Latinos make up for close to 20% of the American populations. They will probably become the predominant ethnic group in the United States within our lifetimes. They are the highest and most consistently growing market in the country, and yet, they are rarely portrayed in mainstream media. There have obviously been exceptions throughout the years, and considering the way Hollywood operates, now that there is a shit-load of money to be made off of Latino audiences, we will probably start to see more and more movies and television programs aimed at this demographic.
Representations of Latinos in mainstream American media seem to be following a similar path to what happened to black people and their representations. As far as the visual media are concerned, I would say stories about black people entered the mainstream in the early seventies, with the explosion of blacksploitation movies, but it reached new levels in the mid-to-late eighties, when television networks started producing sitcoms with African American casts. The most popular pioneering example of this wave of popularity for black stories in the mainstream is, obviously, The Cosby Show. It was a show that wasn’t only popular with black audiences, but a show that was loved all across America -hell, it was loved all around the world.
No show with a Latino sensibility has been as popular as The Cosby Show. And the way television ratings work now, probably no show (with or without a Latino sensibility) ever will. But there must come a moment in which a show that tells stories about Latino characters and their particular experience in America will permeate into the mainstream cultural conversation. Just like we talk about how Omar from The Wire is an amazing badass, or the way a whole generation has memorized the lyrics to the Fresh Prince theme song, we will be talking about a Latino show or a Latino character. It’s just a matter of time until that show arrives… Isn’t it?
Like I said, the show hasn’t arrived yet, but I think we might have a pretty good candidate in Jane the Virgin. I don’t know if enough people will watch Jane the Virgin, since those things are alway uncertain, but it had some pretty good viewership numbers on its premiere Monday night, especially when you consider that the show is airing on the CW, which is a network with a relatively small niche audience. But if we’re talking about quality, then I think Jane the Virgin has most of the elements necessary to become the most significant portrayal of Latinos so far in American television.
The show is based on a Venezuelan telenovela, a fact that has drawn a lot of comparisons to Ugly Betty. Betty was based on a Colombian telenovela, and focused on the story of a nerdy Mexican-American working for a materialistic fashion magazine. It was very popular both with critics and audiences with it premiered, but it lost its appeal pretty quickly, as the writers didn’t seem to know how to move the story forward in an interesting way after the first season. As far as tone and initial reactions, Jane the Virgin has a lot in common with Ugly Betty, although it has an even wackier premise, as Jane, who is a virgin (and by the way is played by the extremely charming Gina Rodriguez) discovers she’s pregnant after being accidentally inseminated by her gynecologist.
It is fitting, however, that the show sports such a ludicrous premise, because it seems to be approaching its roots, and pre-existing assumptions about Latin American television, in a post-modern, re-appropriating way. Similarly to the way black shows like Everybody Hates Chris worked stereotypes about black identity into their narratives, and used to them to start a dialogue about what their effects while maintaining a satirical edge, Jane the Virgin is taking the overwhelming tonal shifts of telenovelas and using them to make a story that feels authentically Latino. The characters on Jane the Virgin watch telenovelas, which in turn influence the way they act in their daily lives (as in a scene in which Jane gets advice from a hallucinatory vision of her favorite actor). I don’t want to spoil plot-developments, but by the end of the first episode, the characters’ lives come one very interesting step closer to those of the characters they watch on television.
What’s most important, though, is that the show is not presenting us with a Latino lifestyle, but showing us the story of very particular people, who happen to be Latino and be influenced by a series cultural touchstones that tend to influence Latinos in this country. There is no exoticism to the depiction of these characters. As an example, Jane’s grandmother, despite only speaking in Spanish (a device that has been used many times before for comedic effect), is one of the most serious, deepest, and at first glance, interesting characters on the show.
This is a show with a point of view that hasn’t been explored too many times before. And a show that is trying to pull off a pretty fantastic balancing act. It doesn’t want to be about two-dimensional characters, it wants to be about actual people, with complex feelings and ideologies. It also wants to be a post-modern look at telenovelas, and maybe other cultural elements that are associated with Latino culture, and at least in the first episode, it shows how these two things don’t have to be divorced from each other. By the end of the first episode, I couldn’t believe the number of twists and turns the writers fit into 40 minutes of television, and I was also tearing up at the show’s most emotional moments.
Genuine feelings and ridiculous stories can live together. Jane the Virgin seems to be a smart show, and will hopefully provide a bright future for Latino television. I’ll keep watching, and so should you.
Jane the Virgin airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on the CW. You can watch the first episode right now on Hulu.