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Latinidad

“Los Espookys” is the Perfect Show for this Ironic, Faux Start of Fall

It may not be officially fall, but unofficially, “Hot Girl Summer” has ended and everyone is looking for the next track. In honor of the changing season, let me recommend HBO’s Los Espookys. It came out in June and while it takes place in Los Angeles and some sunny, Pan Latin American country, it’s the perfect show for the ironic faux start of fall.

Created by Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega, Los Espookys follows a group of friends who are trying to turn their love of horror into a business by staging spooks, like a monster-sighting and an exorcism, for hire. The show is delightfully odd with absurdist gags ranging from the random (a demon demanding to see The King’s Speech before cooperating) to the insightful (a group of LA-based valets doesn’t understand what “to snowball” means, having never seen snow).

It also happens to be very Latinx. In case you forgot, there’s not a lot of media featuring or made by Latinxs (did you see that Annenberg study? Its findings were dismal). And when Latinxs do make it on the screen, we’re generally gang members and drug runners — just like what the man currently occupying the White House thinks.

Fred Armisen is one of ours and a co-creator of the very Latinx Los Espookys

To have a show like Los Espookys on HBO is a pretty big deal. It’s in English and Spanish. The Latinx cast are different generations, skin tones, social classes, and personalities. It’s created by Latinxs (did you know Fred Armisen was one of ours? I didn’t! But it turns out his mother is Venezuelan). And it’s really good.

It’s also not about being Latinx, in the way, say Vida (the other prestige show we’ve got) is. The characters on Vida are dealing with identity in heavy ways, trying to figure out how race and class and color intersect within and outside their communities.

Not so on Los Espookys. Renaldo, Úrsula, Andrés, Tati, and Tico are just living their lives, figuring out who they are and how to get by without questions of racial identity playing a major role. That’s not to say Los Espookys is racially or ethnically agnostic. It’s not. It’s very Latinx. It just portrays our identities as the default, refusing to contrast our experiences with Anglo ones.

This centering of the Latinx experience starts with subtle nods. The series opens with an elaborate quinceañera. There’s a whole bit about how Renaldo spells his name, which while explained, works much better if you’re familiar with actual Reynaldos. The Catholic church makes appearances in the form of nun and priest characters but instead of being saints or pedophiles, these clergy members are regular, petty people motivated not by good or evil but rather by jealousy or simply the desire to finish their favorite telenovela. It’s the stuff of Latinx life, told with HBO dollars and a silly, experimental point of view.

In Los Espookys, the US government is ignorant, superficial, and ridiculous — like Latinx have known it to be for generations

This centering of the Latinx experience is not just in the details of the show but the politics too. Take the one white American character: US Ambassador Gibbons. She’s a sort of evil Elle Woods with platinum blond hair, pink everything, and a blasé colonist attitude. Superficial and willfully ignorant, she couldn’t care less about her powerful job as evidenced by her disdain for the language (she gets an invitation and declares that it’s in “code” before her one Latinx aid tells her it’s in Spanish) to deciding randomly who gets a visa and who does not. This understanding of Los Estados Unidos as irrational, mercurial, and careless is about as Latinx as it gets. And it’s particularly funny and cutting in the Trump era.

Which is not to say Los Espookys takes itself seriously or leans in politically (although it does take pains to hilariously decimate the Herbalife pyramid schemes that prey on our communities). No, the show is all about the laughs, the absurd, and the spooks, using the Latinx point of view as its building blocks.

On HBO, series are divided into “All,” “Latino,” “International,” and “Family” but don’t let that “All” fool you — most of the “Latino” programs are not listed there. Los Espookys is. The show is claiming space in the mainstream HBO platform and I love it. The idea that a bilingual, silly, fun Latinx show is as much for everyone as Insecure and Sex and the City is just powerful. So before the days get too short and your TV options too vast, spend a few hours enjoying Los Espookys.

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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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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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“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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“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” Valencia Is Who Latinas Need to See on TV

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend brought wit, perception, and whimsy to issues as varied as mental health, our culture’s obsession with romance, and, of course, gender norms. I’ll certainly miss it and I won’t be the only one. Of its many achievements, the show’s commitment to portraying the diversity of our communities is one of my favorites. I’ve frequented towns like West Covina and they are indeed comprised of a mix of races, ages, and body types. And in a media landscape where Latinas are the least represented group when compared to our actual numbers, it has been so refreshing to watch the evolution of Gabrielle Ruiz’s Valencia Perez across the show’s four seasons.

Valencia started off like so many Latina caricatures — the sexy other woman. She was the primary rival to Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch. The obstacle that was keeping her from finding happiness with Vincent Rodriguez III’s Josh Chan. And in many ways, Valencia was Rebecca’s opposite. She was the body-focused yoga instructor who placed a premium on looking hot even when that was not the most strategic thing to communicate (like at Thanksgiving with your boyfriend’s extended family). She wasn’t particularly book smart, failing to earn an invite to her prospective mother-in-law’s book club. And she’d lived her whole life West Covina, a hometown girl. In contrast, Rebecca’s a Harvard-educated, East Coast intellectual who has a whole bit about how much she like pretzels.

In most other TV shows, Rebecca and Valencia would be pitted against each other until one of them wins the man once and for all and the other exits the plotline. But in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, they become friends, both women loving and losing Josh and other paramours on their way to self-discovery. They become friends in Season Two’s “Why Is Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Eating Carbs?” which sees the former rivals both at a Burning Man-esque festival, accidentally taking psychedelics, getting overly hot and dirty, and bonding over their mutual disdain for Josh.

From there they become buddies, spying on Josh’s other girlfriends, yes, but also having their own adventures like forming a new girl squad with Vella Lovell’s Heather Davis, doing musical theater together, and even hosting a seance. The seance episode, Season Four’s “I Am Ashamed” was perhaps my favorite Valencia moment. In true bruja form (all of us Latinas are witches — didn’t you know?), Valencia is somewhat of an expert in the occult. That is until some spooky shit actually goes down. Then she’s begging Jesus for forgiveness. It was just so me, you, and every tia we know. Funny but warm. Playing up her Latinidad while staying true to the individual character. The type of thing that winks at the Latina audience while also making us feel seen. I loved it.

You see Valencia is a particular person. She’s not all Latinas. And over the course of the show, she grows. She doesn’t stay the vapid yoga instructor who’s got the man. She becomes a savvy businesswoman, starting her own party-planning firm and eventually moving it to New York. She gets over Josh and finds her next (and probably true) love in a woman, Emma Willmann’s Beth. Along the way, she struggles with her identity, trying to figure out who she is if she isn’t the girl who marries her high school sweetheart. In her last arc, Valencia is up to her old tricks, giving Beth an ultimatum: propose or she won’t return with her to New York. Except, Beth is not so easily manipulated as Josh. Beth rejects Valencia’s gambit, later reminding Valencia that she can propose. In that moment, you see the glee spread across her face: Valencia is in charge of her own destiny and she can get what she wants. You see, Valencia has grown but she’s still a romantic. She aspires to be a bride (even a Pirate bride if that’s her only choice) and sees a ring as a marker of success. However, her version of marriage doesn’t have to be patriarchal or limiting. She can have it all.

And that having it all is what makes Valencia and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend so great. The show plays with, exposes, and subverts the stereotypes were used to seeing of race, gender, and how they intersect. It’s a freeing vision of identity that allows us to celebrate and poke fun, be silly and fallible, represent our communities while also maintaining our individuality. I’ve loved hanging out with Valencia and crew and we deserve more characters like her. Networks take note.

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