What Telenovela & Superstore Get Right About The Latina Experience

Photos: Courtesy of NBC.
It’s true. We don’t all have accents and speak broken English.

Eva Longoria and America Ferrera have found clever ways to shed light on the English-dominant, U.S.-born Latino experience through their new TV shows, Telenovela and Superstore.

For me, Longoria’s latest character, Ana Sofia Calderon, was relatable even if I don’t know the first thing about starring in a popular Spanish language soap. She is a superstar struggling with jealous castmates and drama within her team — and on top of that, she only speaks a few words of Spanish comfortably.

The ah-ha moment for an English-dominant Latina like me came when Ana shows how the language barrier affects her identity. It creates that nagging question many of us know all too well: Am I Latino enough if I don’t speak Spanish? The show doesn’t tackle the subject in a roundabout way but rather in a straightforward, in-your-face, don’t-take-it-so-seriously type of way. And it’s nice.

These soaps, a.k.a. novelas, were a staple in my Puerto Rican grandmother’s house, where they seemed to play in a 24-hour loop non-stop. Although they didn’t interest me much, those Spanish-language dramas defined important moments in my childhood. If I sat and watched one, it meant I could enjoy peaceful silence beside my grandmother, who would otherwise be running around her kitchen preparing delicious food for the family. And even if I could only understand a line here and there, I got into the stories from time to time. Telenovela captures that clash of cultures.

Meanwhile, America Ferrera's series, Superstore, takes a more subtle approach to addressing various cultural experiences in the U.S. She stars as Amy, a manager in a big-box department retail outlet, and the first two episodes focus on her mundane life. It feels like reality. As Latinos continue to be the fastest-growing population in the U.S., there are thousands and thousands of Amys nationwide. I welcomed the laid-back approach to her ethnicity.

Still, the show didn’t wait too long to dive into the cultural conversations happening in our country right now. By episode three, each character's race and ethnicity are highlighted, and the comical breakdown of cultural nuances is hilarious. For instance, the store supervisor selects Amy to run the salsa-testing station; Jonah (Ben Feldman) is called a racist because he helps an old white woman to the front of the check-out line; Garrett (Colton Dunn) jokes about the irony of being a black man who is also bound to a wheelchair; and Mateo (Nico Santos) is proud to be an openly gay Filipino.

It's heartening that both shows try to be insightful in an entertaining way. Even better is how they are clearly striving to diversify television with the faces we see in the cast. In 2013, despite being 17% of the population, Latinos comprised none of the lead actors among the top 10 movies and scripted network TV shows, according to the Columbia University report the Latino Media Gap.

Longoria is also an executive producer on Telenovela, which is also a step in the right direction: According to that same report, from 2010 to 2013, no Latinos ranked among the top 10 TV series creators, and made up only 1.1% of producers, 2% of writers, and 4.1% of directors. It's even worse at the level of Hollywood decision-makers: Of the top 53 television, radio, and studio executives, only one is Latina.

I'm encouraged that Longoria and Ferrera are making strides in an industry that has clung to homogeneity. But on a more personal note, what I appreciate most from these two new projects is the bigger message they're sending: A Latina born and raised in the U.S. is just as American as anyone else, even as she embraces the immigrant culture of those who came before her.

and Superstore premiere tonight on NBC.