Last year, I stumbled across Cristela on Netflix, after the sitcom had already been canceled by ABC. When Cristela premiered in 2014, it was the only network sitcom written by a Latina that also starred Latino actors who played Latino characters. The show was funny, relatable and family-friendly. Yet despite solid ratings, ABC didn't renew the show for its 2015-2016 schedule. Because I was streaming the show long after its network death, it was too late for me to mourn the loss of an authentic Latino sitcom. But it wasn't too late for me to hope that a new one would arise.
Fast forward to this month when I was once again considering my Netflix options and One Day at a Time popped up. The Norman Lear reboot was created by Gloria Calderon Kellett (who is Cuban-American) and Mike Royce, and centers around a Cuban-American family with a single mom/war veteran at its head. It's smart, it's sweet and it's funny. Like Cristela, it has a Latina creator and Latino actors playing Latino characters. It may not be network television, but with Netflix being the country's largest online TV and movie platform, One Day at a Time will certainly have an audience. I think it fills the gap that Cristela left and even accomplishes a bit more than that, too.
Enough with the stereotypes
I was happy to learn that Tracee Ellis Ross won the Golden Globe award for best actress in her role on Black-ish (though I was unhappy to learn what Donald Trump tweeted about the show in 2014). I'm always happy to see women of color succeeding. But Hollywood doesn't get to check its minority box and move on. There are still so many black and brown stories that need to be told — and told well. I can't speak as an African-American, but I can say that as a Latina, I'm not satisfied with how Hispanic and Latino characters are typically written and cast in mainstream American TV and film.
"When Latinos are represented, they just play stereotypes," Felix Sánchez, co-founder of the National Hispanics Foundation for the Arts, told NBC last year. "If the casting continues to portray a very singular look for Latinos, then that means women continue to be overly sexualized and [men] equally have to be the dominant, macho role."
Part of the problem is that not enough Latinos are working behind the scenes.
"It all depends on who is in the writer's room, because they control the words and images the actors produce," Sánchez said. "When you don't have diverse writers, you won't have three-dimensional minority characters."
Not all Latinos are Mexican
One Day at a Time is refreshing because it tells a Latino story from an authentic, non-Mexican perspective. Nothing against Mexicans! It's simply that not all Hispanics and Latinos are Mexican, yet American TV doesn't make much of an effort to capture different Latin cultures. While it is true that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans make up nearly 65% of the U.S. Hispanic population, this country is also home to Puerto Ricans (who are American), Cubans, Salvadorans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Colombians and other Latino groups.
Yet when you turn to television and film, an overwhelming number of Latino representations portray the Mexican experience as if it were the only one. I can't remember once watching American television and seeing a main character from El Salvador, my mother's home country. It may be a tiny country, but as is the case for all Latin American countries, El Salvador has a history and culture all its own, distinct from that of Mexico.
Of course, I would rather see an authentic Mexican representation of latinidad on TV than none at all. Just because Cristela had a season on national television doesn't mean that the on-screen Mexican stereotypes don't still exist. As Zelma Rios points out in her Borderzine story on Hollywood's portrayal of Mexicans, the Mexican stock character is tragically familiar: He wears a massive sombrero and snores under a cactus, or she spends her days making rich people's mansions sparkle. Maybe one or both sell drugs.
These Mexican stereotypes are not accurate or fair, and Hollywood needs to remedy that. Cristela helped open the door, so it's sad that the show was canceled before creator Cristela Alonzo could fully realize her vision. But I'm excited that the Latino family sitcom that's taken its place is introducing a non-Mexican perspective. Hollywood needs more significant, well-rounded Latin characters who are not Mexican or Mexican-American, and also represent generational differences.
Generational differences matter
Latinos are not an indivisible group of people, and there are clear generational divides that make Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials culturally distinctive. That's another reason I love One Day At a Time.
In the show, you get the perspective of an immigrant, the child of an immigrant and the grandchildren of immigrants. Each of the main characters has a different relationship to Cuba and the United States. They also speak varying levels of Spanish and English. They demonstrate that there is more than one way to be a Latino living in the U.S. The show's mere existence is a testament to that.
May it continue to widen the door that Cristela opened.
There shouldn't be a quota
For anyone wondering, can't there only be one Latino family sitcom at a time? The answer is no. We have so many white family sitcoms: Everybody Loves Raymond, 3rd Rock From the Sun, The Torkelsons, Charles in Charge, Home Improvement and what seems like countless others. Why is it that there can be as many white family sitcoms as Hollywood can dream up, yet there seems to be a quota for sitcoms starring families of color.
In my ideal world, Cristela would still be airing and One Day at a Time wouldn't be competition. There's no reason why that couldn't be the case. Even with all of the black family sitcoms there have been — The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Good Times and others — there still have not been enough. And we're really just starting to see American television come up with Latino sitcoms. We need as much authentic representation of people of color (and other minority groups) on television as possible. That includes Latinos, both Mexican and non-Mexican. Because these aren't just "Latino" stories. These are American stories and American television needs to represent the full scope of the American experience.