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On My Block

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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10 Netflix Shows to Watch for Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, the time the federal government has designated to celebrate latinidad. So we’re taking a moment (really September 15-October 15) to shout out our fellow Latinxs for all they do, commemorate the independence days of seven Latin American countries, and watch some Latinx folks on TV.

Yes, you are still about as likely to see an alien on screen as a Latina but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great shows out there featuring “Hispanics.” Just to make it easy, we’ve compiled a list of ten of our favorites from Netflix. After all, one subscription is all should need, right? Enjoy!

Charmed

Brujeria is in our blood, so it makes sense that Latinxs are finally getting our own TV witches. Shows like CW’s Charmed may not get as much attention as our white counterparts but that doesn’t mean they’re not just as good.

The latest Charmed is packed with feminist in-jokes and reminiscent of cult-favorite, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show premiered to controversy when it turned out that despite its Latinx premise, only one of the three sisters identifies as Latina (the other two are black) but don’t let that stop you. There’s plenty to enjoy in the first season now on Netflix before the second season starts October 11.

Grey’s Anatomy: Seasons 2–12

I admit it — I miss Callie Torres. The big-hearted orthopedic surgeon was an inspiration on Grey’s Anatomy, breaking bones and dancing in her underwear in seasons two through twelve. She spoke Spanish, dated (and married!) both genders, and did the most singing on the musical episode.

Actress Sara Ramirez is now doing great work over on Madame Secretaryas the butch Kat Sandoval, yet this Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re finding refuge from Trump’s America in re-visiting Callie Torres.

Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin recently wrapped its final season and now all five seasons are available on Netflix. If you haven’t hung out with the Villanueva family yet or you’ve simply missed the latest installment, you’re in for a treat.

The show manages to represent a type of Latinx family we all know (hard-working, women-led, multi-generational) and deal with hot button issues (immigration, Catholicism, sexuality) while never getting preachy or tired. Instead, Jane the Virgin entertains with telenovela plot twists, an epic love triangle, and a hell of a lot of empathy. I miss it already.

On My Block

A Netflix original, On My Block’s second season came out earlier this year and we love how it centers brown and black teens. Whether it’s crushing on your no-blood-relation prima or dealing with the intricacies of gang violence, the show positions our coming-of-age stories as important, funny, and valuable. The young stars run the gamut of skin tones and hair textures and their antics speak to what we all know about the pitfalls of growing up: it’s hard/awkward/ridiculous.

Now, if only Netflix would take note and make more content for and by US-born Latinxs…

One Day At A Time

One Day At A Time made headlines earlier this year when Netflix declined to renew it despite rave reviews (and perhaps strong viewing numbers). Luckily, CBS’ Pop TV has picked up the Justina Machado-helmed comedy and all the past seasons are still available to stream on Netflix.

Featuring a stand-out performance from living legend and original EGOT winner Rita Moreno, One Day At A Timegives the Latinx experience the sitcom treatment, only more brown than you’re used to.

Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black may have changed TV as we know it, ushering in the streaming era with a show elevating incarcerated women of color. It certainly catapulted the careers of Latina talent ranging from Jackie Cruz to Laura Gómez from Diane Guerrero to Selenis Leyva from Dascha Polanco to Elizabeth Rodriguez. It’s rare for any show to feature this many women of color, let alone give meaty parts to so many Latinas, and OITNB did it all while appealing to the “mainstream.”

You can binge all seven seasons now and relive the tragedy and beauty of the women of Litchfield.

Pose

Featuring a Latinx cast (MJ Rodriguez as Bianca, Indya Moore as Angel, Angel Bismark Curiel as Papi) and helmed by Latinx creator Steven Canals, Pose is making history in more ways than one. It depicts the New York ballroom scene of the early ’90s showing a community plagued by the AIDS epidemic and continuously under threat by discrimination.

Yet, Pose finds a lot of hope and beauty in its cast, helmed by the fearless do-gooder Bianca who exemplifies how a community can step up for each other. The LGBTQ drama raked in the Emmys and hopefully is just getting started.

Riverdale

The fourth season of Riverdale is set to premiere October 9 (in time for #HispanicHeritageMonth!) and in the meantime, you can catch up on the last three seasons on Netflix. The show explores the darker side of the Archie comics universe with plotlines around murder, drugs, and slut-shaming.

With Camila Mendes as Veronica, Riverdale gives us a Latina character we are not used to seeing — the richest girl in town. So friendly reminder, there’s not one Latinx experience! And the CW’s Latina characters — whether it’s Riverdale’s Veronica, Jane the Virgin’s Villanuevas, or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Valencia — are here to remind you.

The West Wing: the Final Two Seasons

Remember when Jimmy Smits played Obama before Obama played Obama? No? Just me? Well, the year was 2005 and The West Wing needed an inspirational candidate to succeed President Bartlet. They chose Smits as Congressman Matt Santos, a principled, tall man of color with a relatively short resume.

Watching The West Wing (and Santos’ campaign) was always like going to an alternate universe where the people in power belonged there both because of their excellence and because they had the best interest of the country at heart. Today it feels even further from reality but it’s still nice to visit a universe where someone who looks like Julian Castro becomes President.

When They See Us

In 1989, the Central Park Jogger case captivated the nation and sent five wrongfully accused black and brown boys to prison. The narrative around the case — teenage boys of color roaming wild and attacking innocent/white folks — captured racists’ imaginations including one named Donald Trump who took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, arguing the boys should be put to death.

Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us,” a Netflix miniseries depicting the events, sets the record straight, even getting prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer to finally face consequences for her role in the injustice (no word on the repercussions for Donald Trump). The four-part series is devastating and compelling, earning half of the four Emmy nominations afforded to Latinos this year.

Bonus: This Episode of Queer Eye

Sometimes you just want to relax and see a hard-working, activist Chicana get a great makeover. Enter the season finale of Queer Eye with protagonist Deanna Munoz. She’s the founder of the Latino Arts Festival in Kansas City and watching her journey gives us all the feels. Happy #HispanicHeritageMonth!

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