It’s no secret that media is ripe with Latina stereotypes. From maids, to sexy sirens, and feisty sidekicks, Latina representation in film and TV has always been problematic. In fact, according to The Latino Media Gap, a report commissioned by NALIP, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race (CSER) at Columbia University, “Sixty-nine percent of iconic media maids in film and television since 1996 are Latina.”
Holding true to this stereotype is the Rosario Salazar character on NBC’s hit show Will & Grace. She was the Members Only jacket-wearing, no-nonsense maid to Karen Walker who fiercely stood her ground when faced with her boss’ harsh criticisms. Despite the trite clichés and insults that were thrown her way, Rosario proved to be one of the most powerful characters on the series.
Portrayed by the consummate Spanish actress Shelley Morrison, Rosario grew from a one-time cameo into a main cast member after the show’s third season. Initially written as an off-screen character who Karen mocks in broken English, Rosario was given more dimension throughout the series that took her from caricature to a real-life human being with complexities. She went from being someone whom Karen showed little regard to into becoming a pivotal force on the show.
We first meet Rosario in “Object of My Rejection” when her immigration status is up for review. Karen arranges for Jack and Rosario to marry so she can stay in the country and not get deported back to El Salvador. It’s clear that Karen, a dynamic lead on the show, simply cannot live without Rosario. Although Karen lives a life of luxury and indulgence where she verbally abuses anyone and everyone without bias, Rosario is the only one who Karen can’t shake. Her best quips include: “Whenever I get together with my friends and we talk about who works for the craziest bitch, I always win,” and “I’d ring your neck, but I don’t want to be standing in a puddle of gin.”
Throughout the series, Rosario provides a solid foundation for Karen like no other, and vice-versa. Due to the popularity of the character after the first season, the writers then provided Rosario a rich background. We learn that Rosario was a school teacher and received a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of Texas and she was three credits shy from receiving a Master’s degree. After moving to the Bronx, she worked with a then-unknown Jennifer Lopez where they put on a production of “Tea for Two” at a retirement center. As a viewer, this came across as an afterthought that never made any sense. We never really learn why Rosario chose to become a maid for Karen other than their mutual respect for each other.
What is clear is that Rosario lived a full and dynamic life before Karen Walker. The two confidants meet while Rosario is working as a cigarette gal at a nightclub, well before Karen came into big money by marrying her business-mogul husband Stanley. From that point on, the two ladies were inseparable, exchanging harsh banter that masked their mutual love and respect.
When Stanley decides to fake his own death, Rosario is the only person he trusts with keeping the secret and ensuring that Karen is being taken care of. Upon learning the truth, Karen and Rosario have a huge falling out but eventually find their way back to each other because, after all, they have a friendship for the ages.
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When the series rebooted in 2017, Shelley Morrison had long retired from acting and declined to reprise her role as Rosario. Rather than writing the character off with a few lines, the writers dedicated an entire episode to Rosario’s death in “Rosario”s Quinceañera.” It was a poignant and touching tribute to a character who was much more than a maid, but Karen’s “best friend” and her “everything.”
As the series continues, Rosario’s absence is felt. She provided a much-needed voice of reason and a contrast to Karen’s bravado. Much like her predecessors before her – Florida from Maude, Florence in The Jeffersons, and even Benson in his eponymous Soap spinoff – Rosario was a strong-willed character who always stood her ground. While we don’t need more Latina maids on television, we definitely need more characters as funny and sharp as Rosario Salazar.