Remember when “Ugly Betty” was a thing? It’s been a while since Latinos were prominently featured on television. Sure, there’s Sophia Vergara, we will get to her in a second. Even “Ugly Betty,” based on a popular telenovela (Spanish-language soap opera), had Latino characters in B-storylines and focused more on all the white actors and characters. But this television season boasts not only quite a few Latino series regulars, but what can best be described as Latino series.
Despite being the largest minority group with a rapidly growing 17 percent of the American population, which could be triple by 2050, we are still not highly represented on television. Here’s hoping this season isn’t an anomaly or just a fad. Remember that one television season where every new show featured a South Asian castmember?
I have talked about the Hollywood Latino problem before. The solution isn’t as simple as having Kanye West grab the mic at the Emmys and say Hollywood doesn’t care about Latinos. With a constituency hailing from more than 20 different countries, there are Latino/Hispanic Americans of various degrees of wealth and education. Many often speak not only Spanish and English, but multiple languages. And yet, on television we are under the shadow of pejorative stereotypes. These few roles often portray Latinos as ignorant, servile, sex objects, criminal by nature, loud or simply “funny-sounding.”
Sadly, despite the honor of being the highest paid actress in Hollywood, Sophia Vergara has to play a character that is all of those things. She wears what’s become the Latina uniform of a short cocktail dress and high heels. She does manage to infuse wit, intelligence and class into a one-dimensional role. Her jokes derive mostly from how “backwards” her culture is, how “firey and hot” she is and that she talks with a funny accent. She has earned multiple Emmy nominations, and yet, despite being able to memorize and insert so much into lines, in her second language, that make no syntactical or logical sense she hasn’t actually won the award. Meanwhile, Julie Bowen, who seems as much of a fast-talking, self-absorbed, obnoxious shrew like Claire Dunphy, has won two.
Despite where we’ve been, things are looking up. Check out some of the great, and maybe not-so-great moments for Latinos on TV today.
“Jane the Virgin”
This smart, sensitive series is a major upgrade from “Ugly Betty.” It has the same soap-operatic conventions, but it amps up the drama with more nods to telenovela fans. It doesn’t racialize the class divide and includes a rainbow of characters despite its Latino core cast. It has strong cultural ties, but is readily accessible to all audiences because it’s not just Latinos Latino-ing about their Latino-ness. It’s a scintillating, smart soap that honors its setting of Miami. Sure a lot of the women are wearing cocktail dresses and high heels, but if there’s any city where people wear manmade fibers in the light of day, it’s Miami.
Grade: A+ So far, it’s a better adaptation of a telenovela for an American audiences than “Ugly Betty” and “Devious Maids.” It doesn’t white-wash the original or pander to stereotypes. Instead, it just tells a good story.
Standup comic Cristela Alonzo forms a George Lopez/Roseanne Barr hybrid in this sitcom. She plays a lawyer who, in needing to take a career-boosting internship, is forced to move in with her family. Everyone is perfectly capable of speaking English, including the grandmother, who alternates between English and Spanish. Cristela does touch on racial politics and must deal with offensive jokes by white society, but her responses are part of why she got her own show.
Grade: A It shows the often overlooked Latin middle-class. No one is hyper-sexualized, including heartthrob Carlos Ponce. There is a happy balance between the stereotypes that Alonzo battles on the series and humor that comes from alternate sources.
MTV isn’t doing much for humanity, let alone minorities, with shows like “Teen Mom” or “Jersey Shore,” so this series is a welcome change. It joins MTV’s other teen-coms “Awkward” and “Faking It,” and is a pretty great series with a Latina lead. Lucy (Bianca A. Santos) is dying to leave her small town whose economy is powered by a huge amusement park. Her immature former teen mom Gloria (Camille Guaty) reveals Lucy’s father is the wealthy owner of the Happyland theme park … right after Lucy shares a steamy kiss with her brother.
Grade: B Lucy is a well-rounded character that belongs on most TV series. She’s smart, driven and has morals and integrity. Despite Guaty’s amazing acting chops, do we need another super-stereotypical woman on TV named Gloria? She’s obsessed with sex, incapable of paying her bills and just seems deficient as an adult and a mom. But luckily, Guaty’s charm saves it from feeling like a racial choice.
“How To Get Away With Murder”
Latinos are doing pretty well in Shondaland. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) has found new and greater levels of character development since we met her dancing in her underwear on “Grey’s Anatomy.” “Party Girl” and “Half Baked” star, out actor Guillermo Díaz plays a character not defined by his race or sexuality on “Scandal;” instead it’s his computer skills and murderous inclinations. However, “HTGAWM” addition Laurel Castillo, is just lame. The character just doesn’t seem fully fleshed out, and she just gives an overwhelming social-worker vibe. All we know about her is her fashion game is lacking, she likes to help the unfortunate, and apparently she has magic between her legs. Despite not even trying, she has two men dying to sleep with her. Sure Karla Souza is stunning, but her character is flying under the radar, so having her so sexually sought-after only perpetuates that Latino sex magic stereotype.
Grade: B- She’s basically “Ugly Betty” with a magic vagina. Here’s hoping Miss Rhimes can infuse her with an actual character, stat.
Despite the most high-profile Latino comic book hero being Speedy Gonzales, this action series features a Latino superhero…’s co-worker! Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) is a mechanical engineering genius, so at least he is in some level of prominence on the show.
Opting out of the female lead from the pilot, Angélica Celaya plays Zed Martin, a painter with special occult gifts who is connected to John Constantine.
Alana de la Garza plays Det. Jo Martinez, the will-they/won’t-they love interest for Ioan Gruffudd’s immortal medical examiner, Dr. Henry Morgan.
This Marc Cherry-penned series still has legs and has been renewed for a third season. Despite its questionable title and subject matter, it does boast all-Latina leads … who play maids.
This is the gold standard for diversity. Both Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz play full-fledged characters with idiosyncrasies, distinct traits and gags that are in no way tied to their race … and their characters get to still be Latino.
“Orange is the New Black”
The second season was Latintastic with great episodes focusing on, yes, another Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat).
Christian Cintron is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.