Updated: Nov 12, 2020
It's been a long 15 years.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote an American novel that did what no other has done. Told in the first person, from six different points of view (each of them a US-born Latina from a distinct Latino heritage subgroup - Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, etc.) the novel became a huge bestseller - with Latina readers in the United States. Not only had that never happened before, but it has also not happened since. There have been other bestsellers about Latinx characters. Not many, but they do exist. Those books, by authors focusing only on their own Latino heritage subgroup, succeeded mostly through a white audience, with additional readers from said subgroup.
My novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, was the first - and remains the only - novel to rise to the top of bestseller lists powered almost entirely by a US Latina readership, a readership I found in predictable places like Los Angeles and New York, but also in places that surprised some people - like Minneapolis, like Chapel Hill, like Baton Rouge. If any of this surprises you, chances are you have yet to grasp the delicate complexities and nuance of Latinx identity construction in the US. My novel's widespread Latina appeal was not a happy accident; it was by design, so much so that the book, for outward purposes deemed "chica lit," is being used to teach Latinx identity construction in a sociology class at Brown University, and I've just found out that "US Latinx identity construction in the writings of Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez" is the subject of a PhD student's thesis...in Brazil.
No good capitalist who's paying attention to demographic shifts in this country will deny the financial importance of reaching "the Latino market," but most who try, fail, for one simple reason: They presume a simplistic sameness amongst Latinxers, where in truth a vast and proud diversity exists. This diversity must be acknowledged. All too often, it is not. Even the most educated and well-intentioned, of all backgrounds, conflate "Latino" with Mexican, migrant, foreigner, illegal, criminal, and presume kinship and relevance where in truth none may lie. Nowhere is this unfortunate confusion more apparent than in the offices of Hollywood film and TV executives. Desperate to reach "the Latino audience" in the US (an audience that boasts more people than there are Canadians in Canada) they nonetheless keep making the same mistakes, mistakes that doom them to failure, failure that they will invariably later blame upon Latinos themselves, for not appreciating their benevolence.
Because my book has sold so well in the US - more than half a million copies and counting, and it will be reissued later this year - many movie studios and TV networks have optioned the rights (rented them for a short period of time) in an attempt to develop it for the screen. I've had several development deals, with entities like Columbia Pictures, Lifetime Television, Starz and NBC. Until now, the project has not gotten made, however, because even though these execs see there's an audience, and they see that I reached that audience with my novel, they still don't trust me to know what I'm talking about, when what I'm talking about destroys everything they believe to be true about Latinos.
To say this has been a frustrating 15 years is gross understatement. That's the bad news. The good news is that I seem finally to be aligned with some powerful Latinx producers and executives who get what I'm trying to do and why it will succeed in a way nothing else has. I am headed to Los Angeles later this week, for a meeting with one such production company, and hope to have good news that I can speak about publicly, soon.
Looking back over the past trials and frustrations, however, a pattern has emerged, of things that I heard, in one way or another, over and over, from non-Latinx white executives who ultimately shut the project down because I refused to agree with their delusions, delusions that I insisted would have caused the project to fail. I've put the best (worst?) of these together in a handy list here, in case anyone in Hollywood wants a cheat sheet of things they really need to stop fucking saying to Latinx writers, if they have any hope of actually capturing a national, widespread Latinx audience.
1. WHY HAVEN'T YOU TAKEN THIS TO UNIVISION?
Like most non-Latinx Americans, Hollywood executives yoke themselves to a myth that all US Latinos speak Spanish, as though language were carried in our DNA. We do not. In fact, the vast majority of us were born in the United States, are not immigrants, and, by the third generation, according to data from the Pew Center for Hispanic Research, speak no Spanish at all. Mexican Americans make up the largest percentage of Latinos by subgroup, as 63% of the total domestic US Latino population - and fewer than a third of them were born somewhere other than the United States.
Ninety percent of Latinos born in the US speak English, and by the third generation, it is 100 percent. Even among the smaller group of Latinos in the US who are immigrants, 40% are fluent in English within the first year. We are consuming our media here in English, like everyone else. I'm not taking my projects to Univison because most of my audience doesn't speak Spanish, and those who do also speak fucking English. Asking me to take my series or film to Univision, a network only 5.6 million Latinos are watching - a network fewer than 1 in 10 Latinos are consuming - is as absurd as asking every white writer who comes through your door, "Why haven't you taken this to TNT?"
The idea that Latinos aren't assimilating linguistically is coming from two unfortunate places: 1) xenophobic, racist conservative "news" media that wants to stir up hate against brown-skinned people who scare them by making them seem as incomprehensible and "foreign" as possible, and 2) the ad sales departments in Spanish-language media like Univision, who have a financial interest in perpetuating the same exact lie.
2. IS THIS STORY/DETAIL/CHARACTER REALLY BELIEVABLE?
I cannot tell you how many times I've heard this question, in one way or another, from high-ranking studio and network executives. For the sake of brevity (insofar as I, a novelist at heart and taking 300 pages to make a single point, can be brief) and sanity, I will share only one of them with you now.
The president of a movie studio, upon reading my adaptation of my own bestselling novel, and in it finding six college-educated, English-speaking Latina professionals living in Boston, wrinkled his nose. Was it really believable, he wanted to know, that all six of them would have, you know, gone to college? Was it really believable that they'd be speaking English - and why didn't that English sound more "street"? Was it really believable - and this horrified him the most - that a Latina would be driving around in a Range Rover? Was it really believable that Latinas would go to a school like Harvard (in the book it's Boston University, I'd upped the ante for film)? He suggested I have a couple of them barely finish high school, speak like a Sofia Vergara character, have jobs "where they have to struggle more," and, for God's sake, take the bus or subway like real Latinas.
Of course, everything I wrote was not only believable, but backed up by solid data. Latinas are the nation's fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs. We - hang on. You know what? I don't even need to justify it. Let's say, for a moment, for the sake of argument, that everything I'd written was unbelievable - so much so as to even be illegal, implausible and impossible in reality. Let's just go with that. The question I'd have then would be: "So what?"
Think about this.
When has believability ever been the standard by which anything is measured in Hollywood? Is it believable that Arnold would give birth through his shriveled 'droid-dick? Is it believable that Sandra Bullock would spin in space and talk to Clooney's ghost in a space pod? Is in believable that a car could talk and murder people on its own? Is it believable that a man would fall in love with a giant blue woman on another fucking planet? Is it believable that a rat would wish to be a chef? Or that a billionaire would fly around being a hero in a special metal suit (or that a billionaire would care enough about anyone but his own fucking self to want to save anyone at all?)
Believability is not the issue. White men give themselves no shortage of unbelievable and aspirational stories, to make them feel good about themselves and their possibilities.
But a Latina in a motherfucking Range Rover?
Yeah, we still can't do that.
Not because no one would believe it - but because they would.
3. THIS NEEDS TO BE MORE ABOUT SUFFERING, STRUGGLE or OTHER HARDSHIP.
Hollywood loves dead Latinas. And if they're not dead, at least have the decency to hurt them a little. If they've been murdered, that's even better. The best, actually. There's something of the noble savage trope to this, but also just a latent desire to, you know, fucking kill us for not being invisible anymore.
That's why Hollywood keeps making new projects about Selena, but would never make a movie about any of the absolutely massive Tejano stars who have come along since Selena was murdered. These new stars are not interesting to the American power structure yet, for the simple fact that they haven't had the good sense to get themselves slaughtered and thereby become cautionary tales about what happens when you spicy-cha-chas step out of your place - and your place being, obviously, the barrio from whence you crawled up.
There's something terrifying to the status quo about the idea of a Latina just drinking an iced hazelnut coffee, taking a shit, and flipping through People magazine. I had one TV executive reject my pilot outline because, she said, "this just reads like it's about me and my friends." I was, like...and? "And we didn't buy this project to just see Latinas acting like me and my friends. It needs to be different. It needs to be more Latina." Mind you, the pilot was about six Latinas. But this executive wanted them "doing the kinds of things, you know, that black women do." I didn't want to ask her what that meant, but I did. "Well," she suggested, "could we start the show, instead of them having cocktails at a fancy bar, could they be in a more Latin kind of place, debating whether or not to date men in prison?"
No, I said.
They could fucking not.
I tried to explain that the executive had conflated "race" and perceived ethnicity with socioeconomic status and educational attainment. I further tried to explain that concepts such as race and ethnicity had been constructed in the colonialist United States with the sole purpose of creating, justifying and maintaining an unjust class/caste system. I refused to be part of that. I explained that my entire life's work was a battle against the very thing she was trying to squeeze out of my pen, and suggested that if she'd actually read my book she'd understand that. I suggested my way would actually make more money.
And so ended my relationship with Lifetime.
White Hollywood executives really, desperately need for those they see as Other to behave in exotic and pitiable ways, because what is the point of having Others at all if they just, you know, do regular life stuff like you do? You might have to get rid of the entire notion of Others, and of yourself as the default (slightly superior) human, and that might - what? Oh, Jesus, wait, no no no. That might lead to a world in which non-Latinx white people get told that they themselves are the Other. This is unacceptable. Everyone knows they're just people.
Thing is, though, no one wakes up in the morning feeling like the Other. We all just wake up feeling like people, needing coffee, taking shits. That's the story I want to tell. A story of Latinas as universal every-humans. That's the story that connected with my readers, and it will be the story that connects with viewers. It just won't connect with certain Hollywood executives, and that's okay because they can just go watch Iron Man, on TNT.
4. THIS MIGHT WORK IF YOU SET IT IN EAST LA
Many Hollywood executives, it seems, learned everything they know about Latinos from movies and TV shows. For this reason, they think all Latinos are Mexican and living in East LA. This is not to say there are no Mexicans living in East LA. East Los Angeles has a population of 123,000 people, 96% of whom are, in fact, Latino, and many of those probably Mexican in heritage.
But there are 59.9 million Latinos in the United States.
That means 58,877,000 of us DO NOT LIVE IN FUCKING EAST LA.
That means the Latino population of East LA comprises exactly 0.2% of all Latinos in the United States.
And they wonder why we're not watching?
My book and series are set in Boston, where, right now, 2 in 10 people are Latinos. Massachusetts is one of only six states in the US that can attribute ALL of its economic growth from 2000 to 2010 to Latinos. Suburban Boston is home to the largest Puerto Rican population outside of Puerto Rico. And yet, I've had several executives tell me it is not believable (see above, then set yourself on fire) to set a Latino show in Boston. Couldn't I just make it more "realistic" and set it...in EAST FUCKING LA?
No, as a matter of fact, I could not. Sorry, not sorry.
There are 908,000 of us in Houston; 807,000 of us in San Antonio; 643,000 of us in Phoenix; 2.27 million of us in New York City - that's one in three people, bitches (same percentage as for Chicago, btw). We are everywhere, and most of us turn the TV off every time we see yet another Latino show set in East LA. La Bamba was good enough for most of us. We are tired of seeing Hollywood stereotype us this way, and hungry for a realistic presentation of our real and very American lives in every part of this nation.
There are 79 major cities in the United States RIGHT NOW with more than 30% of their population being Latino. Dude. No, listen to me. Half the population of Bridgeport effing Connecticut is Latino.
But you'll never see a Hollywood exec suggesting you set your show in Bridgeport, Connecticut, presumably because said executive does not go out of his or her way to avoid Bridgeport, Connecticut on Interstate 10 when they drive out to Palm Springs for the fucking weekend.
5. "BLACK LATINA?" YOU MEAN SHE HAS AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN DAD AND A MEXICAN MOM OR SOMETHING?
Most Hollywood executives, like most Americans and all police officers, still think "Latino" is a "race," or a way of describing how a person looks physically. It is not.
Latin America is every bit as diverse as the United States, with the same colonial history. Europeans came, killed Natives, replaced them with African slaves. It happened here in English. It happened south of the border in Spanish, Portuguese and French. There is a large population of Afro-Mexicans in the Veracruz region. "Mexican" isn't a physical descriptor, either. No nationality is. There are black people born in Ireland, and they look Irish because they are fucking Irish.
Spanish is a European language. The brownness people associate with being "Latino" in the US is actually Native American. It is dangerous for people to understand this, because to do so would give brown migrants more claim over this place than the doughy Minutemen seeking to keep them out. Furthermore, there are more Afro-Latinos in Latin American than there are Latinos in all of the United States, and 5 of every 6 people from the Dominican Republic, which was the largest Latino immigrant group to NYC during the entire 1990s, are what we'd call "black" here.
Latino is not a physical description, any more than "American" is. We come in all shades. Lots of us are black. Lots of us are brown. Lots of us are white. Get over it.
6. YOU'RE TOO SMART TO JUST BE WRITING ABOUT LATINAS.
Invariably, during my meetings with Hollywood executives, after an hour of me painstakingly explaining everything I just listed above, there comes a moment when said exec steeples their fingers under their chin, and narrows their eyes at me as though I were a thing that just fell to earth from a meteor belt, and says something like, "Wow. You're really smart," with absolute astonishment, to which I say thanks, to which they then say, "Well, and I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but you're too smart to just be writing about Latinos."
And, without fail, I take this "compliment" exactly the right way, which is to say I realize just how far we have yet to go in convincing Hollywood gatekeepers that Latinos are just human beings, living everywhere in this nation, speaking English and taking shits, just like them.