I am not a Latina. I am a middle-aged white guy whose salsa dancing embarrasses my Venezuelan-born wife. But because she is a Latina, and because my teen-aged daughter is half Latina, I take more than passing interest in how popular culture portrays Latinas. And these days I’m annoyed, because the most popular Latina image out there is, well, almost as embarrassing as my salsa dancing.
It’s an image, in fact, that represents a setback for Latinas.
I’m referring to Gloria Pritchett, the bombshell, spitfire Colombian played by Colombian-born actress Sofía Vergara on the hit ABC sitcom Modern Family. I’m actually a Modern Family fan, and a big reason is the smart, comically candid way it engages a whole range of human stereotypes without (usually) demeaning people. And, yes, that includes middle-aged white guys (like Ed O'Neill's character and Gloria's husband, Jay Pritchett).
But as Modern Family airs its Season 4 finale this week, I have to admit that my wife and my daughter and I, as well as a number of Latina friends I’ve spoken with here in Miami, America’s Latina capital, have grown uncomfortable with Vergara’s Carmen Miranda schtick.
Carmen Miranda was the Brazilian samba singer and 1940s film star whose thick accent, basket-of-fruit headwear and flamboyant sexuality created a caricature -- reinforced a generation later by the Spanish entertainer Charo -- that Latinas are still living down today.
Vergara and her alter ego, not just on Modern Family but in her TV commercials, aren’t making that effort any easier. As I watch Vergara I sometimes ask, Why doesn’t she just put the bananas and oranges on her head, sing “South American Way” and get it over with?
It’s not just the over-the-top accent and the even more exaggerated coochi-coochi mannerisms that Vergara and Modern Family’s writers keep milking in every episode.
What's also distressing is how the show seems to exploit every ugly stereotype about Latin America and especially Colombia, portraying Gloria as a woman with dirt floors, burros and narco-violence in her DNA -- a semi-civilized siren who seduced a gringo sugar daddy (the much older Jay).
To be fair, some of the takes are genuinely good-natured: Every bilingual family, for example, struggles with malapropisms like Gloria’s “old tomato” when she means “ultimatum.” And I don’t think it bothers most Latinas to be associated with qualities like vivaciousness and cariño (affection). Or with the idea that femininity and feminism are perfectly compatible.
But Modern Family suggests that a Latina’s strongest attribute is her aggressive and exotic hotness, not to mention her supposedly explosive fertility. And that often sends the sitcom veering from witty domestic satire to witless ethnic slur. Gloria and Jay had a baby during this past season; in one episode, when someone notes Jay’s advanced age, he remarks that Latinas get pregnant remarkably easily.
That’s as retro as it is rude. This is a period of historic advancement for U.S. Latinos, including the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Even television was starting to present Latinas in a more dignified light, a la America Ferrera in Ugly Betty. So why are we suddenly back to Carmen Miranda and Charo?
“We already have enough problems with the representation of Latinas in society without this,” says Colombian-American and Yale Ph.D. Viviana Hurtado, author of the popular Wise Latina Club blog. “I have three nieces looking for role models. In 2013, is this really the most profound option they’re going to find?”
Perhaps it’s not all that surprising. Too many U.S. media bosses, be they Manhattan publishers or Hollywood producers, remain astonishingly clueless about Hispanics and Latin America. Maybe it’s time for Latinas to give them an ultimatum -- and throw a few old tomatoes at characters like Gloria Pritchett.