When Netflix announced that all ten seasons of Friends would be released for instant viewing, many of my friends rejoiced. Not because it’s the funniest show or has the best actors, but out of sheer nostalgia. Some of us became young adults with the friends, so we remember them fondly, though we recognize that in many ways the show is very dated now. Has anyone found that Rachel haircut attractive since 1995?
A friend of mine asked me which of the three female characters I identified with the most, declaring that she felt a special kinship with Monica, the lovably uptight neat-freak. Her question gave me pause. I know it was harmless enough, referring primarily to the characters’ personality quirks, but I had never seen myself in any of the characters. In fact, I had seldom seen women like me on television at all. Growing up, I rarely saw Latinas on television: immigrants with brown skin, dark eyes and non-European features, speaking Spanish at home with relatives that don’t understand all the nuances of American culture.This is what it means to be unrepresented in media—a message is sent each time you turn on the TV and don’t see yourself reflected, and that message is that you’re not worthy—that your differentness from white people is what makes you defective.
My immigrant family arrived in the US: leaving our life in Guatemala and starting a new one in Los Angeles. Where once my childhood had been filled with carefree time playing with neighborhood kids after school, my childhood in LA had few toys—they were left behind—and playing outside, in a neighborhood where drug deals could be seen through the window of our second-story apartment, was out of the question. Besides, I couldn’t have told you where my classmates lived even if you had offered me all the jelly beans in the world for that information.
My siblings and I had a few options: books and TV. Like many recent immigrants, my parents’ time was no longer their own—they worked whatever shift they were given, which meant that my brother, sister, and I spent lots of time alone with our friend the TV, and no one really took notice. I have few memories of watching TV in Guatemala, but in LA we watched lots of it: every cartoon from Scooby-Do to He-Man and every TV show from Happy Days to CHiPs to Silver Spoons.
By the time we moved to suburban Florida, our TV-watching habits were deeply ingrained. We grew up with shows like Facts of Life, Family Ties, Who’s the Boss?, and Growing Pains. We loved them and marveled at the egalitarian relationship between TV parents and TV kids. Were American families really like that in real life? Did American kids get to have opinions that influenced decisions about moving across the country or buying a new house or getting a dog, like the ones on TV did? We may as well have been watching aliens from another planet, so far was their experience removed from us.
Not only did they not look or sound like us or our parents, they didn’t live like us. On TV, American kids cared about having their own rooms and their own private space, but in our culture, your room was mostly just for sleeping. Life was lived in the living and dining rooms where the family gathered. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but my ideas about what was beautiful, acceptable, and desirable were shaped by what I saw, and the fact that I didn’t fit those ideals—and never would—was difficult to reconcile. But it wasn’t just me. Our whole family and way of life began to feel…substandard, and I began to reject it in subtle ways. This is what it means to be unrepresented in media—a message is sent each time you turn on the TV and don’t see yourself reflected, and that message is that you’re not worthy—that your differentness from white people is what makes you defective. This phenomenon is referred to as internalized racism, the often unconscious adopting of racist attitudes to members of your own racial or ethnic group, including yourself.
By the time Friends and Seinfeld came along in college, I had come to a more serious pursuit of faith. Surely, that fact would change everything, right? I was introduced to ideas such as human beings as God’s image-bearers, the love of God for all people from every tribe and nation, and that God accepts us as we are. I was shocked to learn in Psalm 139 that God intended for me to have these very hips and thighs (“My frame was not hidden from you”). I heard these messages and wanted to believe them—to live them, but in its way, the church did at least as much harm as Melrose Place when it came to my cultural identity and self-worth. Not only were the leaders in my church still white, there were no women among them.
My engagement with white conservative evangelicalism was positive in many ways. In other ways, however, it entrenched my internalized racism more deeply. Nearly all the Bible Study guides, books, and sermons I was exposed to were written by white people for white people, though it was never stated so explicitly. Beth Moore’s Bible studies were supposed to help me “break free” and know God more deeply, and as much as I enjoyed the community of women with whom I gathered to study the Bible through her books, I never related to her soft and feminine spirituality. As one of my professors told me in seminary: I’m not really a gentle and quiet Queen Esther type but more of a strong-willed, assertive Queen Vashti type.
Now there’s a little more representation on television than there used to be for Latinas. We feature prominently in shows like Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin, Modern Family, Desperate Housewives, and Brooklyn 99. Shakira, the popular Colombian singer, was a coach on The Voice, and Jennifer Lopez was a judge in the latter seasons of American Idol. There are even cartoons like Dora the Explorer and Nina’s World.
Jane the Virgin, a show in a telenovela format familiar to many Latinxs, is an important representation of Latinas for me. Jane, played by Gina Rodriguez, has a family that looks somewhat like mine, complete with a Spanish-speaking, monolingual grandmother. Jane’s family navigates the joys and challenges of being first and second generation immigrants, belonging to and loving both the old and the new country. Like me, Jane’s Spanish is not nearly as good as her English, the language of her education. And as an English major, which happens to have also been my major, she loves words.
In fact, I began writing, in part because I was inspired by Jane. Though the show centers on a complicated love triangle with two very different but handsome suitors, Jane’s passion is for literature and writing. In one episode, she decides not to pursue the route of becoming a teacher, a safe and economically secure route for the daughter of immigrants, and decides instead to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Somehow the fact that it was possible for Jane, who looked like me, to pursue that dream made me feel like all possibilities were open to me as well, even a risky, creative life. This is how representation can matter and make a difference.
While I appreciate the representation I see in Jane the Virgin and other shows that feature Latinas, there are still problems. For one, we see the perpetuation of negative and/or harmful stereotypes. A recent episode of NPR’s Latino USA tackled some of these. For example, Jane is the eternal virgin, the señorita, beautiful and flirtatious but just out of reach. One wonders how long her suitors can wait patiently for her to marry one of them. In contrast, Gloria, played by Sofia Vergara on Modern Family, reinforces the popular stereotype of the fiery Latina bombshell. Nearly every episode finds her dressed in form-fitting and revealing clothing, often being objectified by the men around her. She’s loud; has an exaggerated accent; and isn’t exactly book-smart. Her Colombian culture is often played strictly for comedic effect on the show. I’m grateful these actresses aren’t relegated to the historic Hollywood roles of Latina maids and nannies, but stereotypes aren’t helpful.
So what’s a Christian Latina to do in the face of either lack of representation or misrepresentation?
For me the answer came rather unexpectedly when I was hurriedly sermon-writing one evening a few years ago. The next day I was to deliver a sermon on Ruth, so I was intensely studying the book as well reading biblical commentaries and other background materials. It was then that I recognized something I had often overlooked in the story of Ruth—she was an immigrant—an immigrant from the despised Moabite community. As a person from the ancient near east, she would have probably also had brown skin, dark eyes, and black hair. And she was in the lineage of Jesus, one of 4 women listed in the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew!
Ruth wasn’t a quiet or demure woman, contrary to the way I had often heard her presented—she was assertive. She worked hard as the literal breadwinner in her little family of two, gleaning and threshing barley till evening. In fact, she made herself known to Boaz through her faithful care of her mother-in-law. Many biblical scholars believe her approaching Boaz on the threshing floor was in effect a way to initiate the relationship, an action encouraged by her mother-in-law, one that would be highly discouraged in many Christian communities today. You might even say that Ruth’s behavior is on the scandalous side.
At the end of the book, the women of Judah say to Naomi about Ruth:
Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth. (4:14-15 NIV, italics mine)
In no way am I comparing all of my life to Ruth’s, but we are both dark-skinned immigrants welcomed into the community of God. Indeed, it’s likely that most of the biblical women I’d come to know through the years were dark-skinned women: Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth and so many more.
The next day I delivered that sermon, armed with a sense of worthiness and belonging that I had seldom felt in church. I was aware like never before that there was a time, because I am a woman of color, that I wouldn’t have even been considered a person deserving of rights in this country, yet here I was preaching in a position of authority to a congregation of mostly white men and women. The act of being invited to preach was so affirming of my God-given dignity and significance as a child of God. Sermon-writing could be described as tedious, even painful, and sermon delivery as nerve-wracking. But the experience of preaching has been healing for me; it has been an important part of restoring that image of God that was broken long ago.
Hollywood may never affirm my identity as an image-bearer of God and represent Latinas faithfully, but a careful reading of the Scriptures shows that God already has.
Rise and go. Your faith has made you well.