Review of Reel Latinxs Representation in US Film and TV

Reel Latinxs Representation in US Film and TV. Frederick Luis Aldama and Christopher González. University of Arizona Press, 2019. 192 pp. ISBN: 9780816539581.

With reboots like Party of Five and Charmed casting Latinx characters as leads and the growth of Latinx representation on Netflix among other streaming sites, a text like Reel Latinx Representation in US Film & TV written by Frederick Luis Aldama and Cristopher Gonzalez will be a useful addition to courses invested in exploring these shows in the context of late-twentieth and early twenty-first century representation on Latinx community members on screen. While Latinx representation on screen, in print, and on stage continues to spark debates regarding authenticity and quality of representation, Aldama and Gonzalez provide critical tools for scholars and educators looking to contextualize some of those debates.

Aldama and Gonzalez write that “we have to be proactive about how media affects our lives” (3) in their introduction. The “we” they articulate as proactive are not the media content creators that mobilize to address the limited and stereotypical representation of marginalized communities and, indirectly, the audiences that consume the media that recycles negative stereotypes of the characters of color they consume. Throughout the text, they synthesize twenty-first shifts in Latinx actors’, writers’, and producers’ experiences in/direct in response to Latinx media activists’ call for better/increased representation across film and television in chapters that provide a historical survey and tackled on the concerns that are emerging in the racialized and gendered representations of Latinx characters in television and film. Short in length, accessible in language, the text would be useful introductory text to courses on Latinxs in US TV & Film and/or courses that survey dilemmas and opportunities in race and representation on television and film.

The introduction provide theoretical and methodological insight into the institutional concerns that any marginalized group has when it comes to how dominant institutions like established streaming sites and major networks approach writing about their community. They explain that dominant media’s “first impulse is to diversify by throwing out as many cultural objects as possible, and then the one that sells becomes the one that’s backed and promoted and reproduced ad infinitum until it no longer sells” (9). In their focus on Latinx onscreen representation, the writers situate that investment, acknowledging that the success and efforts of Black and Asian American content creators are significant to the inroads and/or lack thereof made in relation to the growth and layered complexity or lack thereof of Latinx character and show content creation.

The growth of the Latinx population in the United States in addition to the political realities various Latinx communities are currently experiencing warrant critical attention to how fictional representations reinforce or dispel the dehumanization of a growing segment of the US population. The extent to which the text surveys actors like Anthony Quinn and Eva Mendes, as they speak to the limits and opportunities Latinx actors have had in the evolution of their careers, which showcases how television and film tends to reinforce negative stereotypes more often than not. In examining what sells, the authors ask why the media that tries to be the exception to the norm does not. Their brief mentions of Jane the Virgin, among other more recent pieces of media, warrant greater attention given how Netflix has developed Latin American and US Latinx media projects, as well as the Latinx representation CW has produced in the wake of Jane the Virgin’s series finale. Reel Latinx provides a brief overview that could, in a television studies class, provide a critical lens by which to view shows like CW’s Charmed and Roswell New Mexico and Freeform’s Party of Five.

In historicizing Latinx media representation, they begin with Anthony Quinn considering how his career serves as “example of what Latinxs can do if given the chance even if the system in which he found himself compelled him to make many rather difficult choices concerning his heritage and ancestry” (35). His light skin afforded him the ability to change his name and pass as ethnically ambiguous, which may have helped him build and sustain his career, albeit relegated to ethnic white roles that would serve as a precursor to Latinx stereotypes. Reading his career in contrast to their discussion of Zaldana, however, showcases both the dominant media’s limited understanding of who can be Latinx and Latinx Studies crises regarding how to discuss blackness within a Latinx cultural and political imaginary. I remember, as a child, watching Christina on Univision tell Jennifer Lopez that she could be cast into any role. In contrast, Zaldana’s Latina roles have been few because her Blackness is read as separate, if not as a replacement to her Latina identity. The only exception was a makeup commercial she did in Spanish.

In assigning Reel Latinx, it will be important to delve into the racialization of “what Christopher Gonzalez has called the “barrio bildungsroman,” which is exemplified by some of the significant roles Anthony Quinn has played (35). Returning to the conversation regarding Zaldana’s career, we can ask what are the ways that independent and dominant media are contending with how colorism and racism shape the barrio bildungsromans that continue to be packaged and sold as the permissible form of Latinx representation. Aldama and Gonzalez write that “[s]tudio executives don’t understand what Latinx can look like, or rather, the possibilities of what they can look like” (30). As much as that is true, it would be useful to assign articles and texts that engage with Latinx audiences regarding who we perceive as representing us to further unpack the ways in which Latinx audience members are complicit and/or critical of our limited forms of representation.

Aldama and Gonzalez do address what is unique about Latinx representation in terms of the transnational flow of Latin American soap operas rebooted into an English-speaking dramedies like Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin. While these transnational reimagining create an avenue for Latina actors to lead a show, they also reinforce the virgin/whore binary that US-created media continues to reconstruct in US-based shows and film. Scholars looking at these shows more critically would benefit from how they discuss these concerns, although more attention is needed on Latinx dominant shows that are not reboots, such as Vida and Pose.

In my own work, Reel Latinx has revealed a gap in discussions of LGBT representation that moves beyond AIDS narratives and/or coming out narratives that racialize Latinx as more homophobic or that frame acceptance through cultural assimilation. Part of the limited scholarship and footnoting stems from the absence of queer Latinx writers, producers, and consultants on shows like Pose, Vida, Charmed, and L Word Generation Q, among others. With shows like these having more than one season and prompting still other shows like the upcoming Gentefied to have a Latina lesbian, we now have the opportunity to further tease out the nuances of Latinx culture in media narratives. Reel Latinx provides a gateway to move beyond the barrio bildungsroman pulling from the headlines and the struggles our communities face in culturally responsive ways.’

Erika G. Abad, University of Nevada Las Vegas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s