Editor’s note: Fidel is out this week, so we lined up one of our favorite writers — Suzy Exposito. Enjoy this week’s newsletter and be on the lookout for some big news coming soon!
A new era has dawned in Latina representation. My dear, sinister sisters: We have arrived.
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This past Sunday night at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, “Wednesday” lead Jenna Ortega and “The White Lotus” star Aubrey Plaza — two Latina actors, well-known for their grim sensibilities — graced the stage together to present the honors for best male actor in a television movie or limited series.
“I don’t know why they paired us up together,” said Plaza; “I know,” said Ortega. “We have nothing in common.”
“We should find the people who did this,” offered Plaza.
“And curse their families,” said Ortega.
“And,” they said in unison, “watch as misfortune follows their bloodlines for seven generations!”
It’s a clip that has since been widely circulated online, including by Latinas like me — a former goth teen turned vaguely alt professional — who derive a deep sense of belonging by those who indulge their dark sides.
Ortega has previously delivered standout performances in horror films like “X” and the “Scream” reboot — but she memorably bewitched viewers last year as the titular character of “Wednesday,” the tremendously popular “Addams Family” offshoot series on Netflix.
Although Ortega’s sullen interpretation of teen Wednesday can be directly linked back to that of Christina Ricci, who played the character in the 1991 film “The Addams Family,” Ortega’s affect as “Wednesday” also calls back an earlier model of Latina malaise: Aubrey Plaza as the character April Ludgate in the 2000s comedy “Parks and Recreation.”
Before she played a no-nonsense lawyer in Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” or a credit card scammer in her 2022 film, “Emily the Criminal,” Plaza carved an unusual niche for herself in television and film, as a deadpan comedian who also happened to be Latina.
I distinctly recall when Plaza, who is Puerto Rican in real life, delved into her heritage in a 2009 episode of “Parks” titled “Sister City.” It was when a delegation from Caracas — and their fearless leader, played by Fred Armisen — visited the cast in Pawnee, Ind., that Plaza took the opportunity to flex her dry-wit humor in an exaggeratedly robotic brand of Spanish.
“My mom’s Puerto Rican,” she says in the episode, flat as an open can of Jupiña left in the sunshine. “That’s why I’m so lively and colorful.”
Comparisons to April Ludgate doggedly would follow me through my adult years; later came the comparisons to Julio Torres of Los Espookys. As a moody art school kid born into a Cuban and Belizean family, it became a running joke among relatives that I dressed for school like other people dressed for funerals. My inexplicable interest in vampires, ghosts and the occult prompted tías to pray over me. I earned a number of nicknames over the years, the most common one being … Wednesday Addams.
I once wrote a personal essay for Vogue about growing up gothic in 2000s Miami — which at times, seemed more like a nuisance than a novelty to my family. My dad, then a manager at a Cuban-Italian café, hired me as a barista during the summer before 10th grade, in hopes that I could rehab my waning Spanish fluency with elders who passed through our ventanita. But if my all-black wardrobe didn’t offend them, the somber monotone of my Spanish did. What I thought would be a cordial exchange would become an amateur psychological evaluation: “What happened to her?” they’d ask. “It’s a phase,” my parents would say.
But you know how people’s voices internally pitch shift themselves to adapt to the language they’re speaking? Well, mine never did.
My mother, whose pitch climbs two octaves in Spanish, was not just shocked to see me conducting an interview in Spanish on Telemundo in 2020 — but she was struck by my unshakable monotone, a clear-as-day giveaway to my American-ness, an albatross that set me apart from the women in our family and their more musical cadence. Despite being 100% Latina, even non-Latinos would use my distinct lack of vigor in speech as testament to my inauthenticity.
The truth is, I just didn’t perform the role of the spicy Latinas they had seen in film and television; characters immortalized by women like Jennifer Lopez, Rosie Perez and Salma Hayek. Instead, my character was an amalgamation of influences I absorbed by learning English, my second and now primary language, from watching U.S. television in the ‘90s. This was evident in how I absorbed the tenor from the MTV cartoon series “Daria” or the years I spent trying to emulate the voice of Courtney Love while strumming on my first guitar; such cultural touchstones that indelibly colored the unbearable darkness of being me.
Naturally, it was watching the “Wednesday” scene that has since gone TikTok viral — the one where Ortega rocks out to the Cramps at the school dance — that retroactively affirmed my own weirdness, and that of the nascent baby goths of today.
And even in my appreciation for the deadpan Latinas of my generation, I can’t say that I begrudge the animated, fiery Latinas I grew up with, nor the ones I’ve come to know from the screen — they’re all part of a rich ecosystem we share as Latinas. I relish the way Alexa Demie performs peak Latina emotional dysregulation as a tóxica on “Euphoria.” I can appreciate Ariana DeBose indulging the theater Latinas in “West Side Story” and at the BAFTAs. I’m deeply comforted when I see Cardi B conduct red carpet interviews in her Bronx Spanglish mélange and calling it “muy ra-ta-ta.”
The deadpan Latina is neither the foil nor the answer to the fiery Latina; instead, her weirdness bolsters the dimensionality of what it means to be us.
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Things we read (and listened to!) this week that we think you should too
In Pitchfork this week, author Felipe Maia unpacks the burgeoning enthusiasm for reggaetón in Spain — beyond the music of Rosalía — despite the country’s long-standing racism and xenophobia against the Caribbean people who brought the genre to life.
New York Times reporter Hannah Dreier spoke to over 100 children for a chilling exposé on the American companies illegally hiring children as young as 12, mostly from Central America, for dangerous jobs in factories, farms, hotels and more. These companies take advantage of the U.S. government’s ongoing negligence in keeping track of migrant children upon their arrival in the U.S. “In Los Angeles, children stitch ‘Made in America’ tags into J. Crew shirts,” writes Dreier. “They bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods.”
I am thoroughly enjoying the bilingual new podcast series “La Brega: The Puerto Rican Experience in 8 Songs.” Produced by WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios, each episode uses a song to chronicle a definitive cultural moment in the history of Puerto Rico and its diaspora. In “I Wonder If I Take You Home — Freedom In Freestyle,” reporter Raquel Reichard uses the titular 1985 hit by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam to explore the history of reproductive injustice in Puerto Rico, and discuss with Latinas across generations about discovering their own sexual agency and expression.
For Refinery 29, writer Marjua Estevez spoke to several artists across Latin America who challenge the whitewashing of Latin culture by bringing their Blackness to the fore.