I Can’t Protect ODAAT’s Elena From My Family


It’s like Wednesday or something. I’m eating dinner with my parents and sister in front of the TV like we have since I was in middle school. And my sister insists on playing the One Day At A Time reboot because she thinks our mom will enjoy it. Of course, I watched and enjoyed it when it originally aired, so I welcome the change of pace from whatever sports league is on or yet another HGTV show that reminds me I will never own my own home. My parents, like any self-respecting Puerto Ricans, are delighted at Rita Moreno’s performance. I prefer Justina Machado’s. She’s been in a supporting role in almost everything and seeing her flex her acting chops in a leading role is nourishing. And of course, there’s ODAAT‘s Elena.

Baby gay, Isabella Gomez’s Elena, who’s learning how to be. I’m always drawn to the Elena characters, the misfits in the family who are ridiculed for wanting to be part of something bigger and kinder than their homes. Because ODAAT’s Elena is a teenager, her yearning manifests as a strong sense for social justice that serves the narrative sometimes and always makes her the butt of the joke. Abuela’s cruelty particularly stood out to me this time around with Moreno’s performance no longer clouded by my years in the diaspora.

The first time I watched ODAAT, bad snowstorms had stranded me at JFK. I was there for over two days as I made my way back to campus after the holidays in Puerto Rico. I pulled the trigger on buying the airport Wi-Fi and watched the first season of the show between bouts of sleeping under payphones and haunting the empty terminals. I was about to start year three of being in the States and my last year of undergrad in West Virginia. It was during the direct pre and post of 2016 election chaos, and I was starved for anything resembling my reality. 

Rita Moreno's Abuela and Isabella Gomez's Elena in ODAAT

This perfect storm (pun very much intended) made me adore the show. It was precious to me and in faithful need of protection. After the show ends, I tucked ODAAT‘s Elena away, thinking her successfully guarded, saved even. But her second life in my parents’ living room leaves her vulnerable.

The disdain my parents have for ODAAT‘s Elena is blatant. And that’s only when they’re able to grasp her. Most of the time, they’re just confused and annoyed at her on-screen antics. “¿Qué le pasa a ella?” “¿Por qué actúa así?” “Pues nena así son las cosas.” Their laughs at Abuela’s mocking of ODAAT‘s Elena ring louder to me and me alone. The gun episode – it drops like a stone in my stomach, like every other time I’ve watched it. Penelope reminds Abuela they have a gay teen in the house, “So?” my mother comments. They don’t know they had a gay teen in the house once and that we, as a group, are much more likely to attempt suicide. 

It’s been two years since I moved back home after finishing grad school. Adjusting has sucked. Eight years away from PR has changed the island, my family, and me. Everyone here feels a little meaner, a little crueler to me. Makes sense. Colonial trauma is a hell of a thing. Or maybe I’ve “gone soft” in the States. Adapted to sensibilities and ease, can’t handle my family’s ribbing anymore. Seems I swallowed up the sitcom fantasy of the family apologizing by the end of the episode. TV’s kitchen heart to hearts replaced with real-life emotional breakdowns met with annoyance. No wonder I was always meaner those first two weeks back on campus after breaks home. Now I just keep waiting for it to wear off.

Maybe there’s just less of a framework for my kind of weird here. Me wearing all black is weird enough, doing so in year-round tropical weather is lunacy. Committing to it for 10 years is borderline a declaration of war. I only get asked if I speak Spanish when I dress in all black. Maybe I should stop going to the coffee shop in the touristy area, but at an 18-minute drive from my house, it’s the closest one I found with Wi-Fi that doesn’t close at 2 pm. Maybe I just haven’t found my niche here yet. I’ve seen fellow tropigoths out and about, but they’re never alone. It’s like they all already know each other, and membership requires a referral. 

I’m tired of being a concept. The Bisexual Puerto Rican Eldest Daughter who spent half of her MFA shit-talking the literary canon and the other half longing to be part of something bigger than herself. I imagine Elena in an alternate timeline where she’s in a TV show centering a Puerto Rican family instead of Cuban one. In that show, the family would be forced to acknowledge that the only reason they’re in the States in the first place is because of U.S. colonialism. No scary, communist boogeyman to blame the displacement on (I see you Jane the Virgin and The Baker and the Beauty), just good ol’ fashioned American imperialism.

The Elena I tucked away in my chest is free-falling and I’m too afraid to catch her. Her story failed her. It’s a sitcom, so the family must always stick together. No number of jokes will make her transfer to the first university she finds with a high acceptance rate. No amount of humiliation will bar her from being open about her romantic life. None of the boundaries ignored will make her dream of the day she can finally cut off the Alvarezes. The story must go on. It has to fit. If details must be brushed aside for the larger purpose, then we light a candlelight vigil for them. The larger narrative is at stake.

ODAAT's Elena and the rest of the Alvarezes

ODAAT‘s Elena became an outlet for my family after I learned to shut up. Someone to ridicule for expecting more of everyone because she isn’t enough for others as is. Put on more makeup, shut up, and let us enjoy something. I thought that perhaps if they saw a version of me being berated and still somehow being loved, they’d cut me some slack. Instead, I found more things to swallow up. But I’m not in a sitcom. Growth and change aren’t wiped clean after every episode, despite it feeling like that sometimes. Our larger narrative will go on, with or without me. People will trip on the sidewalk and blame the tree’s roots busting through and order it removed. Never mind the awe of wood shattering through concrete. 

I’ve been told storytelling is supposed to provoke empathy. Humanize those distant to us. Representation is supposed to increase tolerance. Get us accustomed to those different from us. I guess it’s like everyone is saying nowadays, no one owes you love.  

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