Dora the Explorer is iconic. A brown, bilingual character who got through situations with her brain, magic mochila and monkey best friend? She was the realest role model for a little Latina like me. But, as I got older, I saw more of another Latina on my screen—the ones with curves that made me feel inadequate and an accent that was bait for laughs—the spicy Latina. If you’re drawing a blank, think Gloria on “Modern Family.”
Although representation of Latinas on screens has improved in recent years with shows such as “Jane the Virgin,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “One Day at a Time,” the number of characters who bridge the gap between Dora and Gloria have been few and far between. Many may view the spicy Latina stereotype as a mere inconvenience, but here’s why it actually matters: we turn to media to see ourselves, because of the lack of representation of Latinas in the government and positions of power. Thus, the spicy Latina stereotype actually hurts all of us and hinders Latinas from improving the future for all Americans.
A common misconception is that it’s a compliment to be portrayed as a spicy Latina. At first glance, it does seem like Latinas are portrayed positively. We’re seen as attractive, passionate women who can whip up a delicious storm in the kitchen and an even better one on the dance floor. But in reality, this stereotype negatively impact how the rest of the world views us.
A study from the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California released in 2016 found that 39.5 percent of Latinas in film and TV were dressed in sexualized attire, and 35.5 percent in some form of nudity. And this is when audiences see us on screen at all. According to a 2018 Glamour article, although one in five American women identify as Latina, we only make up 7 percent of speaking roles on television. How can Latinas be expected to have big career aspirations when we’re continually objectified in the mainstream media?
For instance, how many Latinas can you name that are in positions of power in our government? In the entire history of the United States, only 19 Latinas have served in Congress to date. Today, Latinas make up only 3.5 percent of Congress even though Latinxs make up 18 percent of the U.S. population!
According to the Washington Post, in 2016, Mexican-American Catherine Cortez-Masto became the first Latina in history elected to the U.S. Senate. In an interview with CNN, Cortez-Masto says she knows young Latinas look at her and say, “Oh my gosh, if she can do it, I can do it too.”
We can also find hope in Texas, who elected its first two Latinas representatives to the House, and with New York sending Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to serve in Congress, among others. 13 Latinas are currently fighting our fight in Congress, which could result in unprecedented improvement for Latinos’, and all Americans’, rights and quality of life.
Additionally, in 2013, the Center For American Progress found that Latinas make up less than 3 percent of all STEM fields. The spicy Latina’s impact on this is amplified by research conducted by Common Sense Media in 2017 which found that girls who saw more female stereotypes on TV were less interested in STEM careers than those who saw footage featuring female scientists. That is why Latinas must see more stories like Laura Gomez’s to help them break free of stereotypical expectations. Gomez, originally from Mexico, is an entrepreneur and diversity advocate. According to USA Today, she is part of the 1 percent of Latino tech start-up founders. Gomez worked at YouTube and Google before founding her own company, Atipica.
Hollywood writers and producers have the power to influence how media-consuming Americans see Latinas, which is why accurate representation matters. We need real, complex Latina characters who know their roots, but are not placed in a mold. Once we see more diverse portrayals of Latinas on our screens, I believe more Latinas will dream bigger than they ever thought possible and hopefully find themselves in a wide variety of real-life roles, whether they be in the government or Silicon Valley.
As for what we can do, it’s actually easier than we think. Through various social media apps, simply liking or sharing a Latinx’s story can expand awareness. We can look at Gina Rodriguez’ #MovementMondays for inspiration. Created by Rodriguez in 2016 in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, she uses the hashtag to highlight and celebrate Latinx actors and their work every Monday on her Instagram, increasing Latinx visibility. We can also make an effort to support shows, films and other media content made by Latinxs. I recommend starting with wearemitú.com for some great content on the diverse Latinx experiences in America.
Latinas should not need to continually prove their Latinidad by conforming to a stereotype. Rodriguez said it best in an interview with HuffPost Live, “I don’t actually sit in a definition (of a Latina). I walk in my world, happily and confidently.”
So, can we please reserve the use of the word “spicy” to food only? I am not a jalapeño.