As cinema continues to struggle with Chicano representation, let alone portray the Spanish community in a non-stereotypical fashion, television has been quietly (and sometimes, not so quietly) making headway toward better treatment of its Latino characters. With more members of the community producing and writing for television, the wealth of fully fleshed out characters has been more noticeable than ever.
Not every show needs to be about Latinos, nor have a Spanish actor forced in a show outside their comfort zone just to make a point, I just want other forms of media to realize that we’re here and ready to show off.
With non-traditional services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu taking more of the advertising money, traditional television is learning to capitalize on the increasing Latino demographic. With under 3% of English and Spanish speaking homes watching Spanish-only television, and the population’s buying power totaling somewhere around $1 trillion, TV shows that cater to the demo are rewarded with high ratings and revenue. That doesn’t mean pandering will work for the audience, however, so no show can be churned out for a quick buck just because. Take ABC’s recent, and far less memorable Killer Women, for example. A reboot of the Argentinan novela Mujeres Asesinas, produced with Sofia Vergara (who once noted in an interview that she started getting roles once she dyed her hair brown and chased after traditional “Latina” characters like in Modern Family) among others, the show was an American set program starring Canadian actress Tricia Helfer. It basically removed all of the origin’s Argentinian identity and that was enough to cause its demise. A public assimilation turned failed experiment was obviously the wrong direction.
That’s why a show like Cristela, a middling sitcom full of Latino characters, can be one of the most popular comedy debuts last fall (second only to Black-ish, which further illustrates the need for a wider cultural umbrella) and can practically take over ABC. It’s one of the few shows on the big three networks that’s explicitly for the Latino audience. The only reason I don’t rally behind it, however, is because the whole thing rings false. It’s a particularly loud cry for attention, and an obvious pull for money. But not every successful Latino program of the last season was as loud as this. One show proved we can have both a Latino influenced program, with a strong multi-cultural voice, and be intelligently subdued about it to make it digestible for those outside the audience. There’s no need to alienate our community further.
The CW, a network making fine strides toward delivering multi-faceted television with capable, “nerdier” programs like Arrow and The Flash, tapped into something great with Jane the Virgin. An incredibly personal, emotional, and cultural program, Virgin demonstrates how a show can both be a positive representation of its culture, without alienating viewers outside of it. It may be a slight parody of the Spanish telenovelas that inspire it (which also lets a new audience know how great the genre can be), but has yet to feel degrading or belittling within its current run of episodes. Gina Rodriguez, earning herself a Golden Globe in the process, has developed the titular Jane with a Latina background that doesn’t make up the entirety of her characterization, unlike recent efforts like Fox’s Gang Related. With the Latino community’s evolution, as less Latinos are bilingual and more non-Latinos become invested in the growing population’s culture, television networks are slowly learning that it’s okay to cast Chicano actors and not have that be their only quality. We’re done playing the “gang leader” or the “prostitute” or “drug kingpin.” It’s okay to give us boring roles too.
It must be weird for me to argue that I love Latino characters that aren’t explicitly Latino, like maybe a guy named “Jeff” who just works in an office or something, but that’s the current trend we South and Central American ethnicities are heading in. Jane the Virgin is just one big example, but TV shows are casting Latino actors in other shows and don’t make a big deal out of it. Take Brennan Meija in Power Rangers Dino Charge, for instance. He’s a Latino character (last name’s Navarro), but that’s not even remotely important to the heroics at hand. Or Disney’s Sofia the First, which is Disney’s first Spanish princess. Her distinct European looks make Disney pass her off as a more non-ethnic Princess, but that doesn’t matter since we’re soon getting a second effort with Princess Elena of Avalor getting her own show in 2016.
Disney revealing their Latina princesses through TV shows rather than cinema reflects the current attitude the majority of the community has. As cinema struggles to utilize and give us multi-ethnic heroes and villains, television is currently taking a progressive stance and gives the community more of a voice. Sure I’d like more non-white showrunners and network heads, but after all of these years of struggling to find strong Latino voices on TV I’ll take what I can get it. Television has been good to my community lately, but I hope we’re not just the flavor of the month.