Justicia and Cultura

Teen Gang Members on TV: “On My Block” and “Riverdale”

I don’t normally watch, let alone recommend, shows about gang members. Characters like that are over-represented, giving the false impression that people of color are all cholos. Yet, I found Netflix’s On My Block to be the rare show that manages to depict gangs without romanticizing or pathologizing them. And I particularly like how the show contrasts with the CW’s Riverdale, a similarly structured teen drama, where the main character who joins a gang is white.

Both shows feature a mixed group of four high school friends, navigating coming of age in their troubled communities. On My Block’s main characters are all people of color with the Afro-Latina Monse as the group’s lone girl, Cesar and Ruby representing diverse Latino experiences, and Black Jamal rounding out the group. They’re in Freeridge, a fictional South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles plagued by gang violence. In Riverdale, the central group is much paler with White Archie, Jughead, and Betty getting a bit of color with Latina Veronica. These four inhabit the titular small, picturesque town losing its innocence.

These shows have A LOT in common

On both shows, one member of the central quartet joins a gang — with vastly different results. On On My Block, Cesar’s gang membership is an obstacle, a blatant tragedy. His friends’ attempts to save him propels much of the plot. By the end of season two, he’s negotiating with his brother and gang leader Spooky to be excused from the gang’s violent duties. Meanwhile, on Riverdale, being a Southside Serpent gives Jughead power and purpose. He ends up the leader of the group, keeping his fellow gang members from dealing drugs and protecting them from gentrifiers along the way.

Take for example the initiation process. We learn that Cesar has joined the Santos gang by seeing the bruises on his abdomen, an ugly, painful sign of getting jumped in. He’s not proud of his wounds and the show doesn’t dramatize the process, letting the injury speak for itself. Meanwhile, we see each step of Jughead’s initiation, some of it silly (taking care of a cute dog, being stung by a venom-less snake), some reminiscent of joining a frat (reciting memorized group rules), and some classic hypermasculine “heroics” (surviving a punching line of fellow Snakes). In Jughead’s initiation, he stands defiant and strong, taking his punches while looking his peers in the eyes. This portrayal glamorizes the process, making the violence a chance for Jughead to show his strength of character.

Against all likelihood, Jughead becomes the leader of the Southside Serpents

In fact, violence generally is a way for the teens of Riverdale to prove themselves. They solve the murder of their classmate Jason Blossom and expose a drug kingpin in the process. They catch not one but two suspected serial killers. They cover up murders, attack people, and still run for student council. They may grapple with their “darkness” but the show portrays all this violence with the same seriousness as it does wrestling tryouts, keeping us from having to consider what it’s like to be a teenager facing violence.

On My Block has no such delusions. Its black and brown characters inhabit a place much closer to reality, where murder is not something a normal teen should have to think about. After Cesar and Monse are rolled up on by rival gang member Latrelle, Spooky tasks Cesar with killing this new threat. Cesar attempts it but in the end, balks. You see Latrelle may be a rival gang member but it wasn’t too long ago that they were classmates, peers. Not wanting to become a killer, Cesar tells Latrelle to leave Freeridge and never come back. The threat works for a while but (spoiler) Latrelle returns in the season one finale, shooting two of our principal characters, killing one.

This violence — the death of an innocent fifteen-year-old and near-death of another — does not take a single episode or arc to resolve. The horror of it gives Ruby PTSD and leaves all of our characters in mourning for the entire second season. Meanwhile, Cesar is further punished for his good deed, exiled from the gang and forced to sleep on the street between staying with friends. The adults here respond not by being impressed by the young teen’s action (like they are with Jughead’s) but rather dismayed by the circumstance. For a few episodes there, it felt like everyone was just repeating the sentiment that “no child should be in this situation.”

Cesar is literally the smallest member of the Santos

On My Block illustrates a fact — gang violence hurts the children in its wake. It does not lift them up a la Jughead becoming the leader of the Serpents. And the violence is shown for what it is — ugly, irreversible, and de-humanizing. It’s not the mystery of the week. And it’s not the defining characteristic for any of our young heroines. Monse, Cesar, Ruby, and Jamal may live in a violent world but they’re typical teens, as worried about their latest crush and parent problems as they are about the state of their neighborhood. You see in addition to gang violence, On My Block portrays a slapstick treasure hunt (with gnomes no less), the double standard around hooking up (boys get points, girls a reputation), and an on-going bit about masturbation (socks figure in heavily).

Cesar is not “The Gang Member” to his friends or the audience and neither is Jughead (whose whiteness makes this trick much easier). In fact, they’re both the only gang members in their group of friends, ensuring we see other parts of their identity. With its brown and black point of view, On My Block takes the responsibility of righting the traditional gang narrative. Meanwhile, Riverdale hyper sensationalizes and promotes harmful myths but avoids any major offenses, mostly by keeping its of-color characters out of the Serpents and positioning the group as a response to Riverdale’s classist Northside/Southside conflict. Together, these shows ask viewers to see gangs not as brown or black menaces but rather the result of structural inequality. And for that, I commend them.

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Only 1 Latinx Person Won an Emmy — That’s Just Not Enough

There were many beautiful moments at the 2019 Emmy’s. Michelle Williams demanding fair treatment at work for women and particularly women of color. Billy Porter becoming the first black gay man to win an Emmy and quoting James Baldwin in his acceptance speech. Alex Borsteinurging women to “step out of line” like her grandmother did to survive the Holocaust.

The best of these was certainly Jharrel Jerome winning best actor in a limited series for When They See Us. The first Afro-Latino to win an acting Emmy, Jerome is also the youngest person to win this category at just 21. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated his award to the Exonerated Five, spoke Spanish, and, of course, thanked writer/director/producer Ava Duvernay, who definitely deserved to win her own Emmy.

“I hope this is a step forward for Dominicans, for Latinos, for Afro-Latinos. It’s about time we are here” said Jerome and we agree. The Dominican, Latinx, Afro-Latinx communities have been passed over for too long, talents not given the opportunity to shine on the main stage. These words were Jerome’s response to a question from Remezcla reporter Manuel Betancourt, the first time the Latinx publication was credentialed for the Emmys. When Latinx are both at the podium and asking the questions, great stuff happens.

So while we take this moment to celebrate Jerome’s win (and Betancourt’s reporting), we are far from satisfied. It was great seeing Latinx multi-hyphenates Jimmy Smits and Lin-Manuel Miranda presenting but that was the extent of our representation. Not a single Latina graced the Emmy stage. Not as a winner, not as a presenter, not even as a nominee. This in the year that saw the final seasons of Jane the Virgin and Orange Is The New Black, original EGOT winner Rita Moreno in ODAAT, AND Vida. Latinas were not just absent but ignored.

This erasure happened despite the fact that we certainly know how to do awards shows. I mean JLo literally caused the invention of Google Images with her green Versace dress, now celebrating its 20th anniversary and still breaking the internet. The women of Pose(not nominated, not brought on stage, seated in the back) arguably won the red carpet. We know how to bring it.

Perhaps the Television Academy is scared of us. Remember the debacle they got in a few years ago when they literally put Sofia Vergara on a pedestal? Or perhaps they’re worried they’ll repeat the mistake the Globes made in confusing Latina actresses for each other. But maybe I’m being too generous. It could be they just don’t know what to do with women of color in general. I mean Sandra Oh’s never won despite all those years as the formidable Dr. Cristina Yang (not to mention her current role as the titular Eve on Killing Eve). They didn’t give Ava Duvernay the statues she deserved last night. In fact, they didn’t give any WOC awards. No black women won, no Latinas were nominated, see the note about Sandra Oh above.

And while white women won all of the acting categories, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was the only woman to win a non-acting category, thanks to her writing for Fleabag (which went on to win Best Comedy). It was a rough night for women in general, and particularly for women of color.

The Emmys have to do better. TV is more diverse than film and the Television Academy shows should celebrate, rather than shun that fact. At a moment where activism around media representation continues to make headlines, we should be further than this. Didn’t we learn anything from #OscarsSoWhite? What about all those studies from Annenberg? Yet, here we are, thrilled to be celebrating some firsts while huge proportions of our community get shut out. Again. It’s past time to make Latinas visible.

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Not Reading Elizabeth Acevedo? Here’s Why You Should

While the literary establishment generally ignores Latinas, last year we saw the door open (just a creak!), thanks to Elizabeth Acevedo. Her The Poet X won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and her second novel, With the Fire on High, is showing that lightning can indeed strike twice.

I picked up The Poet X knowing nothing except that the author is Afro Latina and it won a bunch of awards. So you can imagine my surprise when the whole book turned out to be in verse. Poetry is not my favorite, so I figured I was in for a long, difficult read. But The Poet X delighted me. The language was powerful, the plot driving, and the characters fascinating.

Going in, I thought, a book about a Latina who expresses herself through writing? I’m going to see myself here (like I do with Jane the Virgin). But The Poet X’s Xiomara is a curvy bombshell, navigating her age-appropriate sexual awakening in the context of a working-class, abusive, Catholic family. And that couldn’t be further from my experience. I was a privileged, fair-skinned, beanpole teenager, confronting what it was like being outside the “spicy/curvy” Latina stereotype. My parents were loving and accepting and there was no strict religious doctrine in our household. I’m not even baptized! That’s not to say we didn’t have awkward conversations about sex or our own problems but our relationship is nothing like Xiomara’s with her parents. Where Jane Villanueva’s nerdiness and loving family resonated with me, Xiomara’s street cred and homelife felt foreign. But different doesn’t mean bad or even unappealing. It’s just a reminder that being Latina is just one part of our identities — it doesn’t define our entire experiences and we certainly aren’t all the same.

The Poet X is one of the rare books by a Latina to get attention from the literary establishment

By the time I finished The Poet X, the cover art for Acevedo’s sophomore work was out and I pre-ordered it. A few pages into With the Fire on High, I was a bit worried. The premise was eerily similar, only this time our young heroine expresses herself through food rather than words. Was this just going to be a carbon copy of The Poet X? Luckily no.

For one, it turns out the difference between Xiomara-the-poet and Emoni-the-chef is substantial. Where The Poet X is all in poetry, With the Fire on High is in prose with each section starting with a recipe (like the canonical Like Water for Chocolate!). It’s a powerful device supported by descriptions of Emoni experimenting with spices, finding surprising combinations, and cooking up flavor metaphors galore.

Emoni is also on a totally different journey than Xiomara when it comes to sex and relationships. When With the Fire on High starts, Emoni may be a senior in high school but she already has a two-year-old daughter. There’s no question about her virginity, no fight for her “purity” a la Xiomara. Instead, Emoni’s backed away from dating altogether — the boys in her school generally mistake her motherhood as a sign that she’s “easy,” when, if anything, she’s learned to by hyper-cautious when it comes to sex and her heart. Plus she’s super busy — raising a toddler, trying to graduate high school, and working to help support her family — it’s a lot.

One of the joys of With the Fire on High is its portrayal of motherhood. At the time of reading it, my daughter is the same age as Emoni’s and I can attest that some of that experience is the same, no matter the circumstance. Yes, I became a mom when you’re “supposed” to — as a married grown up in a secure financial position — and yes, that makes it a lot easier. But we’re all still reading Runaway Bunny and dealing with tantrums and feeling our hearts ache when we go too long without smelling that perfect, baby smell.

Acevedo’s second book is delicious

So much of the conversation around motherhood — teen and Latina motherhood in particular — is about a distinct contraction. Becoming a mother is often equated with going from having the world open to you to suddenly needing to prioritize a tiny, demanding human above all else. And that is true. But there’s a beauty and joy to it that’s left out of the dialogue when the mom is young or brown. It was powerful seeing a character who many would write off as a cautionary tale — don’t become the pregnant freshman! — given the same humanity and joy and problems as the rest of us.

As a mom and a creative, Emoni is her own person. With the Fire on High succeeds because she is so real, so distinct, and yet, so relatable. Her love story (not with the baby daddy) was particularly compelling, as she tries to find happiness and enjoy some of that normal, teenage head-over-heels joy that she was denied in her first experience. As Emoni navigates dating-post-baby, you can’t help but root for her.

The same goes for Elizabeth Acevedo, the author behind both books. I’m excited to meet her next heroine and would like to put in a request — can we meet a Latina who falls in love (and even has sex!) without consequence? Boys get to do it all the time. Even white women are starting to do it (see An EducationGirls, even Sister Carrie.). I’d love for Latinas to have a turn!

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This Latina Honors Toni Morrison

When Toni Morrison died, there was an outpouring of tributes. People wrote beautifully about the impact of her work, the strength of her character, the power of her insight. The tweets were amazing from President Barack Obama to local librarians.

As the love and mourning swirled, I was impressed by how much of the dialogue centered Black voices. Toni Morrison would have been proud. A quote of hers circulated: “Being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination. It expands it.” A video of her went viral — in it, a white reporter asks when she’ll write “substantially” about white people and Toni Morrison responds with, “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?”

This is an author who for the entirety of her career showed what it was to not just center black women but how that choice reframes the entire American narrative. When you switch from the “usual” perspective of the white man to a marginalized, silenced, and ignored black woman, history changes. Our understanding of what it means to be an American, a lover and love interest, and simply a human — they all shift.

This is an author who for the entirety of her career showed what it was to not just center black women but how that choice reframes the entire American narrative.

The power of this experience is exponential. If you’re part of the group that is rarely centered, you can see yourself in a whole new light. You can value and love yourself in ways you didn’t know were possible, or even know you were missing. You can suddenly perceive all the previously invisible ways you were ignored, taught your experiences didn’t matter, and led to believe your perspective was wrong.

And if you’re not in the newly-centered group, there’s much to learn as well. I am not a white man so I don’t know what is to have the whole world structured to uplift my perspectives, preferences, and power. But I do have many privileges, fair skin among them. As such, reading and studying Toni Morrison has shaped my view of the world and made me a better person. They’ve taught me to listen, to question, to demand more of myself and others but that change wasn’t instant.

I was shocked when I got to college that other people read books like The Color Purple in high school. They were assigned books by and about black people? Gay black people? We did not have that. My high school was over a third Latinx but the only time I can remember reading an assigned book about the Latinx experience was Bless Me Ultima. It’s a good book. But it was the only one. I’m wracking my brain, trying to remember if we were ever assigned anything written by a black author. I don’t think so. We certainly never read anything from the LGBTQ perspective (or disabled for that matter).

Toni Morrison has shaped my view of the world and made me a better person. [She] taught me to listen, to question, to demand more of myself and others but that change wasn’t instant.

Now I’m a nerd from a nerd family (including a Chicano-studies professor dad and a woman’s history professor mom), so I read lots of great books. I remember being so impressed by Rain of Gold as a teenager and even, upon my dad’s recommendation, selecting Beloved for my independent book report project junior year. I don’t think my (white) teacher had read it. I certainly didn’t talk to her about Beloved. High school was not where you discussed books like those, at least not where I went

College, of course, was different. And not just because I could take classes like “Women Writers” and “Chicana History” but also because the experiences of black and brown people (including women!) made their way into the general curriculum. I took a class called “Literary Masters” and we just read Faulkner and Morrison. The power of telling kids of all backgrounds that these two voices are at the top of their craft, their ideas are in conversation, was monumental. The professor may have liked both authors equally, but I think I speak for all my classmates when I say Toni Morrison won. Her words, her moral authority, her characters sang in a way Faulkner’s don’t. Yes, they both earned the Nobel Prize in literature, but Morrison had to overcome so much more, be so much more excellent, to get it.

I was lucky to discover and fall in love with Morrison in school but I didn’t stop learning from her once I got my degree. After graduating, I stayed in dialogue around Toni Morrison’s work, part of a three-person book club (me, my favorite professor who just happened to be an esteemed Morrison scholar, and my roommate/fellow English major) who read literary theory and Morrison’s new works (as I said, I am a nerd). In addition to grappling with her work and words, letting them challenge and inspire me, I also tried to emulate her example. I became an activist, a cultural critic. In that role, I call for more and better representation of women of color, insisting we’d get better art and a better society if we diversified who we listen to.

In addition to grappling with her work and words, letting them challenge and inspire me, I also tried to emulate her example. I became an activist, a cultural critic.

Toni Morrison may not have written with me, a white-passing Latina, in mind. I am not the person most affected by her work or her legacy. I’m not even in that group. But I learned so much from reading her and learning how others read her. I am grateful that she did the hard work of becoming a writer, of insisting her words mattered, of valuing herself and those in her community.

She did so much for us. Let us honor her by using the space she created to push for more. More space. More voices. More black women at the center of it all.

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Dolor y Esperanza: Finding Hope after El Paso

To be Latinx in America has always been fraught. But in the last month, under Donald Trump’s “leadership,” our community has been under increased attack. The co-founders of LatinaMedia.co discuss what it means to be Latina in 2019, how we got here, and what we should do next.

NICOLA: On August 3, 2019, a 21-year-old white man drove 9 hours to El Paso Texas and killed 22 people and injured 20+ more. The man was targeting Latinos, rationalizing his decision in a manifesto using the terms “demographic displacement,” “white genocide” and “illegal immigration.” Like many people when I heard this news I immediately thought about my family, I cried, and that night I couldn’t sleep.

CRISTINA: I learned about the El Paso shooting from Facebook. One of my tias had marked herself safe, writing that she, all her sisters, all the kids, and all the grandkids were okay. It was both a perfect and truly terrible way to learn about another mass shooting. A shooting that took place this time in the city where my grandfather’s from, and the majority of my husband’s family still lives. The weekend before, we’d talked about going to the Gilroy Garlic Festival and I’d had to double-check that my brother-in-law didn’t go without us. This is not an acceptable way to live. In fear and frustration. Under attack.

NICOLA: I wasn’t surprised. How could I be? When the leader of our country has been saturating the news with racist language and actions towards the Latino community, especially Mexicans. “They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists.”

This is not an acceptable way to live. In fear and frustration. Under attack.

It’s almost been two years since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Instead of using it as a moment to unify the country, Trump blamed the people claiming “They want everything done for them.” Not only is Trump playing into racist colonial ideas, he’s also perpetuating the narrative that even Latinos who are documented and born in this country must prove themselves worthy of this country.

CRISTINA: I’m not surprised either. There’s always been racism in the US — we’re talking about a country founded on slavery that still uses oppression as its primary engine for growth. A country that uses state-sanctioned violence to terrorize its black and brown citizens. A country that bakes racism into each and every one of its systems.

In reading the coverage of the El Paso shooting, I was struck by its location — a Walmart — and how those workers had been trained to deal with an active shooter. They don’t get paid enough for that! We’re living in a society where the Waltons are the richest family on the planet and they require their minimum-wage workers to risk life and limb. It’s sickening.

NICOLA: It is and it’s past time that we talk about it. Since 2016, I found myself in more arguments than I can count as we approach the 2020 elections. What is the future of our country? How can Democrats better tailor their message toward the parts of America that felt ignored and voted for Trump in 2016? How can we appeal to America’s better nature? Appeal to or nation’s conscience?

The media only hears us in the Latinx community when we perform our pain.

These questions have led me to be more conscious of how and when I answer these questions. Far too often, it seems like the media only hears us in the Latinx community when we perform our pain. Whether it’s sharing our individual narratives on social media or someone filming a crying child asking where their mother is, it’s exhausting to both consume and create these narratives just for the chance at acceptance.

CRISTINA: I hear you and I’m exhausted too — everything only seems to be getting worse. The FBI reports an increase in hate crimes. There are concentration camps on the border. Just this past month, there was the shooting in El Paso, the raids in Mississippi (which I believe were retaliation against the Latina workers demanding to be given a modicum of human dignity), and now new rules to deny legal immigrants access to government services. It’s no longer a leak, rotting the foundation of our American house. It’s a flood.

And what’s so frustrating to me about this particular flood isn’t the white people on the second (third and fourth) floor, asking what the problem is. It’s the third of Latinx people who support the President. They’re in the muck with us, pretending that because they have rainboots or whatever, that everything’s fine. Maybe they think aligning themselves with the powers that be, they’ll become (or already are) white. Other groups have done it: look at Italians and the Irish. They used to be othered but now they’re as white as white can get. So maybe it is possible. But it’s not preferable. These folks are comfortable leaving behind huge portions of our community (Afro-Latinos, our indigenous brothers and sisters), and leaving intact an evil, unjust system. I’d much rather ban together, Squad-style, with other communities of color and throw the whole thing out.

NICOLA: Agreed. It often feels like we’re fighting a losing battle. We’re sharing these horrific stories of children being separated from their parents and parents protecting their children during a domestic terrorist attack at a Walmart — but what story will change or alter the racist narrative of this country? That’s where I believe inclusion, especially in newsrooms, writers rooms, and in the halls of government, is where we can put the most hope. We will not see change until we are represented in both creating our nation’s culture and creating the laws that govern our country.

CRISTINA: Definitely. And like you, I’m lucky that I get to advance that particular cause and my politics in general for a living. The Monday after the El Paso shooting, I was working with Latinx and women’s groups on a response. In the weeks before and after, I’ve had a hand in encouraging more people of color, women, and young people to vote and make this flawed democracy work for us. I mean here we are, speaking out as the mujeres problemáticas we are, demanding the world be better! But it’s still hard to have hope, to channel my rage and frustration into positive action, to not feel like the forces of hate are too strong, too entrenched for us to topple.

NICOLA: As we say at the Women’s Foundation of California, those closest to the problem are the best equipped to find the solution. And as I see more women, especially women of color, trans, and nonbinary people writing our laws and leading the next generation of policymakers the more I have hope for our future.

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“Sabrina & Corina” Colors in Our Erased History

I’ve always thought of Colorado as a white place. Despite the Spanish-language name, the state has marketed itself as more like Kansas than New Mexico and it’s worked. I mean, my dad is a professor of Chicana/Chicano studies and I grew up steeped in Mexican American history, learning the ways we are erased and the consequences of that erasure. Having lived in all four border states (CA, AZ, NM, and TX), I’ve noted the differences between how Latinx culture is presented, perceived and lived. So if anyone should have questioned the white narrative of Colorado, it was me. But I didn’t — I fell for the whitewashed marketing of the state, never doubting my impression that Colorado is and has been gringolandia.

Fajardo-Anstine captures the empty, arid, barrenness of the desert, contrasting it with the book’s other settings and filling the silence with real people — your primas and tias and amigas, dealing with things you wish they didn’t have to.

That is until I read Sabrina & Corina. Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut book is a collection of stories each centering a Latina protagonist from Denver. The stories span decades, revealing different facets of Colorado’s history with rich and beautiful writing. Fajardo-Anstine captures the empty, arid, barrenness of the desert, contrasting it with the book’s other settings and filling the silence with real people — your primas and tias and amigas, dealing with things you wish they didn’t have to. Each story keeps you turning pages as it breaks your heart with accounts of gender-based violence, bad-parents kept and good parents lost, and the psychological effect of your history, identity, and family being systematically erased.

Sabrina & Corina explores these pressing issues with nuance and compassion. Take the treatment of sexuality: in the title story, we see two cousins, one uncannily beautiful and “fast” and another responsible, conservative, and normal looking. The beautiful one trades on her looks for quick escapes, relying on men for her sense of self and her economic day-to-day. She ends up murdered by one of her partners. The other avoids men, relationships, and sex, living alone and isolated, even losing touch with her favorite cousin. Neither is a good choice.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see Alicia in “All Her Names” use her sexuality to literally ensure her freedom, pretending to be mid-tryst to escape the cops after tagging a train car. And this serves as background for a character who has an abortion without telling her husband and spends the majority of her narrative with her sometimes-lover, reliving what it was to be young and reckless. Sexuality is complicated and Sabrina & Corinadoesn’t back away from that as it portrays the lived experiences of Coloradian Latinas.

Sexuality is complicated and Sabrina & Corinadoesn’t back away from that as it portrays the lived experiences of Coloradian Latinas.

Likewise, Farjado-Anstine’s debut captures what it feels like to be the object of gentrification. In “Galapago,” we see a middle-aged woman try to convince her grandmother to move out of the old neighborhood. She remembers the break-ins over her grandmother’s 60+ years in that house and the ways in which the family contorted themselves and their home to continue thriving despite the surrounding violence. That story ends and begins with the grandmother Pearla killing a nineteen-year-old intruder — it’s finally time to move out.

In the last story, “Ghost Sickness,” we see the gentrification of history, not just houses. Here our protagonist Ana is a college student in danger of flunking History of the American West. She just can’t merge what she knows of the area — what the events described in her textbook felt like from the indigenous perspective — to the White Man’s version of explorers, tamed wilderness, and manifest destiny. She’s also dealing with the disappearance and probable death of her live-in boyfriend. This story ends with a modicum of hope — Ana may just pass the class thanks to an extra credit question on the Navajo original story, something she knows in her bones thanks to that missing, Navajo lover.

Overall, Sabrina & Corina made me feel seen, silly, and sad. Seen because these women are women I know, women I’ve been, but women I so rarely get to see portrayed. The power of centering Latina’s perspectives cannot be overstated. I also feel silly for knowing so little about my sisters in Colorado — I mean, I didn’t even know they existed! This erasure isolates us, keeping us from knowing and working together. And lastly, I was sad. These stories are heartbreaking and make you feel for each heroine as she deals with the tragedy before her.

Our experiences are not your sadness porn. There is in fact great beauty, humor, and strength in being Latina.

I hope Kali Fajardo-Anstine writes and publishes many more books. Her voice is powerful and her focus on women of color needed. But scrolling through reviews of Sabrina & Corina, I was uncomfortable by all the white women praising it, not understanding that to be Latina is not just to be in pain or doomed to tragic circumstances. Our experiences are not your sadness porn. There is in fact great beauty, humor, and strength in being Latina. And I hope Kali Fajardo-Anstine uses her considerable talent and now thankfully-large platform to share the joy of our identity with the world too. With so much sadness, we need the moments of joy as well.

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We Are Changemakers: Attending My First #WeAllGrow Summit

Have you ever been in a room where every single person is impressive? Maybe when you started college or that fancy new job. Now imagine that room and instead of being intimidated, you feel welcomed, valued, and seen. Last week, I attended the #WeAllGrow Summit and found myself in exactly that situation.

Everywhere I went, I met amazing women. The poet I admired. The podcaster I can’t wait to start listening to. The journalist who is speaking truth to power. The artist whose work I’ve already started supporting. I’ve never been part of a community like that before and I have every intention of replicating it not just via my social media feed but also IRL with the chingonas in the Bay.

We came, we grew, we presented.

So would any of these amazing women be interested in hearing me speak? Spoiler: yes! Suited up in our #MakeLatinasVisible T’s, LatinaMedia.Co Co-Founder Nicola Schulze and I led a workshop called “What A Hashtag Becomes A Movement: A How-To on Online Organizing.” We drew on our combined twenty years of experience of social justice organizing and marketing to host a conversation about how to build a successful groundswell online. In the end, we all came out just that much more energized to do this work and do it in community.

As a media critic, the highlight of the event for me was the panel featuring the Vida team and of course, the Q&A with Yalitiza (we’re on a first name basis now). Vida showrunner Tanya Saracho was hilarious, strong, and smart, challenging us to support each other and laugh at ourselves. Meanwhile the cast — represented by Mishel Prada, Ser Anzoategui, and Chelsea Rendon — spoke about the transformational nature of the show, how it humanizes Latinx people in a time when we so desperately need it (see the news coming from the border if you need some background on what I’m talking about).

Dear Television Academy — The queer brown show “Vida” deserves an Emmy. Period.

The conversation with Roma’s Yalitiza Aparicio had me (and the whole audience) in tears — multiple times. Remember before Roma, she’d never acted before and didn’t have Hollywood aspirations. But today as the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award and one of the rare Latinas to walk that red carpet, Yalitza’s an inspiration to so many of us. On stage, she spoke of her journey as an actress and dedicated her performance as domestic worker Cleo to her mother, who’d done that work in real life. I loved the story she told of her mother walking down the street at home and everyone congratulating her.

While Yalitza’s evident heart, sincerity, and insightfulness shone through, what really got me was when five women from the audience told Yalitza what seeing her on-screen meant to them. For Latinx people as a whole and more specifically, indigenous women, Yalitza’s success has meant so much. We’re talking about a woman who serves as the sole representation (and a positive one at that!) of a group that’s normally erased and when they do appear are usually stereotyped, othered, and/or demonized.

Yalitiza and the Changemakers, courtesy of Nicole Goldinez, @nicolegoldinezphoto

It’s an immense burden and one Yalitza shouldn’t have to carry alone. Yet she is alone for now and somehow manages this solemn responsibility with maturity and grace. As the women assembled spoke from the heart, we all cried — Yalitza, the speakers, the audience. To share this moment of being seen and appreciated, thanked and giving thanks, united and individually celebrated was so intense. I’m sure it reverberated out into the cosmos and I hope even the Hollywood moguls felt it.

The summit’s theme was “We Are Changemakers” and it rang so true. This is an amazing group of women who are changing the world and doing it together. It was a thing of beauty to be a part of and I left with the strengthened abilities, connections, and ganas to go make it happen!

Cover image courtesy of Maria Jose Govea, @thesupermaniak.

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“Vida:” The Millenial, Latina, Queer Show of Our Dreams

The second season of “Vida”is available to stream on the Starz app Thursday, May 23 with episodes airing weekly on the Starz network starting Sunday, May 26. The first season is available now on Starz and via the Hulu add-on. Warning: spoilers ahead.

The second season of Starz’ Vida is out this week and I’m so excited. If you missed the first season (because it’s on Starz, because you didn’t even hear about it because it’s on Starz), Vida is the millennial/Latina/queer show of our dreams.

It follows two Chicana sisters, Emma and Lyn Hernandez, who return home to Boyle Heights to bury their mother and decide what to do with the family business, a neighborhood apartment building and bar. Emma is the career-driven chingona, taking charge and ruffling feathers everywhere she goes. She also happens to be a lesbian. Lyn, meanwhile, is all drifting free spirit. She moves from man to man, business idea to business idea, with her good looks, overall cool, and loose morals (stealing a credit card in her deceased and debt-laden mother’s name — yikes) to live well beyond her means.

Soon, Emma and Lyn realize that not only is the bar/building vastly underwater with bills owed to greedy gentrifiers but their mother was married to her female “roommate” Eddy despite not even being out to her daughters. Newly widowed, Eddy has one-third share of the family business with the rest split between Lyn and Emma. Together, this unlikely trio has to figure out a way forward.

Created and led by Latinas, Vida’s baked latinidad into its every fiber and the results are amazing. There’s the all Latinx cast. The Boyle Heights setting. And there’s the way Vida truly centers family, identity, and a nuanced conversation about gentrification.

Created and led by Latinas, Vida’s baked latinidad into its every fiber and the results are amazing. There’s the all Latinx cast. The Boyle Heights setting. And there’s the way Vida truly centers family, identity, and a nuanced conversation about gentrification. The first season manages all this deftly, making Vidaread as an edgy, critical darling while being firmly rooted in the Latinx experience.

I particularly appreciated seeing Emma and Lyn navigate their identities in response to the question so many of us grapple with: are you Latina enough? Emma spends the first season confronting the idea that she hates where she’s from with several characters stating or implying as much. The truth is, Emma doesn’t hate Boyle Heights — she’s just estranged from it as her mother sent her away in a (failed) effort to stop Emma’s queerness. This rejection led Emma to build walls against her loved ones and her home. Yes, despite her prickliness, Emma learned formal Spanish, ensuring her ability to communicate in the neighborhood. And while her initial instinct is to sell the bar, she ends up picking another path. She figures out the predatory nature of the loans her mother took out and that selling would mean letting those folks win, so she decides to stay and use her college-educated business acumen to make the place profitable. Emma’s straddling two (three? multiple?) worlds and trying to figure out what pride in her identity means while also dealing with self-loathing as a rejected and isolated daughter.

What does it take to be “Latina enough?” Speaking Spanish? Being from the neighborhood? Never leaving?

You see, Vida doesn’t just have latinidad at its core, it’s also dealing with female sexuality in its many forms. There was A LOT of sex in the first season with Lyn and Emma each having multiple partners, plus a prolonged solo scene. And since this is Starz, yes, those scenes were erotic as hell. But take note — they didn’t rely on the usual male-gaze tropes of depicting women as objects. Instead, I saw sex scene after sex scene with different sets of participants (woman/man, woman/woman, woman alone), all centering female pleasure and the woman’s perspective. It was hot. And this rare, woman-focused depiction of women’s sexuality is made even more powerful by how it centers and values brown bodies not as sites of sexual gratification but as agents deserving of love and pleasure.

Building upon its depiction of sex and brown identity, Vida uses gentrification as its looming threat, powering the plot. Gentrification’s the reason Emma and Lyn stay in Boyle Heights instead of returning to their lives in Chicago and San Francisco after the funeral. It’s the reason Eddy isn’t able to be forthright about the books at the beginning and it lays the groundwork for her ending up in the hospital at the end. And, of course, it’s the menace Marisol and her group of activists are working against, a battle that puts her in conflict with the sisters.

This rare, woman-focused depiction of women’s sexuality is made even more powerful by how it centers and values brown bodies not as sites of sexual gratification but as agents deserving of love and pleasure.

Gentrification threatens all of Boyle Heights. For Emma, the conundrum is if you need to charge $8 a drink to pay your rent then you can’t stay a neighborhood place. But if you don’t charge that amount and lose your property, the next place that opens won’t cater to the original residence either. For the residence, it’s what’s pushing them out of their homes and wreaking havoc on their community. For the activist group, it’s how to hold back the tide of economic “development” that’s destroying the neighborhood and, to push the tide metaphor, like water always seems to find a way.

In other shows with big external threats, there’s often a clear answer. Is it war or monsters that threaten you? Then fight for your life. Kill your enemies and create your own bit of peace. Think Walking DeadLord of the Rings, even Mash. Is it a natural (or supernatural) disaster? Perhaps surviving is enough. Gather the people you love and try to make it like Viggo Mortenson in The Road or Helen Hunt in Twister.But what if you’re facing gentrification? Putting one developer out of business won’t end the threat, no matter how slimy and terrible they are. Surviving may mean moving, which here means defeat.

It’s not clear what to do or try to save when your enemy is gentrification.

The first season of Vida setup gentrification as the show’s primary danger, exploring the ways it works and why it’s so intractable. I’m excited for the second season to delve into solutions as Emma, Lyn, and Eddy work to save the bar. The answers aren’t clear but I hope we see them join Marisol and try to overthrow the system. I can’t imagine Emma tagging anything or either of the sisters marching in a protest (although I could see Eddy taking to the street). No, I envision Emma meeting with city council members to change laws while Lyn uses her charm to get the intel needed. Perhaps, working together, these women can push on all the levers needed to save Boyle Heights for its residents and for us. I’ll certainly be tuning into the second season to find out.

And even if we can’t find the solutions to gentrification in the show, Vida is doing its part in the real world. You see, the problem at the heart of gentrification is that the market and American culture at large don’t value actual Latinos. They want our food and our art and our labor but not our humanity. In fact, they don’t even see us. When compared to our numbers in the general population, Latinx are the least represented group on screen. And when we do show up, we’re usually criminals and drug runners. This is the country that elected Donald “Mexicans-are-rapists” Trump as President.

In its way, just by existing, Vida is helping to right these wrongs, displaying Latinas as the beautiful, complicated, fully human people we are. And it’s doing so in a way that appeals to the hipsters who wrote off One Day at A Timeand Jane the Virgin as too fluffy, inconsequential, or not for them. Take note and join me in watching, evangelizing and generally not shutting up about season two.

The problem at the heart of gentrification is that the market and American culture at large don’t value actional Latinos. They want our food and our art and our labor but not our humanity… Vida is helping to right these wrongs, displaying Latinas as the beautiful, complicated, fully human people we are.

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“Call the Midwife” Reminds Us What It’s Like When Abortion is Illegal

Usually, no one dies on Call the Midwife. And it’s definitely a good thing since the show focuses on giving birth. I mean, I for one, would not watch a dead baby (or a dead mommy) show. No, Call the Midwife uses death sparingly, unlike say Grey’s Anatomy where you can expect about a third of the patients to kick the bucket. So when in season eight Jeannie Tennant dies, I was surprised.

We first meet Jeannie as a new mother in Nurse Trixie’s dance class. She’s the mom who “got her figure back” and is weirdly good (even sexy) with a hula hoop. All this despite having two sons, the youngest one under a year old. Jeannie’s working part-time and saving to buy a house with her husband — this isn’t the typical 60s housewife the media loves to over-represent. Jeannie is a woman with a plan. She has her own agency and knows her strengths and limitations. But then she learns she’s pregnant again despite using protection (FYI/PSA: you have to get your diaphragm refitted after giving birth).

Jeannie doesn’t want a third baby. Trixie offers words of encouragement and so does the good Dr. Turner. But platitudes don’t help Jeannie. She’s a driven and dedicated mother but knows she can’t be a good parent to a third child. When the medical establishment fails her, she gets an abortion. In 1964 London. Where the procedure is still illegal and will remain so for three more years. Soon Jeannie turns gray and sickly, then a day or so later shaking, then cold under all the covers, and finally dead in the ambulance. Now, there’ll be no house for her boys, no mother to lovingly raise them. Jeannie dies but perhaps what hurts the most about this episode is watching all the points where she could have been saved by so many people with the medical knowledge to do so.

“When the medical establishment fails her, she gets an abortion. In 1964 London. Where the procedure is still illegal and will remain so for three more years. Soon Jeannie turns gray and sickly, then a day or so later shaking, then cold under all the covers, and finally dead in the ambulance.”

Call the Midwife has shown illegal abortion before with its many complications but this is the first time someone has died of it. In season two, we saw a mother of eight suffer from a poorly done procedure, barely surviving to tell the tale. Last season, Magda (Nurse Shelagh and Dr. Turner’s au pair) induces her own miscarriage after looking it up in the couple’s medical books. She collapses in the garden and is saved just in the nick of time (but alas, is their au pair no longer). Even earlier this season, we followed a woman through an abortion that ends with her losing her ability to have children.

Ill-fated Jeannie Tennant with her husband and youngest son

Clearly, the consequences of illegal abortion are bad — for women, mothers, and their children. With Jeannie’s death, Call the Midwife upped the stakes. This isn’t preeclampsia, which the medical community hadn’t found a treatment for yet. It’s not even the discovery that the drug thalidomide causes severe birth defects. Abortion is something doctors knew how to do safely in 1964 but chose not to. Because it was illegal. Because they could lose their jobs. Perhaps, because they objected. But whatever the reason, women suffered enormously, some even losing their lives.

It’s not clear what the nuns, midwives, and Dr. Turner actually think about abortion. Trixie wants to wring the abortionist’s neck but doesn’t offer an opinion on the procedure. Shelagh comforts her husband, reminding him that he was only following the law. Dr. Turner, one of the few men on the show, gets the most lines on the subject, telling the police by way of background: “Jeannie was unhappy. Jeannie was frightened. Jeannie did not want to have a baby… We see this all the time. Young, young girls. Exhausted older women. Mothers who don’t know where their next penny or their next beating’s coming from! And others who want to take control of their bodies and their lives. And all we can do is pat them on the hand and say ‘You’ll manage, everybody does.’ But not everybody does. Not everybody believes us. I’m so sorry, I can’t help you. But I’m even more sorry that I couldn’t help her.”

“Abortion is something doctors knew how to do safely in 1964 but chose not to. Because it was illegal. Because they could lose their jobs. Perhaps, because they objected. But whatever the reason, women suffered enormously, some even losing their lives.”

So would the inhabitants of Nonnatus House offer abortions if they were legal? If the show gets a few more seasons, we may be able to see. We only have to make it to 1967 for Great Britain to change its laws and allow abortionup to 24 weeks and after that for medical reasons. In Jeannie’s episode, we only see our favorite practitioners doing their job as good representatives of the state and its laws. In their practice, there are no options for Jeannie other than carrying that baby to term. In a later episode, we’ll meet the abortionist herself and hear her justification for offering these women dangerous, amateur services — she says she’s just trying to help, to provide something the medical establishment won’t even if some of her customers end up butchered along the way.

Call the Midwife airs in England months before it comes to the US so its ability and propensity to respond to American news is limited. That said, with the recent abortion bans in Georgia, Alabama, and other states, it’s hard not to feel like this season is directed towards us stateside. We know what happens when abortion is illegal. Women don’t suddenly decide to keep every unwanted pregnancy. They still terminate — they just do so risking their health and their lives.

We know what happens when abortion is illegal. Women don’t suddenly decide to keep every unwanted pregnancy. They still terminate — they just do so risking their health and their lives.

As Sister Monica Joan says “do you ask how the fish in the murk of the ocean finds the light? How the rat in the rubble locates the air? In extremis, necessity finds a way.” In this case, many women encounter preventable death and injury just to find it. The costumes and cars of Call the Midwife are cute, but as a woman, the nostalgia stops there. I don’t want to live in the 1960s — visiting for an hour a week or so is fine. Let’s not take our laws and our bodies back there. The price is much too high.

The clothes are cute but that doesn’t mean I want our lives or laws to resemble “Call the Midwife”
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White Men and the Media: A Love Story

On Friday, Gallup released a report on the favorability ratings of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The article was entitled “Rep. Ocasio-Cortez Better Known, but Image Skews Negative.” After I read the headline, I was disappointed believing that the hype around the new congresswoman was dissipating. Then I actually looked at the numbers. It’s true she is growing unfavorably among three audiences: men, white people, and people older than 55. However Ocasio’s popularity is increasing with women, people of color, and people ages 18–35.

Last time I checked women are still 50% of the population and white people only make up a little more than half of the population. This headline and the surrounding conversation shows how the media considers white men the default. Since the beginning of modern times, mostly white men have controlled the world’s power, just look at 44 of our last presidents. The assumption Gallup was making is not new. Because men and white people are finding Ocasio-Cortez less appealing, her image must be considered overall negative. The white guys set the narrative. Because in the media’s eyes, without men and white people, a politician could never stand a chance.Apparently, only certain opinions matter, only their experiences define normal. As we near the 2020 election, I feel uneasy with media coverage that continuously and overwhelmingly favors white male candidates.

Last Thursday, Beto O’Rourke, currently the candidate with the least experience and whose claim to fame is his narrow loss to Ted Cruz, announced his intention to run for president. Now let me be clear — I have nothing against Robert “call me Beto” O’Rourke, however the way he has been embraced by the media with little to no criticism compared to the other candidates confirms my fears for this election.

Consider how Amy Klobuchar’s announcement was greeted. Immediately stories about her reputation from being a difficult boss emerged. And while I don’t admit I know what it’s like to work for Klobuchar, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that no male senators have had New York Times exposes citing their workplaces as difficult. Or when Kamala Harris launched her campaign in Oakland and and estimated at 20,000 people came, where were the headlines?

Prior to his announcement, O’Rourke was given the star treatment — an artsy spread in Vanity Fair complete with photos taken by Annie Leibovitz. The fact is none of the women in the race or people of color (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar) got the same media attention that Beto has.

Particularly glaring for me is the contrast between O’Rourke and Julián Castro. I single out Castro because of their natural similarities. First, obviously, they are both straight men from Texas. Yes, despite Beto’s claim that “There’s one candidate who’s there who can talk about the profoundly positive impact that immigrants have had on our safety and our security, as well as our success and our strength,” he is not the only one. Castro not only comes from an immigrant family but was born and raised in San Antonio. San Antonio is not only the home of the Alamo, historically it was a part of Mexico, and currently over 60% of the population is Hispanic or Latino. At the age of 26, Castro became the youngest city councilman to serve in San Antonio’s history. In 2009, he became the youngest mayor of a top-50 American city and was named Time magazine’s 40 under 40 list for America’s up and coming political leaders.

Yet, time and time again, white men continue to get the upper hand in the name of charisma, wide appeal, and a “fresh perspective.” It seems that Beto, unlike some of the other candidates, has the option to lean and run on personality rather than a list of detailed policy plans and decisions. This week, it was released that O’Rourke raised $6.1 million online in the first 24 hours of him campaign according to The New York Times. This officially surpassed Bernie Sanders for the most money raised in one-day by a Democratic candidate. It seems every news outlet across the country plastered this headline over and over. However, while this statistic shows promise it definitely isn’t indicative of who will win, or who should win, particularly when considering gender. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, while women make up half of the population, they donate less than 30% of all campaign contributions. Last year, NPR discovered that democratic men running for congress out-raise democratic female candidates on average by 500,000 dollars. The fact is that mostly men hold the purse strings to political money in this country and to use the amount of money raised as an indication of success is not accurate. So yes, O’Rourke raised an outrageous amount of money, but he did so without a detailed policy plan or outline of what he was running on.

Not only is O’Rourke one of the least experienced, according to Vox, his voting record is actually more conservative than the average Democrat. In the 113th U.S. Congress, from January 2013 to January 2015, O’Rourke voted more conservative than 76 percent of Democrats. And in the 114th Congress, he was more conservative than 79 percent of Democrats. And in the 115th Congress, he was more conservative than 77 percent of Democrats. This is more conservative on average than Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, and Warren. So the idea that O’Rourke is somehow a liberal breath of fresh air to the Democratic party is built on personality, not substance.

In this upcoming election, the coverage and hype factor has consistently favored white men. Whether it’s the young newcomer from Texas, Beto O’Rourke or two veteran politicians like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, candidates who are people of color or women are not given the benefit of the doubt. Instead they are consistently expected to politely step aside and wait in line. Too often political coverage is gendered. Too often female candidates receive coverage for their clothes, makeup choices, or a lip syncing breakfast club style music video. Too often people of color are criticized for using divisive language or have to endure coded racist descriptions. Too often women of color are dismissed or worse forced to endure racist actions from their own constituents. Too often men receive the benefit of the doubt, leaving policy decisions in the background while reporters anoint them with labels like charisma and electability.

I hope in 2020 we do not repeat the mistakes of the past — that our media covers and outlines policies instead of personalities. Elizabeth Warren has already released a plan to end Washington corruption. Kamala Harris has released her plan to fight inequality with LIFT the Middle Class Act, while Julián Castro has called for universal health care and reparations. These are the issues that reporters have a responsibility to cover. We cannot have another election where an escalator ride receives more coverage than a comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform. We cannot have another election where the media plays right into the hands of a racist and sexist President. America might not survive it.

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