Santana on "Glee"
November 22nd, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Opinion: What not to love about Latinas on TV

Editor’s note: Melissa Castillo-Garsow is a Mexican-American writer pursuing a doctorate in American studies at Yale University. Her writing has appeared in The Acentos Review, Hispanic Culture Review and other journals.

By Melissa Castillo-Garsow, Special to CNN

With Eva Longoria’s stint as Gabrielle Solis on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” in its final season, it may seem like there will soon be a gaping hole for Latina representation on primetime TV. Not to worry - “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry is now producing a show called “Devious Maids," the story of four Latina housekeepers in Beverly Hills.

Thanks, Cherry. Your follow-up to Gabrielle Solis - an adulterous, shallow woman who uses her appearance and sex appeal to get what she wants - is of course, the biggest Latina stereotype of all: maids. It makes me feel like we’re moving backward.

Longoria cohosted this years ALMA awards ceremony - not surprising considering that Longoria won the Person of the Year award there in 2006. What was surprising is that the basis of that award was her role on “Desperate Housewives.” The ALMA awards aim to promote “fair, accurate, and representative portrayals of Latinos in entertainment” - like Gabrielle? Yeah, right, that’s exactly what comes to mind when I think of positive images of Latina women.

But “Desperate Housewives” was this year’s ALMA winner for favorite TV series, and now that it's ending, I couldn’t help wonder what else is out there for young Latina actresses.

Unfortunately, a role like America Ferrera’s in ABC’s “Ugly Betty” comes around too infrequently. Developed by Salma Hayek, “Ugly Betty” was significant because it depicted the home life of an American Latino family in a positive way. Its main character, Betty Suarez, was an educated, ambitious, hard-working young woman.

Betty could be naive, but her career-driven and family-orientated motives made her a well-rounded character that helped to diversify images of Latinos on television. Even her lack of fashion sense - a source of comic relief and constant teasing by her co-workers - added in many ways to this diversification. Betty Suarez was just the type of girl who had priorities straight.

Now with “Desperate Housewives” coming to an end, and “Ugly Betty” off the air since 2010, there’s a decline in the already lagging diversity of roles on mainstream television, according to the National Latino Media Council 2010 Diversity Report Card, but also the types of roles out there for Latinas.

Looking at what’s left, I find myself especially worried about the Latina roles on shows aimed at young audiences and the effects these stereotypes might have.

Take, for example, Francia Raisa, who portrays Adrian Lee on ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”Adrian is the school slut, who, like Longoria’s character, openly uses sex to get what she wants. She is also a virtually friendless outcast. She is aggressive, emotional and hard-edged. She gets pregnant with her friend’s boyfriend, marries him, and then, after a miscarriage, hatches a scheme to trap him and keep him in the marriage by getting pregnant again. To make things worse, Adrian’s mother is also portrayed as being promiscuous.

And then there’s Naya Rivera, who plays Santana Lopez on the highly rated Fox  show “Glee.” Rivera’s part has the makings of a groundbreaking role  - a Latina lesbian struggling with her sexual identity. Unfortunately, the significance of this is often negated by the fact that Santana is a selfish schemer, who will sleep with whomever - male or female - to get ahead.

She’s not unlike Alice Verdura, the manipulative sexpot on the CW’s “Hellcats.” Hellcat’s second season was canceled, but during the 22 episodes that aired in 2010, Alice, played by Heather Hemmens, almost always reverted to sex appeal to get her way. In one episode, she seduced her ex-boyfriend, the captain of the football team, to steal a playbook.

This is nothing new. Many have commented on Carmen Miranda’s portrayal of the dumb, sexed-up, unable-to-speak-English Latina, or the spectacle of Charo’s “cuchi-cuchi,” a meaningless but funny catchphrase which became famous on her appearances on “The Love Boat.” Apparently, it had something to do with the nickname for her childhood dog, but it came identified with Charo’s provocative dress and image as the fun, naughty Latina.

I am not denying that the roles for Latinas have come a long way – Callie Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy” is a doctor played by Sara Ramírez. Callie was a bisexual Latina well before “Glee" was on TV. The character's journey became one of the best portrayals of a lesbian relationship – interracial, even – on TV. The role is only somewhat marred by an affair with the show’s male slut, and a tryst that resulted in a pregnancy while Callie had a girlfriend. But at least we have an educated, talented resident at a top hospital.

But just because Callie Torres - a role I could not imagine for a Latina when I was growing up  - exists, let’s not get too comfortable. With Betty Suarez gone, the regular appearance of Latina skanks makes me decidedly uncomfortable, and with good reason.

A 2008 study published in Human Communication Research found that Latinos continue to be hugely underrepresented on primetime television  - at they time, they were 3.9% of the television population and 12.5% of the U.S.population. Latina characters were generally more likely to have the following traits than white or African-American characters: “addictively romantic”, “sensual”, “sexual” and “exotically dangerous.”

These researchers also found that in comparison to characters of other races, Latinas were the “laziest”, “least intelligent” and most “verbally aggressive.”

But what really bothers me about the roles of Adrian on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” Alice on “Hellcats” and Santana on “Glee,” is that these are shows marketed towards young audiences – teens and younger – who are still forming their impressions of the world. It makes me wonder who is watching, taking in and possibly acting on these stereotypes.

Worst of all, Adrian, Alice and Santana are not stupid, or lazy, either. They are actually the cream of the crop – talented girls who excel at school, art or sports, representing real possibilities at diversifying the portrayals of Latina women in the media. Even so, they are still the sluts, still the manipulative characters that antagonize the likeable white character.

There are finally some smart, young Latina characters on TV, but we’re not supposed to like them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melissa Castillo-Garsow.

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