I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood of Chicago, where it was easy to feel isolated. Being surrounded by whiteness as a kid is a funny experience – it creates the same prepubescent narrative about wanting to fit in, but that’s amplified by pernicious racial tensions that you don’t have the vocabulary to articulate yet. So when a show like Taína premiered, I could do nothing but rejoice.
Taína aired on Nickelodeon from 2001 to 2002. It chronicled the story of Taína Morales, a 14-year-old Puerto Rican girl from Queens who attends the Manhattan High School of the Performing Arts and aspires to become an actress and singer. I won’t front – the show definitely made me want to move to New York and pursue my dreams of becoming a painter (LOL).
In many ways, Taína pioneered Latino representation on Nickelodeon; the show didn’t just feature a primarily Latino cast, it offered a complex and very real portrayal of a three-generation Puerto Rican household in an outer borough, with a Latina in the lead role. Creator Maria Perez-Brown sought to “capture the Latino world” in a way that wasn’t just “about putting Latino faces on television,” and she did just that. After two successful seasons, the show was cancelled due to high production costs. Luckily, you can jumpstart your memory of Taína by checking out this list of five reasons you should revisit the show.
Check out the whole series on YouTube before it’s gone.
The Theme Song
If you’re like me, one of your favorite parts of the show was the opening credits. Taína sings about her dreams of fame over an early 00s R&B soundtrack that’s basically a 3LW song. She croons, “I know I can’t wait to see my name in lights/No one’s gonna stop me, you’ll see.” The 10-year-old in me’s eyes just glittered with ambition.
The Guest Stars
One of Taína‘s greatest secrets is its wealth of guest stars. OK, maybe the fact that there were guest stars wasn’t a secret, but as a 10-year-old kid, I definitely didn’t realize that people like Kelly Rowland and Solange Knowles were on this show. In this episode from season two, Taína gets serenaded by Luis Fonsi and practices belly dancing with Shakira, right around the time she was plotting her U.S. crossover with “Wherever, Whenever.” At this point, I just feel bad for the kids who had to watch Victorious.
The Diversity of the Cast
Taina aired during the heyday of multiethnic children’s TV, when black and brown faces weren’t such a rare sight. Remember shows like Gullah Gullah Island, Kenan & Kel, and The Brothers Garcia? Even though those programs were pioneers and likely Nickelodeon Studios experiments, for a brief time, we had a wealth of diversity in children’s programming. On Taína, only one of the main characters was white; in fact, Taína’s best friend, rival, and closest male friend were all black. The cast also featured stars like Christina Vidal, Lisa Velez (aka freestyle legend Lisa Lisa), and Selenis Leyva, now of Orange is The New Black fame. Goodbye, Hannah Montana.
The Accurate Portrayal of What It's Like to Grow Up Latino
Maria Perez-Brown knew she wanted to paint a different portrait of Latino life, one that offered actors a chance at complex roles. So she crafted storylines like the one in “Abuelo Knows Best,” an episode in which Taína fails a Spanish test that makes her abuelo think she’s forgetting what it means to be Puerto Rican. Taína’s spoken Spanish is stellar, but her written skills? Eh, not so much. It’s a testament to the kinds of issues that bicultural kids have to confront: grappling with questions of identity and navigating tradition in two cultures.
The Complex Portrayal of Latina Women
Without a doubt, the most powerful part of the show was its complex portrayal of Latina women. In “Quinceañera,” Taína explains to her friends that the most important thing about the ceremony is that she will “be a woman who can make her own decisions and be her own boss.” Amid jokes about filling out her poofy dress, Taína’s Titi Rosa even comments on the cultural significance of the ceremony, noting, “a whole lot of history will be resting on your head, Taína.” Later, after getting caught buying a new dress behind her parents’ back (with their money), Taína’s mother tells her that “a young woman doesn’t lie and do sneaky things to get what she wants. A woman? She speaks her mind to get her way.” *screams* FEMINISM. Even though this episode gives me nightmares about quince practices, it’s still a pretty sincere look at the relationship between Latina mothers and daughters, and offered young girls a cursory understanding of women’s empowerment. These days, we’ve got a couple more shows that offer Latina actresses complex roles – think Jane the Virgin. It’s further proof that this series was truly ahead of its time.