As 13 Reasons Why began its fourth and final season, I expected the series to close ranks. With two handfuls of central teen characters — plus their parents, teachers, enemies, and crushes — to contend with, it was impossible to imagine there was space for anyone else. But, season 4 premiere “Winter Break” proved me wrong. The episode adds a few new characters into the mix, including Estela de la Cruz (Inde Navarrette), little sister to the late Monty de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos), the jock who raped Tyler Down (Devin Druid), was framed for the murder of Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), and subsequently murdered in jail.
Estela immediately has promise. The Liberty High underclassman serves up a perspective rarely seen in television, let alone the series: the devastated activist teen left to process the sins of someone they once idolized, while also grieving for them. From the moment Estela appears on screen, it feels inevitable she will erupt into a classic 13 Reasons Why meltdown over the burden of her family legacy or turn against the core 13 crew as she unravels the conspiracy they carried out against her brother. The latter threat becomes particularly likely as Estela joins the feminist group Hands Off, which is led by Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) — the same Jessica Davis who watched Bryce die and then pinned the killing on Monty.
But, Estela does no such explosive thing. In fact, she doesn’t do much at all in 13 Reasons Why, despite the series’ insistence that she act as a major supporting member of its goodbye season. If 13 Reasons Why was hoping to improve its depiction of Latinx women like me — who had been totally left out of the picture previously — the YA drama failed.
Estela is treated as little more than a prop over the course of 13 Reasons Why. Her very first scene makes that characterization literal. When we meet Estela “Winter Break,” football players Diego Torres (Jan Luis Castellanos) and Luke Holliday (Austin Aaron) are attempting to force her to wear a Monty tribute jersey to legitimize their memorial to a dead rapist. Estela is a means to an end for them — and she is visibly uncomfortable about it. Luke and Diego’s coercion only ends when Charlie St. George (Tyler Barnhardt) politely steps in and Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) escalates the disagreement into an actual brawl. Estela just watches the carnage unfold in her brother’s name.
In “College Tour,” 13 Reasons incorrectly hints it will let Estela escape the limitations put on her by other people’s perceptions and influence. During a coffee hang, she tells Ani Achola (Grace Saif), “Most people think I’m here to defend who my brother is … But that’s not me.” The series then forgets to tell us who Estela is instead. As senior year spirals out of control for the central 13 Reasons crew, Estela is left to watch it all unfold as a wide-eyed bystander. She spends most of the season standing sweetly behind Jessica or passively listening to Winston (Deaken Bluman) spout conspiracy theories about their classmates. In “College Interview,” Estela seems to finally plug into Winston’s sleuthing, along with the suspicious behavior of her hero Jessica, and that thread is promptly forgotten in the following three episodes.
Sixth episode “Thursday” offers one final chance to add some dimension to Estela as she is trapped in a bathroom during an active shooter drill that feels very much like a real emergency. Estela calls her mom, and we are reminded she is the last de la Cruz child — losing two kids to Liberty High would be a devastating blow to this family. While we never see Estela at home with her parents and working through Monty’s death — itself a missed opportunity, particularly since we know Mr. De la Cruz is abusive — this call could at least shed some light on Estela’s personal world. Instead, Estela leaves a generic heartbreaking message for her mother that ignores the fundamental loss of the de la Cruzes.
When you get to the midpoint of “Thursday,” it becomes obvious the episode’s goal isn’t to add to Estela’s inner life — it’s to connect her to Tyler, her brother’s victim. Tyler is hiding in the same bathroom as Estela, and a heart-to-heart begins. The conversation is wholly about Tyler talking through his trauma as a teary Estela listens. From this chapter on, we mostly take in Estela from Tyler’s perspective.
In a particularly damning moment, Estela’s biggest achievement becomes about Tyler, who is her boyfriend by the finale, “Graduation.” In Estela’s last scene, she is tapped to take over HO in Jessica’s absence. Inexplicably, her response is, “Tyler will be so proud!” It is unclear if Estela is proud of herself, if she is considering the fact that her brother should be celebrating his own graduation in this exact moment, or if her parents are mourning the day.
13 Reasons Why season 4’s only other Latina becomes a similar vehicle for a white boy’s romantic growth. In “House Party,” protagonist Clay meets Valerie Diaz (Yadira Guevara-Prip), a new character and the daughter of Clay’s perceived enemy Sheriff Diaz (Benito Martinez). Valerie quickly seduces Clay, even though she knows he was accused of murder a few weeks prior. We are never told if Valerie is intrigued by Clay, specifically, for his bad boy cred or is simply interested in pissing off her dad. 13 Reasons Why doesn’t care. Instead, we watch Valerie have wholly unfulfilling sex with Clay. Valerie doesn’t mind, despite the fact her only character trait is “sexually confident Latina” — itself a tired trope.
Wouldn’t Valerie at least ask Clay for oral sex after such a disappointing experience?
Apparently not, since all Valerie tells Clay about her lack of orgasm is a giggly “it’s okay.” It’s difficult to leave the scene feeling like Valerie is more than a human blowup doll added to the narrative for the sole purpose of ensuring 13’s leading man has his first sexual experience. After watching Clay pine for three girls over the course of the series, it shouldn’t have been a never-before-seen Latina’s job to act as his walking sex toy, especially since Valerie is never spoken about again.
The mistreatment of Estela and Valerie is all the more infuriating when you see how much care is given to Diego, the new Latinx boy in the series. 13 Reasons invests in Diego’s precise experience as a Dominican teen; we learn his reticence to join the football team when baseball is the go-to sport for Dominican athletes and see the hurt in his face when he is misidentified as “Mexican” just because he’s Latinx. Personality-wise, we know Diego is headstrong, intense, and, at the best times, extremely loving. Diego is a person.
Estela and Valerie deserved the same treatment. Instead, they are merely the outline of a real individual — the kinds of characters that are easy to project desires upon. If that is how 13 Reasons Why sees Latinas, it should have left us out of the narrative completely.