As of 2014, Latinxs make up 17% of the US population and are the largest minority group in the country. Yet, as we have frequently covered here, our representation in film & TV has not kept pace with this reality. Studies show that of the top 100 highest grossing films of 2014, only about 4% of the female characters were Latina and with few exceptions – America Ferrera on Ugly Betty and Gina Rodriguez on Jane the Virgin, to name a few – most portrayals of Latinas are still couched in the same stereotypes.
So when Orange is the New Black premiered on Netflix in 2013, its diverse, woman-centric cast and story arcs that treated Latina characters with complexity were a breath of fresh air. Here was a show that seemed committed to showcasing the cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity that is Latinidad; from characters like Morrissey-loving sad girl Flaca, whose nuanced mix of fierce ambition and vulnerability made us fall in love with her; to scenes in season two which brought Santería, a religious tradition rooted in the African diaspora, center stage. Of course, there were also fumbles. More than a few times the Spanish accents were a bit off, and the writers occasionally struggled to tell our national dishes apart (consider the time Daya, who was later revealed to be Puerto Rican, spoke about making tamales for Christmas. Or this season, when Dominican character María talked about making chilaquiles to honour Poussey’s passing). The Latina characters were also predominantly light-skinned, able-bodied, cisgender and straight, and it would have been great to see a larger spectrum represented. Still, flaws aside, over the first three seasons we saw ambitious narratives about Latina womanhood and breakout performances from newcomers, like Dascha Polanco, who has since been able to parlay OITNB into film roles.
That’s why season four’s storyline introducing a newly formed Dominican gang in Litchfield was so disappointing to me. If Latinx stories in entertainment are rare, Dominican stories are even more so – despite the fact that we are the second fastest growing Latinx group in the United States. Season four of OITNB was the first time I had ever seen so many Dominican characters on a show that isn’t specifically geared towards a Latinx audience. In fact, I can’t remember seeing this many Dominicans on an American show ever (though NBC’s upcoming, first-of-its-kind sitcom about a Dominican family may change that). Unfortunately, my excitement about this historic moment is now forever marred by the fact that my culture was rendered in flattened stereotypes for the white American gaze, devoid of any historical or cultural context.
In comedy, where is the line between sending up stereotypes and reinforcing them?
We first see Dominicans this season filtered through the eyes of Leanne and Angie, two characters who represent rural white America. Leanne describes us this way “…they talk a lot and play baseball, and they’re always like ‘I’m super not black’ even though Haiti is the exact same island.” The critique is valid. The Dominican Republic rightfully came under fire in 2013 and the years since, for what is known to many of us as “La sentencia.” The constitutional ruling, which effectively denationalizes hundreds of thousands of Dominicans with Haitian ancestry, has become a pressing issue for activists both in the diaspora and on the ground in the Dominican Republic. But to use such a nuanced, complicated topic for a quick joke rattled off by a white, Anglo character raises complex questions – ones reminiscent of the internal conflict that famously caused Dave Chappelle to leave his show. Namely: where is the line between sending up stereotypes and reinforcing them? Who gets to make certain jokes, and what happens when implicit irony gets lost on general audiences? In this case, a racist white woman criticizing our community for our anti-blackness is the height of offensive irony. This is compounded by the failure to cast any black Dominicans, which shows a lack of introspection on behalf of the show creators at best, and at worst shows how much of the dialogue around anti-blackness in the Latino community engages in anti-blackness even as it grapples to dismantle it.
Then there was María’s ultranationalistic Dominican father. OITNB’s blend of comedy and drama allowed viewers to laugh at him in one moment, and gasp at his predatory interaction with her very-underage classmate all in the same scene. Wildly offensive and irredeemable though this stereotype of Dominican men may be, there was a missed opportunity to engage with the reasons why hyphenated Americans, and especially Latinxs, tend to resist assimilation and be so patriotic. The Dominican Republic has been on the receiving end of several US invasions, US-backed coups, US-backed dictators. Ultranationalism, then, for many Latinos is often a coping mechanism to deal with the reality that many of us live in the United States because its foreign policy made life dangerous for us in our countries of origin.
The flashbacks were another missed opportunity for the writers to touch on critical issues that they should have grappled with head-on. Blanca’s relationship with the horrid ailing woman she cares for offered up an opportunity to address the ways Latinidad intersects with class, as well as the historical role of women of color in the childrearing and elderly care of middle- to upper-class white America. Instead, they fell back on the stereotype of Latina women as hyper-sexualized comedic relief, by having Blanca ride the gardener in front of her scandalized boss.
Interestingly enough, in the same scene in which Leanne describes Dominicans to Angie, she drops this little nugget of wisdom: “If you’re going to be racist you gotta be accurate or you just look dumb.” Unfortunately, OITNB failed to bring any sense of nuance to Litchfield’s Dominican gang or supporting characters, and no amount of Rita Indiana songs or throwing around Dominican words like cocolo was going to save this season’s long list of nopes or save the show from dealing in the same tired stereotypes that I’ve grown tired of seeing as a Latina and a Dominican.