The Women We Almost Never See on Television: The Latina Stars of ‘Orange Is the New Black’

Courtesy of Netflix

In 2013, Netflix made history at the Emmy Awards when House of Cards, its web-only original series, took home three statuettes. The powerhouse streaming site became the first to win an Emmy for a TV show that never aired on a television network. This year, Netflix’s newest addition to their internet family, the scrappy Orange is the New Black, earned an impressive 12 nominations for its first season. Already in production on a third installment, the female-centric show — its creator, writers, producers, and cast are all primarily women — has helped Netflix maintain its top spot as the foremost producer of web-hosted programming.

At first, I tuned in to the series merely out of curiosity. Everyone I knew was talking about Orange is the New Black and its Latina cast. So, I watched one episode, then two, then three, and then all of them in one weekend. I saw imperfections and flaws but the drama reeled me in. I was hooked and subsequently devastated when I discovered the new season wouldn’t be released until the following year. Finally, after what felt like ages, the fateful day came.

Rewind a few months back to when, on June 6, the hotly anticipated second season of Orange is the New Black drops on Netflix, in its entirety, during the wee hours of the night. I actually contemplate getting up at 3 a.m. (when it’ll be available on the East Coast) to watch a few episodes before heading to work Friday morning but, I begrudgingly decide against it. I’ll get to see the new season soon enough, I tell myself. That evening, there’s a premiere party for season two organized by the Women’s Prison Association, a more than 150 year-old nonprofit that the real life Piper is closely affiliated with. It’s sure to be an entertaining night for OITNB fangirls.

Laura Gomez and Diane Guerrero. Photo by: Javier Romero
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The WPA helps women who have recently left the prison system transition to regular life by finding housing, jobs, and access to health care. As an organization run by women for women, they know their audience. The evening’s festivities will include screening the first episode of season two, appearances by cast members of OITNB, a musical performance by one of its Latina stars, Jackie Cruz, and ziploc baggies full of snacks on every table, in case the audience gets hungry. The goody bags are filled with Oreos, candy corn, and other stuff that is — of course — either orange or black.

I waste most of the day wondering who from the cast will be at the party. Since I’ve spent the past week doing long phone interviews with the Latinas on the show — Diane Guerrero, Laura Gomez, Jessica Pimentel, and Jackie Cruz — about the new season, I feel like I already know them.

After lots of staring at the clock, the workday is finally over and I make my way to the West Village. I get there early but there’s already a long line of die-hard fans, mostly women, snaking down the block outside of the Bitter End. By the time I settle into a seat, order a drink, and grab a bag of orange and black snacks, the show is about to begin.

Piper Kerman, the real life felon whose memoir, Orange is the New Black, served as an inspiration for the show, thanks everyone for coming to the Women’s Prison Association fundraiser.

Piper Kerman. Photo by: Javier Romero
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“I want to thank the cast members who are here from the bottom of my heart because I love them all dearly. Please come up on stage and introduce yourselves. I think you should also say your character’s name because I think the amazing thing about the show is that it is so realistic that people don’t recognize the characters out of costume.”

Orange Is the New Black, Laura Gomez

As several actresses take to the stage, they begin to introduce themselves, one by one. First up is Laura Gomez.

With huge, frizzy hair and a painted on unibrow, Laura plays Blanca Flores, one of Litchfield’s most whacked-out inmates. She jokes about not wanting to be recognized: “If people do recognize me I think, “Oh shit. I look like shit.” The audience erupts into laughter and applause.

Behind me, a woman realizes which character Laura plays. She leans over and whispers to her friend, “Oh my God. She’s the one in the bathroom talking to her boyfriend all the time. She’s so pretty!”

The transformation from Laura Gomez the actress to Blanca Flores the prisoner is essentially an extreme makeover in reverse. When I interviewed Laura a few days before the party, I was curious to know how long it takes to get that crazy look and if she has anything in common with her character.

“If people do recognize me I think, “Oh shit. I look like shit.”

How much time do they spend on your hair?

It’s not as much as you would think, like 15 minutes maybe 20. It’s funny because I didn’t even know that I had so much hair to be honest. And its all my own hair, no extensions and barely any hair spray. They just tease it a lot. [Before the show started] I didn’t know how I was going to look. It was fully the idea of the hair and makeup department. Well, it was our creation together but the hair, specifically, was their creation.

I think the hair definitely makes your character stand out.

Yes. It’s the type of show where we joke with the hair and makeup department. We tell them, “This is the only show where hair and makeup un-glamorizes you.” In other shows they are supposed to “Lauren Bacall” you up a little bit, but this is the exact opposite. But, I think that precisely because of that it adds to the character’s psychology. The fact that this woman has a unibrow and the hair looks how it looks it just gives you a sense of her temperament.

Laura Gomez. Photo by: Javier Romero
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Any similarities between yourself and the character you play? 

I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve been asked this before and I keep thinking about it … and I honestly believe that other than being Dominican … (laughs) we’re both Dominican and that’s it. That’s all I have in common with this crazy individual. I’ve had so much fun playing Blanca precisely because it is so far removed from me and I feel that as an actor it allowed me to show another side, another layer to my work, but not because we have anything in common.

At the Bitter End, Laura is finishing up and hands the microphone over to a castmate. The bar is super packed at this point. A few stragglers wander around looking for a place to sit or stand. I begin to notice that other actresses from the show are interspersed in the crowd.

Up on stage, Catherine Curtin (she plays Wanda Bell, the redheaded lady guard who’s dating the chubby guy guard) gives a heartfelt account of the important work the WPA does to help former inmates, but I get distracted and scan the room for more celebs. A very small, androgynously dressed person walks in front of my table.

Tamara Torres and Catherine Curtin. Photo by: Javier Romero.
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Then, it hits me. It’s Chang! (The little butch Chinese lady.) I remind myself that there are people talking, so I focus my attention back to the stage. Tamara Torres introduces herself but I honestly have no idea which character she is. She clarifies, “I play the Weeping Woman. The one that is always crying and talking on the pay phone.” The audience nods in recognition.

Finally, we get to the part of the night I’ve been waiting months and months for. The lights go down and the audience gets quiet. We all wait with bated breath for the first glimpse of season two.

Meanwhile backstage, Jackie Cruz warms up for her concert.

Jackie Cruz warming up backstage before her performance. Photo by: Javier Romero.
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The Dominican-born actress/singer plays Flaca, The Smiths-loving, heavy eyeliner-wearing Latina inmate with a feisty attitude and a teardrop tattoo. After watching The Bodyguard when she was just seven years old, Jackie knew she wanted to both act and sing as a career. Her family even moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager so she could attend the Hamilton Music Academy, a performing arts high school that offers singing, music, dancing, and theater classes. She’s pursued both acting and music ever since.

Two weeks before the premiere, I got the chance to talk to Jackie over the phone. We chatted about her musical influences and writing the lyrics and melodies for her folky pop songs.

Jackie Cruz. Photo by: Javier Romero.

What sort of music do you listen to?

I like Billie Holiday, Elvis Costello. I like Tracy Chapman, those are the people that I listen to and I also try to bring a little bit of each of them into my own music. I also love Fiona Apple. She is very artistic and even the way she plays the piano, you just feel it. When I sing a song I want somebody to feel what I’m feeling, if it’s happy, sad, whatever mood that I have, I want it to come out in my music.

What is your writing process like?

I definitely write about my past experiences, happy moments in my life, sad moments in my life, heartbreaks. I’m vulnerable because I’m singing about my experiences and it’s scary to put yourself out there but, that’s the way I do it. I write with my guitar and I take it to the studio and whatever producer I’m working with, we create a melody and from there that’s how it happens.

 “I’ve never performed in front of so many people.”

She goes on to tell me that she recently moved to New York to pursue music but found herself missing acting. Her very first audition in NYC was for Orange is the New Black. When she booked the show, it became her first acting gig in the big city. Now at the premiere of the second season things have come full circle; she gets to sing for fans of OITNB.

Back at the party, the first episode is about to end. When it’s over, I am not fully satisfied. It does little to resolve the bloody cliffhanger from last season’s finale, instead devoting itself to further complicating Piper’s legal situation. Rather than move the story forward, it goes backward in time to Piper’s teen years. Clearly, it’s an attempt to discover the breaking point in her childhood that would explain how an uptight, repressed WASP could pummel a fellow inmate to death (or near death? We still don’t know.)

Still, I get that same feeling that creeps up when I’m watching Orange is the New Black at home. That itch you get of “just one more” that turns into another one and another one, and suddenly you’ve binge-watched the whole season and not changed your clothes for two days. Well, not tonight. I push that feeling aside and settle in for the performance.

A little nervous about the size of the crowd, Jackie takes the stage. She confesses, “I’ve never performed in front of so many people.”

Jackie Cruz performing at The Bitter End. Photo by: Javier Romero
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In between numbers, Jackie shyly talks about her songwriting. She explains that her bicultural upbringing in both the Dominican Republic and the States often makes its way into her music, as is the case with her song “Like a Drug,” which she recorded in both English and Spanish. “I’m gonna do a Spanglish version tonight for all my Latinas,” she announces.

Jackie sings a few more songs and says her goodbyes before leaving the stage.

After the performance, Jackie gets a chance to chat backstage in the grungy Bitter End greenroom with friends and castmates that came out to watch her sing, including Alysia Reiner who plays the corrupt Assistant Warden, Figueroa, and Madeline Brewer who I barely recognize without the cornrows and neck tattoo. (Her character, Tricia, is the blonde one who hangs herself after she gets shunned by her prison family for doing heroin.) After a couple of minutes, Diane Guerrero bursts into the room apologizing profusely that she missed the show because she was at another event. Jackie’s BFF both on-screen and off, she portrays tough-girl Maritza on OITNB. (If you want more pizza vote for Maritza.)

Jackie decides to give an impromptu encore performance, dedicating it, “to my friends who missed the show.”

After Jackie’s encore, the party moves outside. It’s refreshing to see the ladies’ real life friendships echo the ones we see on the show. But, for a series that resoundingly passes the Bechdel test (women actually talk to each other about stuff other than men!) and that thumbs its nose at accepted beauty norms by depicting inmates of all sizes and colors — the second season surprisingly falls into a stereotypical trap: the Latina characters remain relegated to the kitchen. At the end of season one, when Gloria took over as head cook, it felt like a power move. I expected the cliché to be turned on its head and to see meatier plotlines for some of the smaller Latina roles, but all we got was a side dish. It’s a disappointment that OITNB‘s Latina actresses are familiar with.

I met her five minutes ago and already I’ve got a friend crush.

In front of the Bitter End, as castmates Diane and Laura catch up, I introduce myself. After I explain that I’m the one who interviewed them over the phone, Diane throws her arms around me and gives me a hug. She excitedly tells me, “Thank you so much for the interview. It turned out great.”

“It was just published today,” I tell her. “I know! My boyfriend saw it and sent me the link,” she responds. I met her five minutes ago and already I’ve got a friend crush. She’s right though, the interview was pretty great — mostly because she has this IDGAF attitude and says exactly what she thinks. She spoke candidly about her struggles with confidence and fighting to believe that as a Latina she could become a successful actress.

Diane Guerrero. Photo by: Javier Romero.
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There are more now, but there weren’t always a lot of Latina role models for young actresses to look up to. Did you ever see being Latina as an impediment to getting into acting?

Yes. I did. I had a huge issue with the idea of whiteness and being brown. I guess where I grew up and seeing that if you were brown you didn’t get the same kind of opportunities as some of my white girlfriends, or even black girlfriends. I just always felt separated from everybody else and that confused me. You grow up to be so proud of your heritage and of who you are, but then you are out there in the outside world and you feel like an alien. You know, people are like, “You are a wetback or you’re just off the boat or you’re too brown, don’t get too tan.” I had different phases of feeling like my brownness was a hindrance to me. I wanted so much more for myself and I felt like, “Well, I’m not going to get this because I’m brown and everybody looks at my like I’m less than.”

“I want to be an actress like any other white actor, not an actor based on the color of my skin.”

Even with my Latina friends who were a little lighter than me, I felt like they were better off. I hated to go in the sun. It’s such a terrible thing to say, obviously I don’t feel that way now, but as a young kid if you got a little too india then you would feel like you were too dark to play with the white kids. You know what I mean?

Yes, I totally do.

And I didn’t see a lot of Latina actresses playing regular TV roles. Like, I would watch Friends and never see a Latino on there. So, I would say, “This is the show that I like to watch. This is the show that I think is funny but there’s no one that looks like me. So, that means I can’t do it.”

But, I also don’t want to be part of a storyline where the main story is, “She is the Latin girl, go and shake some maracas.” I want to be an actress like any other white actor, not an actor based on the color of my skin. Then, I started seeing Jennifer Lopez doing stuff and then Eva Longoria and Eva Mendes but they were very few and far between.

Laura Gomez, Alysia Reiner, Jackie Cruz, and Madeline Brewer. Photo by: Javier Romero.
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It’s hard to believe that a show like Orange is the new Black — with an almost exclusively female cast of whites, blacks, Latinas, and Asians playing heterosexual, lesbian, and transgendered characters — actually exists. It’s even harder to believe that it took this long to make a show that accurately mirrors our diverse society.

The past few weeks, I have immersed myself in the fictitious world of OITNB, its Latina characters, and the actual life of the actresses who play them. I am in awe of their determination to make it in an industry that constantly overlooks them, their continued optimism that things are changing, and their insightful thoughts on Hollywood’s reluctance to cast Latinas.

Once the party is over, I naturally go home and binge-watch the hell out of season two.