By Eduardo Alexander Rabel
For Latinos in the U.S., the mainstream media landscape is a bleak one. There is a dearth of Hispanic characters, and when we are included it is almost always in marginal roles that conform to tired, negative stereotypes. Latinas in particular are often stuck in the role of shallow sex objects. (See Gloria Pritchett on the otherwise progressive Modern Family). Hispanics of both sexes are hungry for positive, nuanced portrayals of ourselves in all our diversity.
Enter two groundbreaking new TV shows. The first, East Los High, premiered earlier this month on Hulu.com with little fanfare. Nevertheless, this bold yet realistic teen drama marks an important milestone: it’s the first English-language drama featuring a 100% Latino cast. The show strives to be as honest and educational as it is entertaining, and it mostly succeeds. Well aware of the danger of promoting one-dimensional stereotypes, producer/director Carlos Portugal decided pointedly that “East Los High will have no gardeners, no gang members and no maids.”
Now, just a few weeks later, and with considerably more hype, comes Devious Maids, a new series on Lifetime whose five main characters are all Latinas—and, of course, all maids.
The chorus of criticism surrounding the new show is understandable. For starters, its cringe-worthy title seems practically designed to promote ethnic and gender stereotypes. Making matters worse is Lifetime’s atrocious marketing campaign, which paints a picture of sexy, trashy devilishness.
But this is one book that definitely should not be judged by its cover. In fact, that may be part of the point. The show draws viewers in by exploiting stereotypes, but then slyly subverts those stereotypes with wit and charm. It turns out that the five titular characters are not really villainous vixens or shallow sex objects after all. They are five distinct, sympathetic Latinas with agency: a young woman with a crush on her employer (Edy Ganem); her protective, no-nonsense mother (Judy Reyes); a singer with dreams of making it big (Roselyn Sánchez); a widow separated from her young son (Dania Ramírez); and a new maid who may not be quite what she seems (Ana Ortiz). All five work as maids in Beverly Hills, but they are not defined solely by their jobs. They each have their own goals and agendas. None are truly “devious” in nature, either. From the very first scene the show makes clear that the villains are not the maids, but the spoiled rich folks who employ them. And there are secrets on both sides of the class divide.
Humor abounds, but Devious Maids never trivializes or belittles its Latina characters. We laugh knowingly, not at the maids, but at the situations in which they find themselves, and at the pompous condescension of their Anglo employers. The show cleverly undermines the power of stereotypes by turning the tables jujitsu style, allowing us to laugh cathartically, not at la gente but at the stereotypes themselves. It’s smart, delightful satire.
It’s also worth noting that one of the maids’ employers is himself Hispanic. The inclusion of this character, a Latin pop superstar, directly challenges the notion that Latinos can’t be just as rich and successful as anyone else.
Devious Maids is not all fun and games, either. There’s unexpected emotional depth and texture, with many moments of sincerity and even pathos. In one particularly touching scene, Rosie, the widow who has left her child behind in Mexico, talks with him over the phone from within the nursery where she cares for another couple’s child. She tries to be strong and optimistic for her son, but she can’t stop the tears from streaming uncontrollably down her face. It’s heart-rending. And it’s a realistic depiction of the pain of family separation, which countless immigrants endure as they work to build a better life.
Based on a Mexican telenovela, Ellas son… la alegría del hogar (They Are… the Joy of the Home), the provenance of Devious Maids helps explain its successful blend of melodrama, humor, and humanity. The new series is co-produced by Marc Cherry, the creator of the genre-busting Desperate Housewives, along with Eva Longoria, who played the stereotype-shattering role of Gabrielle Solis in that series. Cherry and Longoria have teamed up to create a show which is very much in the Desperate Housewives mode. Much like its predecessor, Devious Maids is so well-written and well-acted that it exceeds expectations and transcends its dubious-sounding premise.
Since some have questioned Longoria’s commitment to representing the Latino community in a positive light, it is worth noting that the actress/producer recently received her Master’s degree in Chicano Studies, and that her other projects include the ALMA Awards; Vega v. Vega, a planned series about a mother/daughter Latina-run law firm; and Food Chain, an upcoming documentary about farm workers.
It’s also noteworthy that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), a national civil rights organization, strongly supports Devious Maids.
There are many ways to challenge stereotypes, and many Latino stories that deserve to be told. Devious Maids is one such story, and it is an absorbing and compelling one. After just one episode, I’m hooked.
Devious Maids premieres on Lifetime on Sunday, June 23 at 10:00 pm. The pilot episode is already available for viewing at mylifetime.com, in both English and Spanish. East Los High is available for viewing at hulu.com.