s a whole other piece).
I have to say, Cristela has grown on me as it’s progressed, and I love love love Cristela as a performer—she’s so charming and I hope this propels her into movies. But it’s Jane the Virgin that I’m really into. Marina, I definitely see your point re: the depiction of the hyper-religious, hyper-pious Católica, which I think can come off as a stereotype even if it’s often a reality. Oh boy, my mom has so much in common with Jane’s abuela (although abuela has that great moment in which she confesses to Jane that she told her mother to have an abortion, which my Pope-following mom would unfortunately never do). But I also think that while Jane might be milking this depiction, it’s also showing something else: that Latinas are not one monolithic group, and that even in Miami we might not be as politically conservative as many (white, male) Republicans would have you believe. I like that there’s a little political flexibility, both with the abortion topic and just the depiction of lesbian characters, even though it’s all couched in this lightly outrageous novela format. (In fact, maybe the novela tone gives it a little more flexibility.) Also, Gina Rodriguez is awesome.
Now that a few episodes of each have aired, what are you thinking? Another thing I like is that both shows, in their own way, subtly show some cultural differences between Latinas in Tejas v. Florida, albeit in the broadstroke way any television show can do that.
Andie: I think we’re on the same page with being entertained to death by Jane the Virgin (this show has me on the EDGE OF MY SEAT OMG), but there are a couple of issues I’ve had with recent episodes of Cristela. In one, called “Mr. Felix and Ms. Daniela,” Daniela, Cristela’s sister, sells out by pushing Cristela to appear as the family’s nanny in order to gain acceptance from a rich white lady. It felt like an “outdated” and cheap shot that made me sooo maaadddd and—in my mind—sort of poked at the notion that these struggles happen often in Latino families, like Cristela’s family crumbled easily underneath the pressure to be something they modeled after a white lifestyle.
In this same light, why is Cristela still working for an insensitive racist dude? He has his spare moments of compassion but mostly seems like the kind of ignorant drag a lot of us encounter on a daily basis. It’d be awesome to see Cristela stand up to him in a more outright way, both because it would be badass and monumental to see assholes in power like him challenged on television and because her continued “obedience” to him feels uncharacteristic.
As much as I love Gabriel Iglesias in general (and by that I mean my dad LOVES him), the fact that Alberto won’t go away has gone from a “typical annoying neighbor” trope to just… being not okay. When he corners Cristela in her bedroom because he feels entitled to sex and attention after building her bed, the scene feels rapey and uncomfortable, and I only feel more squirmish when a laugh track follows his every failed attempt to woo her and her every turn down.
Other than that: We got a Selena shout out! (Holler!) The hard-ass abuela reminds me of the hilarious mom from The George Lopez Show, and when she bonded with the neighborhood kids over Dia de los Muertos, it was awesome. In the Halloween episode, I connected with Cristela’s frustration at her non-sexy Halloween costume. What did you think of the conversation Cristela and the boss’s daughter had about “insecure” women vs. hot women?
Also, does anyone remember if the mother in Juana la Virgen was young like in Jane the Virgin? Because if she wasn’t… I’m just wondering if that aspect was pulled out as a stereotype for U.S. audiences.
It’s been a long while since I’ve rooted for and have had my attention held by television outside of the reality world, but these shows are doing it. It might go back to what I said about devouring shows like Taina and The Brothers Garcia as a kid. I’m hopeful.
Blanca: I still can’t get into Cristela, even though I really really want to be here for a fellow Texican. Cristela herself is bright and charismatic, but there’s just too much about the show that bores me. From the nanny bit that had me like, really? to the mom’s “in my village” reprise and the sexy Halloween costumes thing, everything that’s supposed to resonate with me, or at least make me laugh, just falls flat. Already I feel like I’m being too negative and that I should be more supportive because if not us Latinas, then who? It’s a shame because, as you mentioned, Julianne, it makes me fear that if the show doesn’t do well, we won’t see much diversity in roles for Latinas for a while.
But Jane the Virgin! It keeps getting juicier and juicier! I get that the Latinas on the show do play into stereotypes (super religious grandma, young and sexy mom, devout daughter), but each of these characters has also shown plenty of depth and conflict even within the stereotypes. Jane, especially, is so likable because she’s caught between following the path she’s plotted with her grandmother, mother, and faith in mind (even with all the madness that’s come into her life) and allowing herself some flexibility because she’s still young and figuring things out. That pressure to do what you should do (according to your parents, who worked so hard so you could be better off than they were) even when you start realizing that maybe it’s not what you want to do is so real.
Now that I’m really thinking about it, there has been quite a range of Latina characters on TV recently. Just from shows I’ve watched there’s Selena Gomez on Wizards of Waverly Place, Naya Rivera on Glee, Aubrey Plaza on Parks & Recreation, Constance Marie on Switched at Birth, Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now Karla Souza on How To Get Away With Murder. But there wasn’t the same unfair pressure on these women to represent Latinas or make it for the Latinas because their Latinidad was not central to their character or the show as it is on Cristela and Jane the Virgin. I have to give it up to Cristela Alonzo and Gina Rodriguez for taking these shows on knowing that too much would be expected of them.
Marina: I agree with Blanca. I still cannot get into these shows. I have been in conversation with the Latinas around me to discuss the series, and I feel a heightened level of disappointment when I admit that I don’t feel either one of them. I wasn’t raised watching telenovelas and I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything but I do not like the many twists and turns of drama or really drama for the sake of drama as demonstrated in Jane the Virgin. I feel the same way about Cristela but with comedy. It is full of one-liners without any really substance or storyline.
For me, the common thread is the lack of credible main characters. Jane upholds her religious beliefs but speaks openly about desirous sex to her mother at breakfast. I sink at the idea. Cristela wants to be taken seriously professionally but is constantly high-fiving her boss and cracking inappropriate jokes at the law office. Both women in various stages of life are dealing with complex issues with the support of their families. This is great and probably the most beautiful part of both series.
But what strikes me as odd is that neither one of these characters has friends? No close friends or a best friend. They have no one outside of their traditional and immigrant families to bounce ideas off of or to concede to the pressures they must be experiencing. As women, we all know how important it is to find like-minded women from other cultures to think critically about where you come from and how far you can go. Yes, our families ground us but there is a whole society out there that we also interact with.
I know what you are thinking… you are saying, “But this is only TV, these characters are not real. Stop taking it so serious!” I know that these series were not created with me in mind. That is OK. But who exactly were they created for? The country is gearing up for the next few decades when Latinos will be the majority in numbers. There are rumors everyday that so-and-so signed to start a series for Latinos. I hope this trend continues to become a mainstay practice. I hope we get our Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a series that can address complex issues of race and class through comedy and with staying power. In the meantime, if I meet a young Latina who is so inspired by Jane or Cristela to become a writer, director, actor, or lawyer then all of this was worth it.
Tina: I think what Julianne pointed out when launching the second part of the roundtable was really important—and I didn’t know it was important until I spoke to a Latina from Texas about Cristela: the fact that Cristela is a proud Tejana is crucial. When you think of the representations/talking points that come out of Texas it’s always tough-talking, cowboy hat-wearing white dudes, George Bush (which is kind of the same thing), or a particular kind of Southernness—one that is white. What gets erased time and time again in mainstream depictions of those who inhabit the state is the fact that Texas has a massive Latino population. I mean, if there’s a storyline about Latinos in Texas, it’s probably going to be about them crossing the border, despite the fact that there are Tejano families with roots that go back generations. Selena and Sandra Cisneros are Tejanas, maybe the most recognizable among Latinos, but I would be reluctant to say the mainstream media understands those women to be cultural icons. (She’s not from Texas, but Jenni Rivera comes to mind. She was from Long Beach and if I remember correctly, the only person at a SoCal publication to do an in-depth write-up about her before she died was the OC Weekly‘s Gustavo Arellano- a Latino. Unsurprisingly.) So, geography is important. Cristela being equal parts Mexican and Tejana on primetime television is important.
Halfway through the season, I still find myself drawn to Jane the Virgin, but I know my fascination is surface-level. Like everyone, I like the drama. It doesn’t feel like the kind of show where we’re supposed to see ourselves reflected—and I certainly don’t. I identify with no one on the show and that’s OK. So for me, Jane the Virgin feels like more of an indulgence, the kind of thing I watch when I want to turn my brain off. It almost feels like a luxury that something so fun to watch features a Latino cast. Cristela doesn’t have me asking myself hard questions and I admit that as the season plays out, I see where the writing falls flat, but Cristela remains a character that I can see myself and my girlfriends in. That’s important to me.
I agree with Blanca that there has been a range of Latina characters on TV recently and they weren’t under the microscope the way that Cristela Alonzo and Gina Rodriguez are because as Blanca said, their Latinidad wasn’t central to their characters or the show. But all of that tells me that we still have a painfully long way to go. The fact that we can name the working Latina actresses in Hollywood, because there are so few, is depressing. So is the fact that the options seem to be: have your identity erased or have your identity magnified to the point where you’re positioned to have to speak for an entire community. And we are LIGHT YEARS away from seeing a true spectrum of the community reflected. Do we only find value in the work of light-skinned Latinas? Will we ever see AfroLatinos on mainstream American television?
I think what Marina pointed out is important, too. The demographics of the country are rapidly changing—and have been, with Latinos soon being in the majority. How is it that we still have to talk about this shit? Like, why is having complicated, nuanced Latina characters too much to ask for?
Andie Flores is a Xicanista, writer, performer, and teacher based out of Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter at @ANDALEANDIE.
Blanca Méndez is a teacher and writer in Seoul.
Tina Vasquez is the writer of Liberty For All, a weekly comic strip on CultureStrike about a queer, undocumented, feminist writer named Liberty Martinez. She is also a regular contributor to Bitch Magazine, a staff blogger at In The Fray, and the former associate editor at Black Girl Dangerous. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.
Cristela airs Fridays at 8:30 EST on ABC. Jane the Virgin airs Mondays at 9 PM EST on The CW.
Images via The CW and ABC