I grew up with telenovelas. I lived in Mexico during my formative years, and telenovelas were appointment viewing, with my friends and I faithfully gathering after school to watch the latest episodes. They had wonderful and outlandish names and dealt with cheating spouses, long-lost siblings, lucrative business deals, and a whole lot of evening gowns worn inside the house. Through those telenovelas, we saw that we could be anything we wanted to be when we grew up: rancheras who had to keep our land away from dastardly uncles; evil stepmothers with heavy, gaudy earrings; romantic heroes with two, three, even four different love interests; nuns and time travelers and high school women. We were inspired, and our imaginations ran wild with possibilities for our future lives. Telenovelas, in all their hyper-stylized dramatic storytelling, taught me that, as a young Latina, I could be anything I wanted.
When I moved back to the United States, television was subdued. It lacked the color and excitement of the television I grew up with in Mexico. Everyone on television in the States was so much quieter, and seemed to only hang out with an assortment of similarly-aged friends. And everyone was White, unless they were gardeners or gang members. White protagonists got to be entitled teens from California, vampire slayers, noir detectives, pie makers, and policemen. I couldn’t find Latinos on television anywhere. Even now, trying to remember Latinos on television when I was a teenager is hard. The only ones that to mind are America Ferrera on Ugly Betty, Jimmy Smits’ failed Dynasty-esque soap Cane, and Wilmer Valderrama on That 70’s Show. I came from Mexico, a place of rich, diverse storytelling, to the United States, a place where the only time I saw myself reflected on television was in the three seconds when the camera panned outside to someone pruning bushes or taking out the trash.
Television and media are one of the ways we learn how to grow up, how to deal with issues around us, and how to relate to one another. So it hurt to see that the people I most related to were relegated to invisibility and stereotypes, pushed out to the sidelines. That is, until this fall, when Jane the Virgin premiered on The CW.
Jane The Virgin, created by Jennie Synder Urman and based on a Venezuelan show, tells the story of Jane Gloriana Villanueva, a similarly telenovela-loving young woman living in Miami with her mother and grandmother. She’s working on her teaching degree, but has secretly always wanted to be a writer, and is paying her way through school by working as a server in a fancy hotel. A supposedly routine gynecologist visit leaves her accidentally artificially inseminated, and she has to navigate the way this event complicates the relationships in her life and her future plans.
Jane The Virgin is colorful and joyous. It’s a show that celebrates family and Latino culture, one that pays homage to all the soapy delights of telenovelas while simultaneously creating something grounded and emotional. It’s a show that juggles a cast as wide and diverse as Miami itself. Gina Rodriguez as the titular Jane gets to be vulnerable, messy, kind, and a romantic lead who also has an identity beyond her relationships with men. The supporting cast is equally as complex, anchored by the intergenerational relationship between Jane, her grandmother Alba, and her mother Xo, who weave through the conflicts of the show with a strong basis of support, love, and humor.
The show is also Latino, in a way that most other shows that feature one token Latino can’t be. Spanish is routinely spoken: Jane’s grandmother Alba almost exclusively speaks in Spanish with subtitles. Catholicism and faith are huge parts of Jane’s life, and she engages with her faith in a meaningful way through prayer and attending worship services. Unfair immigration policies, poverty and class differences, and the importance of family are all topics that Jane the Virgin routinely discusses. Not to mention the deep well of wonderful Latino guest actors and musicians: this season alone had Cheech Marin, Rita Moreno, David Bisbal, Juanes, and Paulina Rubio all make appearances. The show features Latinos, but it’s also about Latino life, the diversity contained within countries of origin, and some of the universal aspects of living in the United States as a Latino.
Watching Jane The Virgin for the first time felt like coming home. It was as if I was back in my friend’s living room in Mexico as a ten year-old, watching telenovelas and feeling like the whole world was mine to explore. I watched and thought, “They see me. I’m not invisible anymore.”
That’s a powerful reaction to a piece of media, and yet it’s not entirely surprising, as shows featuring people of color are still so few compared to the many that feature predominantly White casts. Statistics about the percentage of Latinos in the United States get thrown around a lot, but they’re true, and this growing section of people want to see programming that represents them. Univision’s huge numbers are proof positive of that fact. Gina Rodriguez, in her Golden Globes speech, stated that her win was so much larger than a win for The CW or for Jane The Virgin, it was a win for Latinos, who all want to see themselves as heroes. Not gardeners, not gang members, not maids to rich White families…heroes.
Jane The Virgin shows me I’m a hero, that I can follow my dreams of writing even if I’m scared, that I can rely on faith and the family I have to sustain me through difficult times. I see myself in Jane, and I see my family and friends in Jane the Virgin. With the cancellation of Cristela this past week, Jane stands, sadly, as the only program on mainstream television about and featuring Latinos. That’s something to celebrate as much as it is to criticize. I want a television slate as diverse as the telenovelas I saw as a kid, and Jane The Virgin reminds me that this is possible. I only hope the rest of the television landscape notices and catches up soon.