Gina Rodriguez took home the award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes this year. She gave a moving speech about the importance of Latinx people seeing themselves as heroes in our media. With tears in her eyes, she ended her speech by thanking her father and repeating his words back to both the audience and viewers at home.
“My father used to tell me to say everyday, ‘Todays going to be a great day. I can. I will.’ Well dad, today’s a great day. I can and I did.”
I cried during Rodriguez’s speech. It was a good day, for Rodriguez, for Latina women, and the Latinx community.
Growing up, two of my mothers favorite movies were West Side Story and Selena. Selena was something of my mother’s role model and when we watched West Side Story together she would hold me tight and say, “this is a story about us.” I fell in love with Anita who reminded me of some of the women in my own family, while Maria reminded me of myself in a way. Selena and her family looked, sounded, and talked like we did.
So I was heartbroken to watch Selena die at the end of her story, and disheartened to learn that Maria wasn’t Latina at all, but played by a white woman, Natalie Wood. Jennifer Lopez (who played Selena in her biopic) was the only other Latina presence I saw on screen.
She had two major movies out while I was growing up: The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan. In The Wedding Planner her character was a strong minded woman with a successful career who still longed to get married. She was also Italian, not Latina. In Maid in Manhattan she was, well, a maid; saved in the end by a rich white man who grew enamored her exotic, poor upbringing while a rich white woman called her “Maria” – even though he name was Marisa – throughout the entire movie without reprimand.
There were a few other shows that starred Latinx families, like the sitcoms The George Lopez Show and Nickelodeon’s The Brothers Garcia. Everything else was stereotypical. The exotic Latinx basking under the sun to be oogled but never loved. The drug dealing Latino man, or the drug addicted Latina woman. The maid or the lawn worker.
The negative portrayals far outweighed the positive. Especially compared to the many shows, cartoons, and movies that starred white characters as heroes, villains, and background characters. White characters could be anything: good, evil, or in between. Latinx characters could be stereotypes, tragedies, or whitewashed completely.
This was what I grew up with and lived with until I got into comics. Even then, the pickings were slim and sparse. I luckily happened upon Jaime Reyes who spoke an intermingling of Spanish and English as my own family did. A legacy born of the late Ted Kord, the original Blue Beetle. A young Latino boy who just wanted to be a teenager and instead became a superhero. Renee Montoya was the first Latina woman I saw who was both Latina and queer. Which for me, was huge.
I was still getting used to seeing Latinx characters, period; seeing them as superheroes was a new, exhilarating experience, and seeing a Latina woman who was queer was inspiring.
This gets said quite often, and yet the importance of the words still seems to fall on deaf ears. Representation matters.
Rodriguez talks about how the Latinx community needs heroes to look up to in our media. I’m happy to see there is a more prominent presence of Latinx people in both comics, and television. Though Renee Montoya is currently in New 52 limbo, Marvel has heavily featured Anya Corazon, America Chavez, Sam Alexander, and Ava Ayla in their recent titles. Young Justice featured Jaime Reyes in the shows second season along with a slew of other characters of color, including more Latinx characters. Each Latinx character speaking a different dialect of Spanish — something many people don’t understand represents the variations within the overall culture itself — and being portrayed as real human characters. Renee Montoya has found a place on NBC’s Gotham, though as a secondary character, Cisco is the resident tech geek on CW’s The Flash, Sleepy Hollow had Luke Morales as a police officer last season and Leena Reyes as the new police chief this season, and Once Upon a Time has Regina Mills as the Evil-Not-So-Evil Queen.
These are all amazing roles and I’m so happy to see these characters get to be heroes and nuanced villains. Though none of these characters could be called the “lead” of the show — Regina comes closest but she’s the fallback antagonist of the show — in the same sense that Jane of Jane the Virgin or Scott McCall of Teen Wolf are.
There’s something to be said for seeing a Latinx character as not only a hero but the hero. Something Tyler Posey, who stars in Teen Wolf, has spoken about himself. Scott McCall is the hero of Teen Wolf. Without him the show ceases to be as it is left without its center, its hero. Seeing a young Latino man step up and be the hero — not the villain, not the gangster, or the drug dealer, or the exotic plaything of the white heroine — but instead the hero is inspiring.
Teen Wolf is a silly show, with as many plot holes as Glee but there’s a lot to be said about the importance of Scott McCall in terms of representation. He’s the Captain America of the show:all uncompromising goodness, self-sacrifice, and everyone’s moral center. He’s not there to be a stereotype or a token, Scott exists to be a hero.
We need more heroes of color across the board. One of Marvel Studios’ biggest weaknesses is their lack of heroes of color. This isn’t to discount Nick Fury who is an extremely important part of the universe, or Sam Wilson who owns my heart, or Rhodey who has saved the day countless times, but they’re not the heroes. They’re certainly not sidekicks, but they’re not protagonists either. Their names are not the ones headlined, or advertised, or marketed. This isn’t to say they’re any less important, but that they deserve their own time in the spotlight. They, and others, deserve top billing in their stories, told by them.
So far there have only been five superhero movies starring people of color: the Blade series starring Wesley Snipes, Catwoman starring Halle Berry, and Spawn starring Michael Jai White. Marvel alone has released eight movies with leading white men; more if you count team movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers (both only featured one character of color each as Zoe Saldana was green Gamora and Dave Bautista was a darker green Drax). DC’s previous movies featured next to no characters of color but their upcoming movies seem more promising of diverse inclusion.
However, there is a distinct lack of heroes of color not relegated to secondary status. The X-Men movies as a prime example of this. As far as superhero movies go, this series of movies has had some of the most diverse casts — yet those few characters have been villians or slaughter fodder.
The irony is the X-Men movies are slap-in-your-face metaphors for oppression, yet the only characters featured prominently are straight white men, save for Erik, aka Magneto, the Jewish Holocaust survivor, who is portrayed as a radical terrorist. Then there’s Mystique who is blue scaled and naked for no apparent reason — she wears clothes in the comics so this has always been a strange change to make to the character — and her bisexuality has been so far completely ignored.
In X-Men: First Class there were three characters of color: Angel Salvadore, Janos Quested, and Armando “Darwin” Munoz. Angel was a stripper who turned evil, Janos had no lines and was also a villain, and Darwin died. Storm is routinely ignored and sidelined in the movies even though she’s the one black woman on the team — and deserves so much more considering her comic book history. Kitty Pryde’s team in Days of Future Past is a collection of diversity featuring Blink, Bishop, Sunspot, and Warpath. Yet her team, which also included Bobby Drake and Colossus, exist for the sole purpose of cool fight scenes — they die repeatedly.
They were my favorite part of the movie — and it would have been a much more interesting movie to focus on Jewish Kitty Pryde and her diverse team of mutant rebels fighting against the genocide of their people — but it was disheartening to watch.
I’m sick of seeing this; the same stories being told over and over for and about people of color. Being reduced to tragedies, background, or whitewashed completely. Never being allowed to be the central heroes of our own stories.
I’m sick of seeing Latina women reduced to pregnant teens in sexualized cautionary tales, or maids and drug addicts in need of saving, or exotic playthings in need of domesticating. I’m sick of seeing Latino men being reduced to gangsters, drug dealers, violent abusers, poolboys, or exotic playthings basking on the beach.
Rodriguez said in her speech that the Latinx community needs to see themselves as heroes. We do, but more importantly, we, and all people of color, need to be seen as people. That’s what Rodriguez’s win meant for me: a visual representation of change. A physical presence of someone from my generation speaking out for our culture and people. Someone calling attention to us and our struggles within the media in terms of stereotypes and representation. Rodriguez portrays a pregnant young woman yes, but Jane isn’t a stereotype. She isn’t there to be saved by a white man; she’s her own person with dreams and aspirations. Jane has passion and personality that I wish I had gotten to watch as a child.
But I’m grateful for her presence on television now. I’m grateful for the growing presence for Latinx people on television overall, but even more for the fact we’re finally seeing them lead their own stories, be the heroes of their own tales. It’s slow going, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but we can, and we will.