Editor's Note: The article image and headline have been updated to further differentiate this story from a Los Angeles Times article titled "In praise of Jenna Ortega, Aubrey Plaza and moody, deadpan Latinas" by Suzy Exposito.
“You never smile,” my prima told me one day, scrolling through photos on her phone, searching for one of the two of us that was post-worthy. She clarified, “You smile but don’t smile, as in you don’t show your beautiful teeth!”
She had a point. I have, after all, suffered the misery of wearing braces not once but twice in my 30-some years on this earth. Why not show off my pearly whites more often? God knows I’ve spent enough time and money on them. Well, quite simply, because I don’t want to.
Rarely smiling is just one of my many inherent personality traits that I’ve (finally) fully embraced in recent years. Like many women, others have instructed me to smile countless times in my life, whether it’s my always-smiling Filipina mother telling me to “say cheese!” before she takes my photo or a random, strange man passing me by on the street insisting I would “look prettier” if I smiled.
I’m not sure when I realised I’m not the smiling type. It was probably around the same time I realised I tend to have a fairly emotionless resting face — the kind where you can’t detect an ounce of enthusiasm or excitement.
On a recent press trip, the table topic turned to our astrological signs because, frankly, what else is a group of Millennial and Gen Z women going to discuss at dinner?
"Others might think I constantly look uninterested at best and uninviting at worst — either way, these are two characteristics not commonly associated with Latinas and especially not with the Mexican side of my family. "
So there I was, sipping my standard espresso martini, when the conversation turned to the resident Scorpio (me) and our reputation for brandishing a specific type of intrigue. You know, that Scorpio je ne sais quoi.
“You are kind of mysterious,” one person announced. The group nodded in unison. This was news to me as I don’t really set out to be mysterious. Does anyone? It was kind of mind-blowing that this cohort of people that I’d just met only days before had all come to an agreement about my personality. Not that I was offended, of course. I’m quite proud to be the quintessential Scorpio.
“You’re hard to get a read on,” this person continued.
Now that I couldn’t argue with. I knew that much to be true.
Some of my friends have described me as onion-like, with many layers to “peel back.” Others might think I constantly look uninterested at best and uninviting at worst — either way, these are two characteristics not commonly associated with Latinas and especially not with the Mexican side of my family.
Through society’s stereotypical lens, Latinas are always interested in everything and everyone. And we are most certainly inviting — the consummate hosts ready to cook, clean, and create a welcoming environment for friends and family at a moment’s notice. We are boisterous and bubbly, animated with an intense — if not borderline insatiable — zest for life around the clock.
"Through society’s stereotypical lens, Latinas are always interested in everything and everyone. ... We are boisterous and bubbly, animated with an intense — if not borderline insatiable — zest for life around the clock."
To see what I mean, look no further than some of the more mainstream portrayals of Latinas in popular culture over the last few decades. From Salma Hayek in Fools Rush In (one of my favourite, chronically underrated ‘90s rom-coms) to Gloria Delgado-Pritchett (Sofía Vergara) in Modern Family, there’s no shortage of what writer Suzy Exposito calls the “fiery Latina” in her brilliant Los Angeles Times essay.
In her essay, Exposito explores the growing visibility of the “deadpan Latina,” as exemplified by the likes of scream queen Jenna Ortega and the real-life Daria, aka Aubrey Plaza. The two actors have been riding their respective waves of success — Ortega shining as the titular character in Netflix’s Wednesday; Plaza as a blank-faced vacationer in The White Lotus — and their spooky viral moment at the 2023 Screen Actors Guild Awards, as Exposito explains, put their specific type of Latina in the spotlight. Like Ortega and Plaza, Selena Gomez's character Mabel brings deadpan humour to the hit Hulu mystery comedy-drama series Only Murders in the Building.
“I was already quite deadpan and sarcastic when I saw the show, but I felt very seen,” Colón, 30, tells Refinery29 Somos. “My delivery and sarcasm is probably what people will notice first. I was always obsessed with banter and having playful conversations with people, but keeping it right on the edge of being too serious.”
"The deadpan Latina embodies a certain kind of energy that keeps you on your toes. There’s no telling what she’ll do or say or whether others see her as socially 'acceptable.' But the thing is, either way, she doesn’t care."
Talia Mychael Blaney, a Mexican-Italian actor in Los Angeles, also immediately thinks of Plaza’s turn as April on the fan-favourite series. It’s that dry sense of humour she connects with most.
“I find her sarcastic, deadpan humor hilarious,” says Blaney, 30. “I have two sides of my humor, one of which is very straight to it and sarcastic; the other side is completely opposite and very expressive. I’ll credit my deadpan as the reason why I haven’t had to get Botox yet.”
As a teen in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Denver-based freelance journalist Priscilla Blossom gravitated toward a persona that was part punk, part goth, and all about subcultures that often led toward political and social activism, and are rarely seen as bubbly or “happy.”
“In those days, however, I didn’t encounter as many Latinas in popular culture who were as involved in these subcultures — they existed but again, not in pop culture,” Blossom, 38, says. “When I started seeing more Latinas who weren’t just there to smile or be sexualised on shows, who maybe didn’t always laugh at bad jokes or smile because they were asked to, I started recognising some of those same personality traits I’d been exhibiting for years and feeling a bit more seen.”
The deadpan Latina embodies a certain kind of energy that keeps you on your toes. There’s no telling what she’ll do or say or whether others see her as socially “acceptable.” But the thing is, either way, she doesn’t care.
"When I started seeing more Latinas who weren’t just there to smile or be sexualized on shows, who maybe didn’t always laugh at bad jokes or smile because they were asked to, I started recognizing some of those same personality traits I’d been exhibiting for years and feeling a bit more seen."
“I think of someone quirky, lovable, and a bit unpredictable,” says Brianna Carmen, a 29-year-old political director in Washington, D.C. “What people don’t realise is that being deadpan requires quite a bit of skill. You’re reading your audience, assessing the situation, and sharing your take on things at the right moment for maximum effect.”
In short, Carmen argues, deadpan Latinas are “the unsung comedic heroes” in our networks and communities. Her own experiences have underscored that.
“Being deadpan is a mix of things: learning how to dish it out from your abuelas; fighting machismo and the patriarchy with a sharp tongue; and being the oddball out where you learn to engage and own your place in the world with a bit of humour,” Carmen says. “You’re writing your own rules by rejecting assumptions of how you should be, and once you own it, people gravitate toward that.”
Sharlem Nina, the Massachusetts-based Dominican entrepreneur behind the Latino-inspired candle brand Tierra Blue, can trace a clear connection between her upbringing and her personality today.
"You’re writing your own rules by rejecting assumptions of how you should be, and once you own it, people gravitate toward that."
“I was really sensitive and emotional growing up and was always made fun of by my peers,” says Nina, 32. “So I started to lose the sweetness and closing up more, which ultimately led me to expressing myself with deadpan emotions. It’s just easier to say something deadpan and move right along.”
She enjoys and appreciates her deadpan energy now that she’s older, even though it initially stemmed from a defence mechanism.
“I’ve gained a lot of valuable friends who appreciate my style and humor,” Nina says. “And it’s nice to have a blend in the group where not everyone is overly cheerful for every single little thing. Balance.”