Feature illustrator from Horia Varlan

In recent days, I’ve seen posts in my newsfeed, and on our Gozamos Facebook page, linking to blog pieces on casting calls seeking Latina talent for upcoming TV shows. And, when I use the word talent, it would be more accurate to just drop the letters L-E-N-T because T and A is what’s really being asked for.  One casting call for a new TV series seeks “…hot blooded, passionate, attractive, Latina moms that have effectively raised successful children through real life, old-school Latin traditions.”  The call posting opens with “Do your friends describe you as a HOT Latina mom…even go so far to call you the real life Sofia Vergara?”

Sigh. Is the phrase, “Girl, you are such a HOT Latina mom—you’re a real life Sofia Vergara!” a phrase that’s ever been said aloud? I’d like to think that is something Latina moms simply do not go around saying to each other. But what do I know? Personally, on the Latina stereotype coordinate plane, I fall more in the bookish, spectacled Ugly Betty quadrant. So, I could be completely wrong about what the hot bloods do on the other side of that map.

Another casting call script from Mi Vida Loca (eyeroll) Casting reads:

495 Productions & Doron Ofir Casting are on the hunt for fiery, passionate, spanish speaking bi-lingual goddesses who are those beautiful, exciting, mami chulas NY is notorious for!
You’ve got the style, the body, the fashion, the passion and the tough exterior to protect your corazón gigante that beats to the rhythm of Salsa and Meringue, and pumps with the heat of the Spanish Caribbean.Whether you are from Washington Heights, the Lower East Sidah, Spanish Harlem, or the Bronx, you’re a native New Yorker; born and raised, you talk the talk and without a doubt walk the walk, even in your chancletas!
Get it gurl, round up your neighborhood crew and the familia cause this is the chance to take your life to new heights! Represent!

Yawn. I seriously doubt the final claim of the casting directors: this ‘reality’ show most certainly will not be anyone’s chance to take her life to new heights. Unless, of course, the directors mean new heights of public ridicule. These tired, stereotype-laden casting calls did give me the chance, though, to think about when it is and is not okay to laugh at stereotypes. Below are a few of the most common arguments I’ve heard in favor of letting stereotyped representations of Latinos populate our airwaves, and my responses to them.

1.  “There is some truth to every stereotype, so people should just accept it.  The stereotype wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t any truth to it.”

While the kernel-of-truth hypothesis to stereotypes is widely accepted at face value, many of us can name stereotypes that simply are not true. For example, it took me awhile to understand the napping, lazy Mexican stereotype. We’ve all seen representations of him in some form or another: curled up under a big hat, head tucked between knees, back leaning against a cactus. But it just doesn’t make sense to me. One, what dumbass would sleep on a cactus? Two, Mexicans don’t sleep on cacti, we eat them. Three, when you see a Mexican napping, it’s not because he is lazy but probably because he is tired from working some physically demanding job all damn day. Still, the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t whether certain stereotypes are true or not. Rather, we need to ask why only some truths are selected for exaggeration. After all, everyone naps. That is a truth. But, stereotypes don’t persist simply because they are true. They persist because they are useful in reducing groups of people into convenient one-dimensional categories. And how are those group stereotypes useful? They are useful to bigots in charge who want to exaggerate otherwise meaningless group differences, explain away disturbing inequity and justify prejudice and discrimination. Of growing concern to me is not whether those protecting the status quo believe in the truth of stereotypes, but more, to what degree do we internalize our own stereotypes? When other people tell us who we are as individuals and who we are as a culture, bad things happen.

2. “People are too politically-correct these days. Everyone is too sensitive and no one can take a joke.”

People are too sensitive about stereotypes and certain types of humor for good reason. Researchers who study disparagement humor (humor that denigrates racial, ethnic, gender or other social groups) suggest there are real-world negative consequences to the public communication of disparaging jokes. According to some research in this area, exposure to this type of humor is associated with increased acceptance of discrimination against the disparaged groups. This is especially true for people who are highly prejudiced against these groups in the first place. It is believed that this happens because disparagement humor, is after all, humor–and humor is supposed to be lighthearted, fun, and something not worthy of serious consideration; jokes are for laughing, not for serious thinking. So, humor can lower our cognitive defenses against detecting socially inappropriate behavior and concepts. The underlying prejudicial messages in racist or bigoted jokes seem more normal and harmless when presented to public audiences.  That prejudiced messages would be harmless and normal is a particularly warm and welcoming thought to those who are already highly prejudiced. But, for people who are not highly prejudiced, the same effect is not found. So while some people may actually be just innocently laughing at a funny, relatively innocuous, race-based joke, others are laughing in delight at realizing their prejudices and biases are shared, harmless and probably, in their minds now, true. Personally, I prefer today’s cautious sensitivity to yesterday’s callous ignorance. I can take a joke; I just can’t take some idiot’s nervous attempt at validating his or her own racist and sexist world-views.

3.  “How come when Latinos do Latino stereotypes, it’s okay? But when other people do it, it’s not okay?”

I earned the right to laugh at Latina moms by living under the strict rule of one for many years. Sometimes humor is our only weapon. As the U.S. newspaper columnist and author Molly Ivins once said, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel–it’s vulgar.” When my people make fun of Latina moms and other matriarchs, it is because, historically, we have had no other weapons to use against them. I think of the young actors Leo Bautista and Vladimir Santos from ImportedTV as best exemplifying this ethnic humor of the powerless child. In their video, “Mexican Christmas Presents,” they reenact a disappointing Christmas gift-opening session with their clueless and no-nonsense Latina mom. As the boys unwrap one undesirable gift after another, I cannot help but see that they must be playing out some of their own childhood frustrations suffered under their mothers’ poor gift giving. And I cannot help but laugh at how funny it is. Another more local version of a similar powerless child script being performed to side-splitting perfection is that of The Southside Ignoramus Quartet’s Niece Kylie and Tia Chela skit (played by Jackie Herrera and Ruth Guerra, respectively). In this skit, Americanized bratty niece Kylie is being babysat by her more traditional and ladylike Tia Chela. Hilarity ensues as the brash and entitled Kylie bumps heads with Tia Chela over everything from dating, to contributing to household chores, to just being plain old rude. It is one of the funniest representations of a Latina tia that I have ever seen. After watching the skit, I realized I have at least three Tia Chelas in my family–and have, on occasion, been a bratty Kylie. (Of course, you won’t find this performance on television, but you will find it in a Pilsen backyard theater tent in the summer.) When we learn of our loved ones’ modes of thinking, faults and idiosyncrasies, joking about this allows us to better understand our communities and, ultimately, ourselves. When laughter comes from this place, we are sharing something. But when some laugh at us, nothing is being shared–entertainment is simply being taken, extracted from us at our expense.

4.  “It’s just TV. Calm down.”

I agree with this argument the most. Ultimately, the garbage casting calls for HOT Latina moms are simply being used for the creation of vapid television shows–and television is not our friend. Most creators of television programming do not care about our communities, mental health or self-concepts. They do not care about righting social injustice or compassionate and responsible representation of minorities. They care about money. The sooner we can accept this capitalistic reality, the less offended we should be by the ridiculous programming we will continue to see as television producers struggle to remain relevant and profitable in an increasingly Internet-based entertainment world.

The solution to reducing shameful representations of Latinas on television is undoubtedly multifaceted. We need more Latinos on screen but also behind-the-scenes creating and in advertising and production, as well. Definitely, we should hold network producers accountable for their poor marketing decisions via our hot Latin pocketbooks: boycott any sponsor that advertises during offensive programming. And we should learn to expect less, way less, from television altogether. We’ll need to search for role models in our communities, families and histories–not on television.

In the short term, all I can leave you with is what my own fiery, passionate Latina mother often shouted at me whenever she felt I was spending too much time on the couch in front of the boobtube: “Stop watching all that stupid TV and go read a book or something!”

Share this! (You know you want to.)

Got something to say? Say it loud!