MTV’s “Washington Heights” Is Just Another Watered-Down (and Boring) Version of Latino Stories

Latinos are still waiting to have their stories told and be able to see themselves authentically portrayed. The verifiable truth is this: there is NO diversity from ownership to lack of appearances and positive images in mass media. The idea that MTV’s “Washington Heights” does anything to level the playing field is an illusion. The only thing this show does is present a miniscule variety of the talent the viewers are used to seeing (meaning the reality “actors”), but not a diversity of storytelling perspective.

MTV could have just as easily replaced these actors with Asian or Indian ones and produce the same product. These Latino characters’ stories are being told through the MTV filter using images chosen by a white-male dominated, majority-owned media.

When we allow others to tell our stories through their filters we get the watered-down version of our stories: far from authentic, deprived of the richness of our narrative and lacking the benefit of our experience.

Latinos have no influence in the outcomes of stories on this platform. Latinos should take this moment to realize the importance of creating content and supporting persons who have and continue to create media.

Hoping to be disproven of my doubts on MTV’s capability of producing a quality Latino-centric show, I hesitantly tuned in to watch the two-hour long premiere of “Washington Heights,” but was so bored, I couldn’t make it through the second hour. The trailer for the show promised stories of young Latinos with big goals, working hard to make their dreams come true. Something I actually might tune in to watch. However, MTV sticks to its formula, remaining true to its method of profiting from exploitation, delivering an obviously scripted stereotypical representation of Latinos.

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The antidote to stereotyping is knowledge, hence this list of negative stereotypes. Let’s see how many MTV was able to exploit in the first episode alone:

  • The hot-headed Latina who yells and gets physically violent.
  • Latinas greatest ambition is not career but to have a boyfriend.
  • The only career options for Latinos are in sports or the entertainment industry.
  • Slut verses Virgin.
  • The submissive virgin.
  • Good looking and unintelligent.
  • Lighter-skinned people live in the ‘better’ part of town.
  • Latinos are loud, rude and violent.
  • Latinos are hypersexual and only think about sex.
  • Latinos are lazy.
  • Latinos are poor.
  • Latinos are promiscuous.
  • The light girl gets chased by boys, while the darker girls must do the chasing.
  • The older generation doesn’t know how to speak English well.
  • Every Latino has a relative in jail.
  • Every Latino comes from a broken home.

Not only is it boring to see the same old stereotypes rehashed, but MTV fails to tell a compelling story or present sympathetic characters with any depth for anyone to care about.

The main plot line at least attempts this by focusing on Jimmy, who has dreams of becoming a major league baseball player. He was actually in the most touching moment of the show, which took place during a prison visit to see his father. They were in the midst of a serious conversation about Jimmy’s upbringing and his future when his father wouldn’t allow him to express his emotions and cry. Now that was a real moment people could relate to regardless of your zip code.

Then the show quickly spirals downhill with the horribly contrived plot line of two women who have been in Jimmy’s life for years, Reyna, a childhood friend, and Eliza, his girlfriend of two years, yet they both wait to be in front of the cameras to fulfill the stereotypical hot-headed, hot-blooded Latinas with the lack of civility to control themselves.

MTV wrongly thinks it’s great advertising to portray two Latinas in a screeching argument which ends up escalating into a physical altercation with ghetto exotic rolling on city sidewalks pulling each other’s flat-ironed hair. The fight made no sense to the friends in the group and much less sense to the me, the viewer.

We are then presented with flavorless snippets of the other character’s lives. There’s Frankie, whose dream is to be a teacher, passionately reciting poetry regarding her beloved barrio, followed by many other wacky nonsensical moments relating to boys.

Then there’s, JP who has dreams of becoming a singer/star. We get to see him perform and know that he has a caring mother but no back story to make us really care whether or not he makes it. Sadly nothing else even worth mentioning happens.

Strangely and most of all missing from the show is Latino culture. While Latinos make up 95% of this cast, we still get only about 5% of Latino culture. The actors spoke and reacted in ways they perceived were expected of them rather than genuinely portraying themselves.

When you think of culture one of the first things to come to mind is music. The mainly rap soundtrack really stood out to me of which only one song was in Spanish. Music is not the only cultural expression, but it’s a huge one and it was definitely strange merengue, bachata or reggaetón was never heard at anytime throughout the show.

There was only a small sampling of the huge selection Caribbean cuisine is known for. Other than a pot of white rice being stirred by moms, the audience was never shown that any of these “characters” had a strong connection to their heritage. In summary, missing from the show was music, food, language, traditions, heritage, neighborhood = culture.

Where is the constant slipping into Spanglish?

Where are the friends, community and family members who are always looking out for one another?

Where are the happy homes with positive role models who inspire us to achieve more?

Where are my beautiful Latinas/os of different shades, shapes and hair textures?

Where is the struggle to define ourselves as American while hanging on tightly to our roots?

It’s really great to see Latinos on the screen but it would be so much greater if they also had full control and final say. This show is proof Latinos must step up and tell their own stories or continue to be presented with stereotypes and watered-down versions.

What you can do:

  • Realize Latinos are the ones who can tell our own authentic stories.
  • Our power is in uniting and supporting Latino writers, producers and directors.
  • Create and tell your own stories.
  • Demand the network correct the lack of diversity not only of actors but especially when it comes to positions of impact.
  • Demand networks create a diversity of content more in line with the multitude of cultures that actually make up the United States of America.
  • Demand responsibility of the advertisers who in essence are supporting and perpetuating this lack of diversity.

Did you watch “Washington Heights?” What did you think? The rest of the Rebeldes already shared their thoughts as well.

Resources:

NALIP - National Association of Latino Independent Producers: www.nalip.org
Professional membership organization that addresses the needs of Latino independent
producers and promotes the advancement and development of Latinos in the industry.

The National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC): http://www.nhmc.org/
The National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) is a non-partisan, non-profit, media
advocacy and civil rights organization created to advance American Latino employment
and programming equity throughout the entertainment industry and to advocate for
telecommunications policies that benefit Latinos and other people of color.

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Bella Vida Letty is a regular contributor to LatinoRebels.com and one of the Original Rebeldes, having been with the group since the very beginning. Last year she was named one of the Most Powerful Latinas in Social Media by VOXXI. You can follow her on Twitter (@bellavidaletty) or read more about her on her blog, Bella Vida by Letty.

Who Else Was on That Bus?

On Thursday night, January 10, 2013, prominent AZ-based DREAMer activist Erika Andiola sent out Facebook pleas to stop the detainment of her undocumented mother and brother. Working together, prominent DREAMers fired up an aggressive social media campaign to bring publicity to her situation. Her massive network of allies seeded a phone tree to find legal and political assistance. Online petitions ensued through prominent pro-immigrant organizations.

On the morning of January 11, 2013, Erika sent out a tearful Youtube video for her mother whose deportation was underway. A few hours later, we learned that her mother was granted a stay of removal. Hours later, Erika updated her Facebook to describe how her mother was literally on the bus to the border when the bus driver was called to drive back. Every news outlet from Latino Rebels (our most viral 24-hour story ever) to The New York Times covered the organic online organizing that exerted the pressure to keep Erika’s family together. It became the Near-Deportation that was heard across the world!!!!!

CREDIT: Hispanically Speaking News

CREDIT: Hispanically Speaking News

As we cheer and tear over Erika’s reunification with her mother and brother, I am left wondering: who else could have been on that bus to the Mexican border with Erika’s mother that morning? Erika’s hourly updates gave us an on-the-ground glimpse into the clandestine world of deportations. But most deportations are not loud and media-watched like this one was. Because she is such a respected activist, Erika has a wide network, both on social media and in traditional media. There are thousands of families who stay off the radar and are deported in secret every hour of every day. I would guess that not everyone on that bus that day was that fortunate.

Who else could have been on that bus? What were their stories? Why they were targeted for deportation? How many of them had daughters, sons, grandchildren, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and communities whose sudden absence would throw their workplaces, communities, and home lives into tumult? Where are they now? Who were these voiceless, nameless, and faceless individuals on that bus?

Erika and the pro-immigrant activist community did an incredible job to save Erika’s mother from deportation. And everyone one of them was quick to point out that these types of incidents happen all the time, away from the media spotlight.

Like Erika said yesterday at a press conference: “It makes me extremely happy to know that my mother is here, but it makes me extremely sad that it took all day and thousands of calls to stop the deportation of one person. We shouldn’t have to do that. We shouldn’t have to work so hard for just one person. I am asking president Obama and his Administration to stop separating families. Having been separated from my mother and brother is something I will never get over and forget.”

At the same press conference, Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center said:

Not all immigrant families have the benefit of Erika to mobilize the whole country over night. The Andiola family is just another example of the cost of the broken system that continues to hurt millions of immigrants across the country. We cannot keep fixing this one worker, one family member at a time. While we wait for immigration reform, the President can act now so that millions of immigrants do not have to live in constant fear of deportation.

This is why we need to sustain a movement to get systematic administrative and legislative changes in the lives of undocumented families and individuals.

Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus and helped sparked the Civil Rights Movement, once said, “Whatever my individual desires were to be free, I was not alone. There were many others who felt the same way.”

CREDIT: Facebook

CREDIT: Facebook

There are many others who felt what Erika did that night yet were unable to secure the freedom for their families to stay in the US. El tiempo es ahora. The time is now.

Editor’s Note: Eva Luna is the pen name of one of our Latina Rebels.