In the last few years, we’ve seen a rise in stories about undocumented immigrants on television. In a time when we have a president who is outwardly hostile to immigrants, it’s become increasingly more important to shine a light on these narratives. Recently, the Television Academy hosted a panel titled “Immigration on Television: Stories from America,” where Chicana actress Melinna Bobadilla (Orange Is the New Black), Filipino actor Nico Santos (Superstore), writer/producer Gina Yashere (Bob Hearts Abishola), Nathan Varni (Director, Current Programming at ABC) and entertainment media manager Noelle Stewart (Define America) examined immigrant portrayals on the small screen in the Trump era.
Bobadilla, who plays one of several undocumented characters inside an upstate New York Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in season seven of Orange is the New Black, educated the audience on the unseen plight of Indigenous refugees and immigrants. Her character, Josefina Santos Cha, is an Indigenous woman from Guatemala.
“She doesn’t speak Spanish or English, she speaks Maya Kʼiche’, which is its own language. It’s not a dialect,” the performer firmly explained.
On the show, Bobadilla noted, Santos Cha is unable to communicate with other inmates, even if guards assume members of the Spanish Harlem gang should be able to understand her because they see Latinos as a monolithic, Spanish-speaking people. “None of them are from Guatemala, and even if they had been not everyone in Guatemala speaks Maya Kʼiche’,” she added.
“That speaks to the fact that not everyone from the Americas – from Mexico, Central America, South America – identifies as Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic. There is a huge Indigenous population that is not mestizo,” Bobadilla said. “They are the original inhabitants of these countries.”
Striving for as much authenticity as her profession allowed, the actress asked for her lines, which for the most part aren’t subtitled in the show, to be recorded by a native speaker in order for her to do the language justice as she breathed life into the part. A solemn sense of responsibility guided her process.
“There is a huge Indigenous population that is not mestizo.”
“I don’t know how many monolingual Maya Kʼiche’ speakers watch the show, but even if one was going to watch it, I didn’t want to flub it,” she noted. “Because how often do we see characters like this portrayed and how often [do] we zero into this particular type of immigrant narrative.”
Additionally, Bobadilla believes that in order to humanize someone’s struggle, the story must not be tied up in a neat bow because that deviates from the uncertainty of reality. Based on the same principle to not simplify anyone’s experiences, she advocates for fiction to showcase immigrant lives in their full spectrum, and not solely on the othering aspects of them.
“Not all people of color are immigrants,” she said. “Not all immigrants have accents, and not all immigrants who are in this country, whether they be undocumented or not, have their immigration status be the more salient part of their identity.” .
Orange Is the New Black season seven is currently streaming on Netflix.