Latinx Moms Are Giving Us TV’s Best Portrayals Of Motherhood

Photo: Courtesy of the CW.
As the reign of Peak TV continues, there are countless fantastic episodes of television to choose from in 2018 alone. But, the one that can eek out an involuntary sob at any moment by sheer recollection — yes, even months after viewing — is Jane The Virgin’s “Chapter Seventy-Eight.” The first moment that comes to mind from the installment is when Villanueva matriarch Alba (Ivonne Coll) tearfully tells her son-in-law (Jaime Camil) he’s not going to “bail” on her daughter, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), who was recently diagnosed with cancer. But, there is also the scene where Xo tells daughter and lead character Jane (Gina Rodriguez) “I’m still your mom” at a spa trip gone wrong, and the later sequence when Jane breaks her writer’s block by speedily typing away about Xo’s many amazing feats of radically supportive motherhood. Oh look, there’s that previously mentioned sob.
Jane, which just wrapped its fourth season, is filled with these kinds of perfect little moments of complicated, heartstring-pulling mothering. But, when you pull back, the unapologetically Latinx-friendly show isn’t alone when it comes to its loving obsession with matriarchal bonds. Rather, the best shows about what it means to be a mother right now tend to be about Latinx women.
If you don’t believe that, you probably haven’t watched the new Starz series Vida about two Mexican-American millennial sisters who are forced to return to their East L.A. neighborhood after the death of their mother, Vidalia Hernandez (Rose Portillo). Although many pop culture stories of motherhood are about the unbreakable, forever-loving bonds between parent and child, Vida isn’t one of those stories. Rather, it’s a visceral tale of how we pass down our own internal struggles from one generation to another.
In the premiere of the Starz series, we learn Vidalia married a woman named Eddy (non-binary actor Ser Anzoategui). While everyone in the Hernandez’s neighborhood of Boyle Heights was aware of the relationship, Vida’s daughter, Emma (Mishel Prada) was not. The secret comes off all the more complicated —and heart-wrenching — when you pick up on the many little signals Vida, a late-in-life member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, seemingly disowned her own daughter for being queer. It seems the specter of Catholicism, often a major tenant of the Latinx identity, plays a part in the rift. Despite the fact that Vidalia’s death is wildly fresh, you can still feel Emma’s rage over her mother’s hurtful, now hypocritical, treatment radiating off the screen.
Yet, despite the mother-daughter pair’s to-the-grave feud, the most affecting scene in the entire Spanglish-and-flan-filled series opener is the episode’s final moment, where a weepy, grief-stricken Emma tears up next to her sister Lyn (Melissa Barrera) in the dark as they watch an old family movie. The younger versions of the siblings are splashed on screen in all their '90s glory, dancing to Selena Quintanilla’s iconic “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” As someone who was also a little Latinx girl in the 1990s, I can confirm it's one of the accurate portrayals of my childhood on television. Eventually, the younger version of Vida (Rocío López), in high-waisted shorts and a tied top, comes shimmying to life to show her daughters how to do the cumbia, a traditional Latinx dance.
While Vida might be six feet under in 2018, in this throwback of a video, she couldn’t be more full of life — of vida. Finally, Emma is brought to sobs. It’s proof that no matter how much resentment you hold against the woman who brought you into this world, or how truly imperfect she was, she is still your mother.
That same idea is what fuels one of the most shockingly moving scenes of a Netflix series this year. Amid all the love triangles, treasure hunts, and unexpectedly heavy gang drama of On My Block, another Los Angeles-set dramedy, lives the journey of Monse Finnie (Sierra Capri) to find her MIA mother. Throughout the series’ first season, it’s hinted the teen’s mom — who is suggested to be Latinx multiple times — disappeared during her very early childhood, leaving Monse’s loving dad Monty (Reggie Austin) as her sole caretaker. But, when Monse randomly runs into a woman who looks an awful lot like her mother, she goes to great lengths to track the woman down, going so far as to create a fake Facebook page, complete with a fake name.
Monse’s “Chapter Eight” trip to the home of the woman, now going by the name Julia Whitman (Lisa Marcos), under the guise of babysitting is one of the most harrowing segments of Block that doesn’t involve literal life or death stakes. After all, who knows what will happen if this woman isn’t Monse’s mom, and she catches the lying teen snooping through her possessions.
But, just as Monse decides Julia can’t be her mother, due in part to Julia’s new twins confirming Dora The Explorer, as opposed to Julia herself, taught them Spanish, viewers realize Julia very much is the woman our heroine has been searching for. Just before Monse leaves, Julia glances at the fake babysitter’s phone to see Monty’s photo staring back at her. She knows him. Shock flashes across Julia’s face as she realizes who the young woman in her bathroom is, and viewers realize how much anguish the woman has felt for abandoning her daughter.
It’s impossible not to feel something upon Julia’s parting words to her child, who has no idea she’s looking at her mother: “You saved me.” Monse believes Julia is thanking her for babysitting in a pinch; Julia is actually, finally, thanking her child for changing her life. When the teen leaves, we see Julia begin to burst into tears. All of a sudden, viewers understand over a decade’s worth of shame in what amounts to 90 seconds or less of television.
Yet, On My Block isn’t the only shining example of motherhood through the Latinx lens on Netflix. There is also the beautiful, uplifting, and uproariously funny On Day At A Time, a reboot of Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcom of the same name, this time with a Cuban-American family at the center. Whereas Block and Vida are marked with their own versions of deep familial loss, One Day, like fellow gem Jane, is about what happens when three very different Latinx generations are living under one roof. The answer is a lot of love and a lot of drama.
Both One Day and Jane play in the sandboxes of their respective genres — the former with its zany sitcom hijinks, the latter with its jaw-dropping telenovela twists — while also delving deep into the heart of family, a cornerstone of the Latinx experience. One stand-out moment of ODAAT season 2 is the indelible episode where Lydia Riera (national treasure Rita Moreno) tries to support her daughter, lead Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), through a bout of serious depression. The moment is wrapped up in Lydia’s good old Catholic guilt, military veteran Penelope’s PTSD, and, above all, motherly love. Lydia might not “believe” in psychology, which she waves her hand at, but she does believe in her daughter’s well-being.
While that is one rousing, massive example of the way One Day tackles motherhood, there are countless more where that comes from. Season 2 also deals with youngest Alvarez kid Alex (Marcel Ruiz), who goes by Papito, wanting to tone down his Latinx-ness due to the racism stoked by President Trump, how the entire family can support a work-life-school balance for an overwhelmed Penelope, and, in an especially emotional showing, Lydia’s near-death medical emergency.
Yet, this dedication to fearless, tough storytelling on One Day didn't arbitrarily begin in 2018, since the series first cemented itself as one of Netflix's best offerings with the season 1 coming out story of Alverez teen Elena (Isabella Gomez). The key to that arc is watching the entire Alverez-Riera matriarchy come together to support the young woman. Few things will make you both laugh and wipe away real tears more than watching ultra-religious Lydia talk through her feelings over her granddaughter’s sexuality. The stream of consciousness speech begins with homophobia and ends with the exclamation “Am I going to go against the Pope and God? Who the hell do I think I am?! Okay, okay, I’m good.”
How can Lydia work through years of prejudice in a matter of 10 seconds? “Because she is my granddaughter, and I love her no matter what. Ya,” she explains.
Lydia’s speech distills what is so great about Latinx shows about mom-dom. In a time where the leader of the free world refers to the community often as “rapists” and “not the best people,” everything from One Day to Vida and On My Block to Jane The Virgin reminds us of all the love and layers living among the Latinx community. And, so much of that is created by the moms leading (and sometimes leaving) those families.
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