Abba and Her Telenovelas
WARNING: Jane the Virgin Spoilers
Abba, my maternal grandmother, was religious about her TV and movies. She watched All My Children every single day for like 20 years, at least. Mom, please fact check that if you need to. Abba ran her own childcare business out of her house in Elizabeth, New Jersey and while all the other kids would be taking a nap, she would let me stay up and watch All My Children with her. Part of me wishes I could talk some sense into my younger self about the heavenly magic of a good nap, but I also know that I would have missed out on spending this time with my grandmother if I were just a normal kid.
In 1999, the summer after I turned 5, Abba moved into our house. Abba's house had a screened in porch someone had broken into, and it was time she didn't live alone anymore. You know she still watched her All My Children, but what I remember more, especially as I got older and she'd be watching TV when I got home from school, was her Telemundo shows like Caso Cerrado and Quien Tiene La Razon. Caso Cerrado is basically Spanish Judge Judy, but the judge SINGS THE THEME SONG. It's WILD. I think Quien Tiene La Razon is basically Spanish Dr. Phil, with a dash of Jerry Springer/Maury. V dramatic. At that age, I couldn't see how entertaining these shows were. I was clouded by my own embarrassment that I was living in such a stereotypical Hispanic household. I believed these shows were trashy (which maybe they are) and that because my family was already a novelty in our predominantly white suburban neighborhood, having these shows on in our house made us even more different, and not in a good way, than we already were. I could pretty much escape my identity outside of my house - I am very white passing, from my name to the way I look - but if anyone were to see what my life looked like just inside my front door, I'd immediately be outed for what my life really was. Which was not like everyone else.
I didn't understand these feelings at the time. It has taken years of learning, unlearning, processing, and reflection to get to a point where I do understand these feelings. Part of me feels ashamed I ever harbored this embarrassment. But another parts of me knows that if I hadn't felt that way when I was young, I wouldn't feel the same unabashed, emboldened Latina pride I do now. I AM LATINA, HEAR ME ROAR. That pride comes from a variety of places. Some of it is plain old maturity. A big part of it was taking the opportunity to go to Cuba, where I experienced the country my parents were born in (whoa) and meet some of my family that still lives in Havana. A huge part of it has been the ever increasing representation and visibility of Latinx folks in our culture. One example of that, which is the nearest and dearest to my heart, is Jane the Virgin.
Now, before we go in on how problematic Gina Rodriguez has been at times, let's just put a pin in that.
I started watching Jane the Virgin once the first or second season was already on Netflix. My sister, Erica, actually got me into it. Thanks Erch. I loved it instantly. But the moment it became something that would always hold a place in my heart was a particular scene where Jane was talking with her grandma, Alba. I don't remember what they were talking about, or what episode of which season it was. But in that scene, in the simplest way, Alba said something to Jane in Spanish, and Jane responded in English.
Wow. Just wow. Has someone ever told your life back to you? Have you seen your life reflected through someone else? I have. In the simplest, most seemingly insignificant way, a show, that millions of other people were and are still watching, made me feel seen in the most profound way. That was the first time I'd ever seen anything on TV that made me feel that way.
My grandma and I still talk this way. It's easier for her to speak in Spanish and I understand her perfectly. And it's easier for me to speak in English and she understands me perfectly. After feeling ashamed my whole life that I didn't speak Spanish more fluently, Gina freaking Rodriguez said, "It's okay, girl. This is normal." This. Is. Normal. I'm normal. Do y'all know what kind of weight that takes off a person? Even as I write this I am filled with a renewed sense of relief that I have just as much right to call myself and embrace every part of me that is Latina, Hispanic, Cuban as anyone who speaks Spanish perfectly or lives in a predominantly Latinx/Hispanic place. I am enough. Soy suficiente.
As Jane the Virgin comes to its series finale (this Wednesday, brb crying), I just wanted to put down in words what the show has meant to me. It seems so silly to put so much stock and emotional investment in a television show, but I believe the impact its had on me (and a lot of other people) makes it worth it. And even through all its twists and turns and drama and surprises, it is real. In a recent episode, Jane goes to check out a unitarian church she and Rafael are interested in getting married in. Rafael isn't able to make the appointment with the pre-marriage counselor and the counselor advises Jane to take stock of Rafael's commitment to their family, or lack there of. At first, the episode has you thinking that Jane does take this into consideration and is bothered by Rafael's actions. Later on, however, it is revealed that Jane told off the counselor for insinuating that Rafael's priorities lie elsewhere. When she explains this to Raf, she tells him she understands they can't both be doing all the things together all the time. And that's ok. It's unreasonable and unrealistic to expect otherwise. In this I saw myself again, this time in my relationship with my partner. So often on television we see a toxic and destructive reaction to a partner's absence, unexpected or otherwise, for an appointment or other event. In this moment, Jane the Virgin actually gave us a normal, real life, healthy interaction between partners. The fact that it's "refreshing" makes me a bit sad, but also just reaffirms the love I have for this show and the people who created it.
One of the things I love most about Jane the Virgin though is that it has made me love something I so fervently hated when I was younger - the telenovela. This show is telenovela through and through. Made for an American and mostly English-speaking audience, but a telenovela nonetheless. And I don't even love it because it's digestible to an American audience. I genuinely love the drama. The surprises. The impossibility of every twist that only sucks you in deeper and deeper. That and the acting is phenomenal and it's hilarious. And I love that I love this about the show. Because it means that I love something Abba loves too. And even though she doesn't watch this particular telenovela, loving something she loves makes me feel more connected to her. It makes me wish I'd spent more time watching her shows with her all those days after school. Even if I did hate it, at least it would have been time spent with her. But I'm still convinced she's going to outlive me, so I might just have to spend the rest of my life to watching Caso Cerrado AND Jane the Virgin with her.