I was just out of college, hanging out with some friends when the phone rang one day and I happened to answer in Spanish: “Bueno.”
The voice on the other end stammered. “Umm. Hello?
I recognized him immediately. He was a good friend of mine who’d graduated a couple of years earlier. He was caught off guard. “Umm. Is Michelle there?”
“Hey! It’s me. How’s it going?!”
His response took me by surprise.
“Oh, whew! It’s you! I thought it was your maid.”
Now. I can’t blame my friend. In his world, pretty much the only people he interacted with who spoke Spanish were the maids and gardeners who worked all around him. You see, he’s a great guy who happened to grow up in Beverly Hills.
I remembered all this recently when controversy started brewing over the new Lifetime series, “Devious Maids,” about five Latina women who work as housekeepers in that same wealthy enclave of Los Angeles. There’s been a lot of criticism from Latinas questioning why the series has to, once again, cast us as maids rather than, say, doctors or lawyers. A few people on Twitter during the premier said they were boycotting the show for that very reason. I say, that’s too bad. Boycotting the show because it’s about maids will do nothing to help get professional Latina characters on screen.
The decisionmakers in Hollywood aren’t clueless. They’re running a business. Surrounded by Latino-dominated Los Angeles, they’re not oblivious to the changing demographics either. They’d love to find a formula that attracts an audience, especially one that helps them figure out how to connect with the growing audience of English-dominant, bicultural Latinos. But this is still new territory. Yes, George Lopez and “Ugly Betty” have cracked open the door, but Hollywood is still scratching for a runaway hit. Eva Longoria understands how Hollywood works and she’s built, and fought for, a program with elements that have proven successful elsewhere – a sexy cast, a telenovela-style plot, a glamorous yet familiar setting, an innovative story and interesting, mult-dimensional characters who, yes, happen to be maids.
If “Devious Maids” fails to find an audience, Hollywood execs will throw up their hands again and be even more inclined to say no to the next Latino pitch.
“Devious Maids” is another crack in the wall. Unlike other portrayals of domestic workers, this is a show that focuses on the Latina characters. We are seeing this opulent world through their eyes, unlike the 2004 movie “Spanglish” which gave us only passing insight into Paz Vega’s character. “Devious Maids” pulls back the curtain that separates the lives of the Latina housekeepers from their employers. By focusing on them, we can see what motivates them, how they view the lives of their employers, and how they deal with the struggles they face internally and at home.
Yes, it’s about maids. ¿Y que? Maids can’t be interesting? What, only doctors and lawyers are worthy of our attention? If that’s the position you take, now who’s being discriminatory?
Maybe I missed it, but I don’t remember this level of criticism about “The Help,” the 2011 film that gave Octavia Spencer her Oscar win. As with “Devious Maids,” we as viewers are given a chance to peek into the secret lives of women who work all around us like shadows, largely unheard and quite often unseen and unknown.
If you’re going to choose not to watch “Devious Maids,” do it because it’s not your sort of genre or the quality of the writing is questionable. (I have to note some accuracy errors in the premier: Mexicanos don’t call this country “America.” We call it “Los Estado Unidos” since “America” refers to the whole continent. And, we don’t send money to our families in Mexico by mailing a check. Hijole! No way. How would you even cash that? We send it by money transfer or by giving our familia a debit card to our U.S. bank account. And, just how was Marisol able to volunteer to start working in another woman’s home while standing in front of the woman who currently employs her full-time as a live-in? In most jobs, that would get her fired.)
My friend didn’t mean any insult when he mistook me for “the maid.” He’s one of the biggest-hearted people I’ve ever known – someone who, time after time, stood up publicly against discrimination and oppression. That day, he simply was speaking from his world view. And, his world view is one that is all too common among the decisionmakers in Hollywood.
If we really want to change what we see from Hollywood, we need to get to a position to influence the decisionmakers and we need to become the decisionmakers. We need to help get more Latinos into the ranks of producers. We need to see more Latinos as writers. And in order for our stories to be told, we need to prove that shows about Latinos can attract an audience. Without that, there won’t be any stories about Latinos, be they doctors, lawyers or maids.