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Latinidad

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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