Two of the most talked about Latinas in Hollywood are fresh, talented, outspoken, smart, and destined to change stereotypes. In fact, they already have. Meet the Latina “Golden Girls” of TV. This fall season, CW’s Jane the Virgin stars Chicago-born Gina Rodriguez, and ABC’s Cristela was created, produced, written by, and stars comedienne Cristela Alonzo of San Juan, Texas. From opposite ends of the country these two Latinas have followed their individual paths to Hollywood with a common goal.
Each of these ladies has achieved what the industry calls a miracle, getting to star on a TV show that makes it on the air. They are not only regulars on the show, they are the show. Where in the past others might have been happy to just be cast, these two women are not afraid to speak up and “rock the boat.” Alonzo plays Cristela, a law student, and Rodriguez’s character, Jane, is studying to be a teacher, and dreaming of being a writer.
Unlike some well known Latina actresses who have come before them such as Cameron Diaz and Jessica Alba---who were careful to distance themselves from playing Latina roles, at times even hesitant to admit to being Latina---Rodriguez and Alonzo relish the opportunity to use their platform to begin a long overdue conversation in Hollywood. They embrace being part of a generation that, as they see it, is going to change the face of television. Neither wants to be in the “You get what you settle for” group that Louise describes to Thelma in the iconic femme film of the 90’s.
Alonzo created Cristela based on her life, making television history by being the first Latina to co-create a show, co-executive produce, write it and star in the title role for an English-language broadcast TV network show. The show takes place at a point in time when the real-life Cristela dropped out of college to take care of her mother the last year of her life. She had put her education and aspirations of a career in entertainment aside to go live with her mother, her sister and her husband, and their two children. In the show, Cristela the character is a law student, having to explain to her traditional family why working for free in an internship at a big law firm is a step forward in her career. Alonzo’s mother had sacrificed to come to the U.S. from Mexico to give her family a better life. They were so poor they squatted in an abandoned diner for a year, but to her mother, they had made it, they were in America. “I always think of my mom as a person whose story is never told,” Alonzo explained. “It’s a story that is never appreciated or recognized [on TV] -- it’s a heroic story.”
A first generation Latina, Alonzo grew up in a bilingual world watching her favorite shows like the Golden Girls, The Cosby Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show while speaking Spanish to her mom. She learned how to sing and dance watching videos of Broadway musicals and dreamt that someday she too could attain the American dream. Her love for sitcoms dictated the show’s format, just like her life dictated the content. “I wanted to tell the story of people like me so that people like me can be inspired and know that they have a shot.[My show is] based on a time that was really sad for me, but I never let go of the dream. I started doing stand up as therapy to get over my mom’s death,” Alonzo recounted. It was also a way to write her own material, and doing stand up actually prepared her for producing her own TV show. “With stand up you have all the creative control,” and for Alonzo it was very important she have that control, which she was given, something almost unheard of for an “unproven” talent and producer.
“When you start life off being so poor that you don’t have enough to eat, to get a call from a network like ABC that would give you a chance of a lifetime, you can’t even put it into words,” said Alonzo as she began to choke up. She explained that that is why she worked so hard prior to the show’s premiere. Between her on-camera duties, her writing/producing work, and her time promoting the show, Alonzo was getting only 5 hours of sleep a day, which she gladly did because as she said, “I don’t want to wait another five years for someone like me to have a shot.”
Alonzo is constantly amazed her show actually made it on the air, because it almost didn’t. She teamed with writer Kevin Hench (Last Man Standing, Jimmy Kimmel Live) to write the pilot script which they sold to ABC. Executive producer Becky Clements (Last Man Standing) came on board as the showrunner based on falling in love with Alonzo and her life story. However, ABC did not give them a pilot order and that could have been the end of that. But the producers decided to use the “penalty” (a small amount of money given to them by the network for not moving forward with the pilot) to shoot an episode and show the network their vision. ABC, in turn, screened it to audiences and the show tested through the roof. That is how Cristela came to be known in Hollywood as the “little show that could,” and what started the buzz.
As for Rodriguez, “not settling” meant passing up on the opportunity to play a role in Lifetime’s Devious Maids. “That was not in the journey I had planned for myself,” she explained, making sure to add that she has the utmost respect for the talented actresses in Devious Maids. It was just not the vehicle she wanted for her “coming out.” This decision would lead her to the title role in Jane the Virgin.
It’s based on a Venezuelan telenovela Juana La Virgen created by Perla Farias. The telenovela-ish show (that also spoofs telenovelas) has a fresh uniqueness that has appealed to critics and audiences alike. The story is about Jane, a young woman intent on staying a virgin until marriage ends up getting pregnant due to being accidently artificially inseminated. And as strange as the premise sounds, it has been the most critically acclaimed series of the fall season and the role Rodriguez had been waiting for. And it seems the role was also waiting for her. Rodriguez was only the third person to audition, but executive producer Jeannie Snyder Urman knew right away they had found their Jane, commenting as Rodriguez left the room after her audition, “It can’t be that easy!”
Rodriguez’s lovely spirit, conviction and joie de vivre has been winning over audiences since the day she moved to L.A. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Rodriguez came prepared, making fans with each role she played, and getting the attention of ABC early on. After a co-starring role in the 2011 indie film Go For It! she landed her first starring role as Majo Tonorio in the film Filly Brown. For her performance as a hip hop rapper with a golden heart, Rodriguez was christened the “It Girl” at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Since then, she has been cast in roles as a Puerto Rican/Jew in Nicole Gomez Fisher’s Sleeping with the Fishes (currently available on DVD), and was cast to play the lead as a naval aviator in the NBC pilot The Wild Blue (which was cancelled before it was even shot). But it is the role of Jane that has The Hollywood Reporter calling Rodriguez the “breakout star of the season” with critics from Time to the New York Times (and online and print media across the country) singing its praises.
On October 13, 2014, Jane the Virgin premiered as the CW’s most-watched and highest rated show in its time period (Monday, 9/8 Central). With an initial 13 episode order, the CW gave Jane the Virgin a full 22 episode order after only airing 2 episodes. On the other hand, despite premiering as the #1 show in its time slot (Friday 8:30/7:30 Central) on ABC, and as the #2 comedy debut of the fall season with over six million viewers, Cristela had to wait several weeks to hear if the show would get a “back 9” order of episodes. It was predicted as a “safe bet” to be given a full season episode pick up by TVline.com, a site dedicated to predicting the fate of new TV shows.
A “sure bet” was what the members of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a 39 member umbrella group out of D.C., were hoping for when they gave Cristela their full endorsement in September in anticipation of its premiere. All member organizations came on board to support the show, with each organization releasing a statement of endorsement.
“How media depicts Latinos matters because the way we are perceived is the way we will be treated in our society,” stated Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the (NHMC) National Hispanic Media Coalition. “As Latinos, we have an opportunity to make a national impact by tuning in to Cristela. It’s time for television to reflect the reality that Latinos are an integral part of the American social fabric.”
“Cristela Alonzo is smart, funny, engaging, and fiercely proud of who she is. With one of the most diverse casts and staff on her new TV show Cristela, we couldn’t ask for a better representation of our community in primetime. Tell everyone you know to watch this show!” said Janet Murguia, National Council of La Raza (NCLR) President and CEO.
To say it is a miracle that two relatively unknown Latina actresses were cast to headline their own shows in the same year, an unprecedented occurrence in Hollywood history, is an understatement. Many factors came into play in aligning the stars to make this happen---years of Rodriguez and Alonzo “paying their dues,” honing their skills, preparing to handle the immense responsibility that comes with being “the” person to carry a show and decades of Latino advocacy groups pushing, lobbying for more Latino inclusion in film and TV.
The networks invested millions of dollars to promote these two shows, hoping to finally tap into the Latino TV audience as a targeted group. This included billboards, TV ad buys, online advertising, print ads, and footing the bill for sponsorships at events catering to Latinos and setting up special screenings. They sent their talent across the country to participate in the Q&A sessions after the screenings. Both Alonzo and Rodriguez were booked on the most popular daytime and late night TV shows and were featured on the cover of both Latino and mainstream print magazines. This time around, the networks seem to want to ensure the shows did not fail due to the lack of promotion.
However, while Hollywood and mainstream media was praising and falling in love with these two ladies, Latinos in social media were beginning to grumble. Even without having watched either of the two shows, based on the trailers they saw, some nonetheless took issue with the “absurd” premise of Jane the Virgin and with the stereotypes they felt were perpetuated in Cristela. One post called Cristela a “tired..old hat...George Lopez re-created.” Alonzo would probably be both insulted and delighted to hear that, since she has publicly stated, “If I can get close to doing like 10% of what George Lopez has been able to do, I’d be happy.”
Alonzo addressed the social media criticism at a recent panel at the Screen Actors Guild Foundation entitled, “Beyond Cholas and Chicas: Latinos in 21st Century Hollywood.” “I will defend the characters to the end because they are true to me,” she explained. In a prior interview, she had stated, “When people complain about the way I depict my mother, my answer to them is, that is how my mother was. However they don’t focus on the other mother depicted in the show, my sister, who is a modern woman.” As if anticipating she would get push back, she noted early on, “I had to write who I was because the moment you start being fake the audience can feel it.”
The reaction by a small minority of the Latino community is reminiscent of some in African American community complaining about Tyler Perry’s perpetuation of “Black stereotypes.” However, it was also the African American community that for the most part did support his early movies, which helped make Perry the major force he has become in both television and film. That is a template worth repeating in the Latino community.
Here to Stay
This year, the presence of Latinos on TV might be an indication of a change in the traditional TV casting paradigm, with over thirty-six Latino TV series regulars in new and returning broadcast and cable shows. Some of the new faces, in addition to Rodriguez and Alonzo, include Michael Pena in FOX’s Gracepointe; Karla Souza in Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder for ABC; Laz Alonso in NBC’s Mysteries of Laura; and Nolan Sotillo and Wilson Cruz in FOX’s Red Band Society.
As for Latinos behind the camera, there are over a dozen new and existing executive producers besides Alonzo, including Sergio Aguero (Red Band Society), Norberto Barba for NBC’s Grimm, Guillermo del Toro (The Strain) and Roberto Orci, who is both creator and executive producer of three shows on air this season, Hawaii 5-0, Sleepy Hollow and El Rey’s Matador. However, according to “The Latino Media Gap,” the 2013 study conducted by Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, “a comparison between Latino media employment today and in earlier periods reveals very modest gains alongside stagnation and decline.”
What this tells is us is that in comparison to the number of U.S. Latinos (53 million and counting) there is a need for more Latino roles to be written and more Latino show runners and executives to tell those stories authentically. There is no one show that will do that, whether Cristela or Jane the Virgin. With more Latino-themed shows that succeed, or Latinos as leads in show that are hits, Hollywood will follow the money. Because if there is one undeniable truth, it’s that Latinos have arrived in Hollywood and are here to stay.
For now, there are no guarantees for Cristela or Jane The Virgin. It is still all about the ratings. Whether the shows are destined to become hits, or see an untimely demise, both Rodriguez and Alonzo have secured their place in Hollywood lore. For Alonzo, if there is one thing that no one can take away from her, is that with her show she has created jobs for Latinos in front and behind the camera. She was responsible for hiring four Latino writers, casting five Latino TV regulars, and even had time to mentor and then hire a production assistant on the show. And if there is one thing Alonzo is certain of, it’s that, “In order for us to break that glass ceiling instead of cleaning it, we’ve got to actually get more people into the business.”
As she continues her mission in Hollywood, Alonzo is sure of her path. “My job is to create work so that we can all work, and even if the show goes away, I’m not going anywhere.”
By Bel Hernandez
Two Latinas are Changing
Stereotypes in Hollywood