In a media era undoubtedly characterized by visibility, discourse on representation has expanded from a sole focus on racial black-white binaries to include narratives of all people of color. Conversations about bias and prejudice in casting, and critique of ethnic tropes and tokenization in film and television are on going but not complete. Though such discourse challenges the universalism of whiteness as the default in popular culture, and broader society by extension, it does not halt monolithic depictions of varying ethnic groups. We see this in the contextualization of Latinx experiences in contemporary television. Existing in a space that does not lend itself entirely to either side of the white-black binary, Latinx media representation often falls victim to a visibility that negates any variance in the Latinx experience. This type of representation ultimately mistakes celebrated stereotypes as authenticity and stagnates opportunities for Latinx actors and actresses to break from that mold. Through an examination of Latina women in Modern Family, Cristela, and One Day at a Time, I will assess the construction of “Latinidad” in the contemporary sitcom and the role of iconicity and hybridity in reinforcing and challenging tropes. I focus on the Latina woman in order to highlight both the gendered and racialized signifiers that shape the representational politics of Latinx people in mainstream texts.
The concept “Latinidad”, as discussed in Guzmán and Valdivia’s “Latina Iconicity in u.s. popular culture”, is a formation of Latinx identity that circulates solely in United States’ popular culture and context. They assert “we live in an age when Latinidad, the state and process of being, becoming, and/or appearing Latina/o, is the “It” ethnicity and style in contemporary U.S. mainstream culture” (Guzmán and Valdivia 206). The result of this concept is a homogenization of the Latinx experiences and a removal of specificity when discussing the incredibly nuanced culture and people that comprise Latin America. Nonetheless, as Latinx populations rise across the United States, the “articulation [of Latinas] into commodity culture is an inescapable affirmation of [their] increasing centrality” to popular culture (Guzmán and Valdivia 205). There has been a recent onslaught of Latina female protagonists in various films and television shows. Latina women like Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara, Eva Mendes, and other noteworthy celebrities have become trailblazers for the visibility and inclusion of what Guzmán and Valdivia would call the “female ethnic subject” (206). Because ethnic women undergo a concurrent process of racialization and gendering, “the female ethnic subject is [consequently] othered through its categorization and marginalization in relation to dominant constructions of Whiteness and masculinity” (Guzmán and Valdivia 206). This placement outside the margins of socially palatable femininity and beauty results in a rendering of Latina women as overtly sexual, yet sassy and threatening. Such tropes create room for misleading iconicity and ignore the “symbolic resistance embodied in hybridized Latina bodies” (Guzmán and Valdivia 207).
The proximity of the U.S. to the Caribbean and Latin America has created a demographic shift in which Latinx populations comprise a large portion of the target audiences for television programming and other media advertisements. Thus, Latina women have generated an iconic position in United States’ culture. An icon is a single figure or image that serves as a stand in for a constellation of meanings. More often than not, it is a tokenization of identity. “Iconicity, as a form of representation, involves the transformation of meaning that arises through the interactive relationship between an image, the practices surrounding the production of that image, and the social context within which the image is produced and received by audiences” (Guzmán and Valdivia 209). The iconic Latina woman, in contemporary television, serves to resignify the meanings surrounding her particular image. However, this act of resignifying does not necessarily mean a departure from tropes, but instead a departure from the threat that comes from certain tropes.
In Modern Family, Sofia Vergara plays Gloria, the beautiful and saucy Columbian wife of Jay, a wealthy and older white man. Gloria maintains her thick accent, stays true to her Columbian roots and encourages her son to do so as well. The character embodies two of the most enduring tropes surrounding the representation of Latina women in U.S. popular culture- tropicalism and the Latina spitfire. Tropicalism, as discussed by Guzmán and Valdivia, is a trope that paints Latina female sexuality and appearance as bright, vivacious, exotic, brown/olive, rhythmic, and alluring (211). Gloria is the typical “spitfire female Latina characterized by red-colored lips, bright seductive clothing, curvaceous hips and breasts, long brunette hair, and extravagant jewelry” (Guzmán and Valdivia 211). Throughout the show Gloria’s body is repeatedly, though comically, hyper sexualized with the camera sometimes focusing on her breasts or butt as a punch line. Yet the resignification of her meaning occurs when we “read Vergara’s performance of Gloria as a recession-era contemporary Latina spitfire designed to allay the anxieties of white resentment” (Molina-Guzmán 67). The Latina spitfire archetype, also referred to as the female clown, serves as a humorous tool of intercultural translation between white patriarchal society and Latinx populations. “The ideological role of the spitfire archetype [is] to make foreign Latin America less threatening through humor while celebrating the potential for intercultural exchange and heterosexual romance” within a domesticated and Western framework (Molina-Guzmán 67). Gloria’s commodification as a sexy nonthreatening Latina mother is resignified. Instead of being solely used for jest, the Gloria’s complex representation of Latina motherhood “provides a moment of ethnoracial visibility and [introduction] to a safe and romanticized image of ‘illegal immigrant motherhood’ that contrast with news images of Latina motherhood as social problem” (Molina-Guzmán 67). Vergara’s performance of the spitfire, combined with her own biography, “presents the potential for producing a transformative representation of Latina motherhood that destabilizes the…hostility toward immigrants and ethnoracial minorities…during the recession era” (Molina-Guzmán 67). While archetypes like tropicalism and the spitfire may work to berate Latina womanhood, they may be reappropriated, as is the case with Gloria’s character.
A reliance on tropes in the media erase specificity and homogenize Latinx culture, while ignoring its rich and versatile history- one informed by European, Native, and African roots. Such erasure ignores the hybridity of the Latinx people; particularly in an American context where numerous Latinx families consist of new generations of Americans. “Hybridity as a theoretical concept is particularly significant for analyzing popular representations of ethnic populations whose histories of colonialism and imperialism have resulted in the continuing construction of…a third space” (Guzmán and Valdivia 213). This “third space”, so to speak, refers to the racial and ethnic fluidity of Latinx culture. In a way, the general ambiguity of Latinx people allows them to flow between white and black spaces in a way that calls into question the rigidity and legitimacy of the racial binary. Hybridity may also refer to fluidity between socioeconomic and ideological spaces. General media typically depicts traditional Latinx culture as archaic and only progressive when it allows for “Western” ideas, thus making it seem as if no common ground exists between the two. In One Day at a Time, the single Cuban mother is constantly at odds with her teenage daughter over tradition and its place in her life. In the series premiere, the two battle over whether or not the daughter should have a Quinceañera. Traditionally a coming of age celebration in which a young daughter steps into the realms of womanhood, the ceremony holds large weight in many Latinx communities. Yet, it is painted as a sexist tradition, while ignoring the similar Western tradition of debutante balls. In Cristela, a Latina woman aspiring to become a lawyer must balance her traditional background and gendered expectations with her career goals. Once again, a placement occurs in which Latinx culture is rendered a regressive force to be mitigated. Both women are seen as struggling to navigate the intersections and divides between Western expectations and their culture. However, this struggle is exaggerated, as it depicts the authentic Latinx experience as old school and lacking progressive ideology. we see Latina women navigate notions of hybridity and authenticity in various films and television shows. They tend to ultimately resort to a strategic essentialism in which they must deploy or adopt an essentialized depiction of their identity in order to gain social or economic advantage and mobility. The namesake protagonist of Cristela must do this in an uncomfortable interview with her White boss who makes racist jokes and expects Cristela to laugh along or risk not getting the job. The expectation for Latinx people to forsake their tradition, less it coincides with stereotypes that place Western culture higher ideologically, moves beyond the media and permeates society as well.
Media representation of Latina women has a long way to go before it may accurately portray Latinx culture as compelling and multidimensional. Moving beyond tropes is the first step, as television programs like Modern Family inspire discourse around the reappropriation of archetypes and what resignification of meanings can mean for Latinx livelihood in the United States. Society may continue to rely on racialized and gendered signifiers in its understanding of the Latinx experience, but perhaps television has the propensity to challenge that. A more zealous attempt to depict the hybridity and nuance in the Latinx experience is a task that may not see accomplishment overnight, but the conversation is open and that is a start.
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Guzmán, Isabel Molina, and Angharad N. Valdivia. "Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S. Popular Culture." The Communication Review 7.2 (2004): 205-21.
Molina-Guzmán, Isabel. "Latina Wisdom in 'Postrace' Recession Media." Gendering the Recession (2014): 59-80.
“Patriot Games.” Modern Family. ABC. 6 May 2015. Television.
“Pilot.” Cristela. ABC. CBS, Los Angeles. 10 October 2014. Television.
“This Is It.” One Day at a Time. Netflix. 6 January 2017. Television