Six years ago, I had a deal with Lifetime Television to develop my bestselling novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, as a TV series. It soon became clear that the relationship wasn’t going to work, when two executives insisted that my pilot outline “wasn’t Latin enough,” because it told of middle class, educated American women who happened to be Latina.
“This reads as if it were about me and my friends,” complained one executive in disgust.
I didn’t know how to respond, so I asked her what she’d prefer.
“Why don’t we make the girls debating whether or not to date men in prison? I know that’s what Latinas talk about, just like it’s what black women talk about.”
Right. Because all middle class, college-educated professional women talk about dating prisoners.
In her dreams.
I got out of that deal because of this idiocy, and never looked back.
Fast forward to two years ago. I get a call from my agent, asking if I’m interested in writing a TV series about “Latina maids and nannies in Beverly Hills.” He said a network wanted a story about “exotic” Latina maids who knew all about their employers’ vices. I declined the offer.
Unsurprisingly, Lifetime has now come out with a show about Latina maids in Beverly Hills, called Devious Maids. It was originally in development at ABC, but that network had the good sense to pass on it after seeing the pilot.
I am not the only Latina to be annoyed by the perpetuation of stereotype in Devious Maids. Tanisha Ramirez wrote a scathing critique on the Huffington Post, only to be attacked in return by the show’s co-producer, Eva Longoria. Cosmo for Latinas editor Michelle Herrera Mulligan responded to Longoria by diplomatically telling her she was a big fat sellout. The Devious Maids camp responded with the weak argument that the show puts Latinas to work in an industry with embarrassingly few roles for them, and that it is based on a Telenovela and must therefore be Latino approved.
Many of my readers have asked me to opine on the matter, so here is what I think.
It is not wrong to be a maid, or even a Latina maid, but there is something very wrong with an American entertainment industry that continually tells Latinas that this is all they are or can ever be.
My grandmother was a maid in Cuba; my biological grandfather was her employer. My father, never claimed by his bio-dad, was a janitor when he first began working in the United States, as a teen immigrant. My father went on to get his PhD, sort of a real-life Good Will Hunting, and became a leading sociologist. He raised me to believe in myself and my voice; I went to Columbia, and I’m a bestselling author Tom Wolfe called one of the most important social critics of our time.
We don’t see stories about people like me or my dad. Indeed, network executives say to my face that I don’t exist. That’s the problem.
Ten years ago, Mexican American actress Lupe Ontiveros lamented to the New York Times that she had been cast as a maid 150 times in her career. The astounding number of times this one (outstanding) Latina actress has been cast as a maid destroys Longoria’s defense of Devious Maids as “Latina maids deserving to have their stories told, too.” According to academic research on Latino roles in mainstream US film and TV, the maid is pretty much the only Latina story being told, other than seductress, whore, dying immigrant and gang member.
There is more to stereotyping of Latinas than laziness or lack of information.
Longoria and others like to try to brush off criticism by telling us we’re all giving Hollywood too much credit, or that we’re overly sensitive, or, worst of all, by trying to paint critics as anti-maid elitists. The thing is, this isn’t just about maids. And it isn’t just about entertainment.
In his groundbreaking work At the University of Texas at Austin, on stereotypes of Latinos in film, professor Charles Ramirez Berg explains that Hollywood’s stereotypical “construction of Latinos in this country [is done] to justify the United States’ imperialistic goals. U.S. imperialism was based on the notion that the nation should control the entire hemisphere and was willing to fight anyone who disagreed. For centuries, the precepts underpinning the Monroe Doctrine have been used as a rationale for the U.S. interference in the internal politics of Latin America. On the whole, Hollywood endorsed North American dominance of this hemisphere, and as often as it depicted that hegemony uncritically, movies helped to perpetuate it.”
It is no mistake, and it is not mere happenstance, that Lifetime refused to allow me to make a show for them about complex, nuanced Latinas, yet greenlit a show about Latinas as sexy domestic servants. It isn’t a matter of me being too sensitive and lacking a sense of humor, and it isn’t a matter of me not liking maids. It is about the way the Latina maid stereotype beautifully cleaves to the time-honored imperialistic way this country has dealt with its Spanish-speaking neighbors in the Americas. My vision of us – as autonomous human beings – is simply too threatening to be considered realistic. How else to explain that a business supposedly built around making money continues to refuse to make money off of people like me, continues to refuse to meet our demands in its supply and demand spreadsheet?
It’s not just that Hollywood sees Latinas as one-dimensional, subservient sex objects; it is that this is how our nation has historically viewed all of the native peoples in the Americas, including the vast portions of this country that were once part of Mexico and Spain. You cannot colonize or occupy the lands of human beings you respect or view as your equal; it is better to simplify them in order to dehumanize them.
Nothing determines how people are viewed more than pop culture. The US government has spent fortunes researching film and TV as tools of propaganda, discovering, to no one’s surprise, that what people see in movies or on TV is what they believe to be true about the world. There is a reason an editor was yet again surprised this week to learn that I, an American by birth, did not live my life in Spanish. Movies and TV never show him people like me; in film and TV, women like me always have a Spanish accent. It is no coincidence, either, that the New York Daily News, when writing about my books, accused me of bringing chick lit to “the third world,” even though I write for an American audience. I am strong enough to fight this nonsense off. But what about the untold millions of women who aren’t as pugilistic as I am? Who is fighting for them? Not Longoria. Not Lifetime.
Most disappointing is how several Latino rights organizations have jumped to defend Devious Maids, because Longoria, a contributor to their bank accounts, asked them to. They have all decided that telling stories of maids who, as the network describes it, “have dreams of their own,” is somehow a step up for all of us. We’re not just maids in the background anymore, they tell us, now we get to be maids in the foreground, with dreams of our own.
That executives, actors and others continue to view the stereotypes as inevitable, that they continue to construct them subconsciously, that they accept them as fact without any justification, makes the predicament all the more overwhelming.
Longoria’s argument conflates race/ethnicity with socioeconomic status; sociology tells us quite clearly that these are not the same thing.
Yes, Devious Maids was a telenovela before Lifetime borrowed it. But in the Spanish-language version, all of the characters – the maids and their employers – were Latinos. The telenovela, approaching Latin Americans, allowed for class distinctions among Latinos, something that is utterly unthinkable in the imperialistic paradigm of the English-language side of the industry. Latinos are never nuanced human beings on the English-language side, because in order to maintain the American exceptionalist status quo race, ethnicity, and class must be simplistically conflated and assumed to be interchangeable. In truth, they are not. But that truth is a Latin American and Latino truth, and to allow us our own truth is untenable. People like Longoria choose, cynically perhaps, to make a living within these narrow confines, to justify them in every way they can, to perhaps even lend humanity and depth to the roles of maids, and you cannot blame them; they are actors, not activists. But I am a writer. I don’t interpret the stories, as an actor does, I construct them. In today’s Hollywood, my story of us, my story of me, stories of Latinas with dreams of their own who aren’t maids, or hookers, or sultry in some dominated way, remains too damn threatening.
Hollywood is still choosing to remain clueless about how to reach the 60 million Latinos in America.
Again and again in Hollywood I have heard networks invoke “telenovelas” as what they are after. “We want an English-language telenovela,” they say. But they don’t actually want a telenovela, because they don’t know what that means. Telenovelas often have powerful Latina protagonists. Class distinctions among Latinos are not only present, they are required and fuel the narrative.
Hollywood doesn’t actually want an English telenovela, because I wrote one, and it was a huge hit, yet they don’t believe that I know what Latinas want, because my story is not stereotypical and, to their eyes, therefore untrue. Devious Maids is as much about mental laziness and fear as it is about stereotypes.
I am building an empire on a new paradigm, and hope you’ll join me.
After disappointing deals I’ve had with NBC, Columbia Pictures and, of course, Lifetime, I have taken control of my book. I’m producing it as an indie film. Watch. I will prove to Hollywood that the key to reach Latinos is in ditching stereotypes. Period. It’s time for a change. New technology is quickly dismantling the omnipotence of the old paradigm, making it possible for a writer like me to reach my audience without help of a middleman studio or network. I know my audience is there, because I’ve met them. In cities all across the nation, I have heard their stories, accepted their gratitude for being the first to give them characters they could relate to.
I used to view Hollywood’s insistent imperialistic attitudes as an obstacle, but then I realized something wonderful. They weren’t an obstacle at all, but an opportunity to build our own media empire, right next door to theirs.
There goes the neighborhood.
Interestingly, my decision to eschew the US mainstream entertainment industry comes at a time that global economists are starting to announce the decline of the United States as a global power, and the rise of a Latin America independent of it — a Latin America that, as we speak, has four female presidents within it, an accomplishment this nation has yet to achieve. Not a one of these president women is…a maid.
Writing for economic thinktank Project Syndicate this week, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami had a piece whose headline read, simply, “Is the US Losing Latin America?”
“It is a mantra increasingly heard around the world: US power is in decline. And nowhere does this seem truer than in Latin America. No longer is the region regarded as America’s ‘backyard’; on the contrary, the continent has arguably never been so united and independent.”
The same could be said for the 60 million Latinos living in the United States. And we’re ready for our own movies now.
If you understand what I’m saying, and you want to be part of this new empire, please visit my Kickstarter campaign to support my film, and tell everyone you know about it.
Alisa Valdes is a novelist of mixed Cuban, Mexican, Spanish and European descent. Her first book, “The Dirty Girls Social Club,” earned critical acclaim and became a New York Times bestseller. Her eighth book, “The Feminist and the Cowboy” was released earlier this year. She resides in New Mexico.