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The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia

The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia

I was going to be a scientist. I finished all the math classes available at my public school as a sophomore. I loved physics. It spoke to my nerdy soul. I got to college and registered for the courses. I did well. My professors encouraged me. But then I looked around.

. . .

 

There aren’t exactly a lot of Latina scientists in popular culture. We’re more likely to be portrayed as maids or spicy (profession-less) temptresses. We’ve got Liz Ortecho on Roswell: New Mexico, but remember the character was whitewashed in the original TV version (despite being Latina in the books). We’ve got Callie Torres in Grey’s Anatomy, but in a show full of an ever-changing roster of doctors, one or two Latinas is not enough. One of the sisters, Macy, on the Latinx Charmed reboot is a scientist. She’s played by a Black actress, but it’s something, I guess.

That’s why The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia is important. Ashley isn’t just a Latina scientist, she’s a Doogie-Howser-level scientist, a kid genius who’s more perplexed by the behavior of her fellow teens than breaking barriers in robotics.

. . .

 

The physics program at my college was small. I’d be spending four years with the same dozen kids (less as folks dropped out) pursuing the major. There was one other girl in that group. The boys either couldn’t look me in the eye (nerds) or thought they were God’s gift to womankind (athlete/engineer/hotshots). I wish I’d befriended that other girl. But I was 18 and inexperienced and didn’t (she was perfectly nice). Instead, I tried to fit in with the jocks. Back then, I was enjoying the freedom from my smartypants high school reputation. I wanted to at least try on being cool. It was fun for a while. But it wasn’t me and I knew it couldn’t last.

. . .

 

Ashley Garcia and friends
Look at this friend group! Our girl Ashley is living the dream, a Veronica Lodge with her own show and without the murder

We meet Ashley after she’s graduated. She’s done with school having gotten her Ph.D. and landed her dream job. But we do learn about her time at university and she did better in the friend department than I did. Yes, she founded a club with no other members (“Girls Code” or should it be “Girl Codes”?!?). But was her lack of popularity because of her age, personality, gender, race, or some combination of all of them? We don’t know but we do know she wasn’t always alone.

She had at least one good friend, Ava, who becomes her colleague at JPL and the season one-love interest of her uncle/father-figure. Ava and Ashley don’t get into too much trouble — Ashley’s still never kissed anyone, hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol, despite graduating high school, college, and graduate school. No, these girls do things like make (and perform!) a song about meteorites to explain Ava’s research. It is both very nerdy and very cute. If only I’d been so lucky.

. . .

 

There were no meteorite-related performances for me, although something large-rock-adjacent would have been my type of fun. Being (or trying to be) “cool” limited my options. The nerd boys were probably more interesting, more kind than the set I fell into. But they were too scared to talk to me. If only they could have seen me in my high school band uniform, or watching Star Trek, or even in my glasses instead of contacts. But they didn’t, probably because I hid that part of me. I thought I had to choose.

. . .

 

JPL, Ashley's workplace, is woman-led
Ashley works at a cutting-edge engineering firm with lots of natural light, independence, and women-mentors. If only JPL were real…

Ashley gets to be nerdy and pretty. When I first tuned into the show, I was a bit worried. During the pilot episode, it seems like Ashley is all nerd and like with so much TV that features smart women, we’re supposed to pretend like we don’t see what a beautiful, charismatic girl she is. But by the second episode, they’ve done away with that concept and by the second season, Ashley’s dating the high school quarterback.

Tad is handsome and sweet and racially ambiguous (he says he’s “one-third” Mexican). His reputation as a player and his on-and-off-again dancer girlfriend aren’t enough to keep Ashley away. She gets the prize boy, helping him see himself as more than the handsome jock while he opens the door for her to enjoy teenage stuff like missing curfew. Tad likes her because she’s smart (and also pretty and kind). They go to the dance together, they kiss, he helps organize her surprise quince. What could be a better fantasy?

. . .

 

At some point, I decided I didn’t want science to be my life. I didn’t want to spend my time at college with these people, let alone the rest of my life. I had other loves, other interests. I jumped ship. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I’d kept going, become a physicist. Would I be a professor now? Would I work in a lab? Would I be a trailblazer? Or a burnout?

. . .

 

Ashley with boyfriend Tad
How many shows have you seen where the smart girl gets the quarterback without having to change a single thing about herself? And, she’s a woman of color!

Ashley’s universe is pretty awesome. Her’s is a sanitized version of the teen years — there’s no sex or drugs. At one point, the kids drink soda out of red cups. And they’re of all racial groups without a microaggression insight. Her work life is great as well. There are apparently men at JPL but we don’t hear much from them. Instead, it’s Ava who we see as Ashley’s main co-worker and Dr. Ling as her boss. This is a woman-led engineering firm and I’m here for it.

There is some acknowledgment of the turbulence the rest of us experience. We learn about Tad’s background because he knows all about the Chicano Movement — he had an uncle who wrote for La Raza. And in my favorite episode, season two’s “Failure Is Not An Option,” we see Ashley struggle when her robot isn’t selected for the next space mission. She’s accustomed to always being the smartest one in the room and when she’s not, she reads it as failure. She has no idea how to learn and cope with not being the best. Ashley’s reaction — to assume that there’s something inherently wrong with her, to mope and try to hold it in — is exactly how so many of my accomplished women friends act. Our entire gender’s been socialized to respond this way, to see the regular bumps and bruises of learning as signs that we should give up. Some of us do. I have. Ashley doesn’t.

You see in “Failure Is Not An Option,” Ashley admits that there aren’t a lot of Latinas in her field. And she feels tremendous pressure to represent us, both by being the only one in the room and by holding the door open to the next. Over the course of the episode, Ashley learns that “rebounding from failure is more important than never failing in the first place.” It’s a heartening reminder that real Ashley’s face obstacles, exist, and succeed.

. . .

 

Back in college, I couldn’t imagine a life like Ashley’s — one where I got to be myself and be successful in science. One where picking physics didn’t mean I’d always be alone. I wish I’d had the opportunity to pick between my interests without measuring their gradients of inclusiveness, sexism, diversity, and racism. But I didn’t.

I wonder if it would have been different had The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia been around when I was a kid. Maybe. And I hope it is different now for the young Cristina’s and Ashley’s coming up. Let’s expand the universe for them.

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