The Horrors of Dolores Roach Is a Gory Dark-Comedy About a Murderous Latina In Gentrified NYC

Latines love entertainment. For years, we have been the top moviegoers — even though the films we watch rarely reflect our communities. While we represent 19% of the U.S. population, we make up only 4.6% of movie roles and 5.3% of TV roles. When we do see ourselves on the big or small screen, we are often playing one-dimensional characters or are cast in films riddled with stereotypes, tropes, and stories that fail to represent the totality of who we are. So we decided to hold Hollywood accountable. Welcome to La Nota, a column where we measure the (mis)representation of Latines in film and TV and grade projects against a Somos test that looks at gender, race, language, and more. This month, we’re grading the Amazon Prime series The Horror of Dolores Roach.
Based on a fictional Spotify original podcast of the same name, Amazon Prime’s The Horrors of Dolores Roach is a modern, Latine-led re-creation of Sweeney Todd. Set in New York City’s Washington Heights rather than London, the series eschews musical numbers and pies in favor of empanadas. If you’re looking for a positive Latine role model, be warned that this is not the TV show for you.
A bloody tale of murder, cannibalism, gentrification, and toxic relationships, the comedy-drama series tells the story of Dolores Roach (Justina Machado), a Latina recently released from prison who returns to her old neighborhood after 16 years of incarceration for a drug possession charge. With $200 to her name, she aims to become a massage therapist. But instead of living out her dream, she becomes a murderer.

"A bloody tale of murder, cannibalism, gentrification, and toxic relationships."

Nicole Froio
It all starts when Dolores' landlord tries to sexually assault her. Many murders after that — including some cannibalistic attempts at getting rid of the bodies —Dolores escapes Washington Heights. After fleeing, her horrifying crimes become public fascination, and the play The Horrors of Dolores Roach spring up in an attempt to understand her story and inject it with the nuance that is so often missing from narratives about violent women. Many years later, in the dressing room of the actor who plays a fictional version of Dolores, the real Dolores shows up to threateningly set the record straight. A fugitive who never got to explain her side of her story to anybody, Dolores forces the play’s protagonist to listen to her.
This series is kind of like a room of trick mirrors, where you think you’re going to see one thing but you’re shown another. When Dolores starts her tale, it sounds like she’s going to justify her violence, that there’s something the public doesn’t know about why she killed all those people. Instead, she recounts a narrative where she sometimes had a reason to defend herself, and other times, she just decided to kill someone out of anger. 
As she holds the actor hostage in the dressing room, Dolores talks about what happened after her release from prison. Dolores goes back to the only place she can think of: the (previously) Latine neighborhood of Washington Heights, where she hopes to find her old boyfriend and drug dealer, Dominic. During her 16 years of prison, Dolores received no visitations, no calls, or any sign of life from Dominic — a man who is largely to blame for her incarceration as Dolores refused to name him to the police. Arriving at recently gentrified Washington Heights, she discovers that white New York transplants now occupy Dominic’s apartment. As is often the case for people who come out of incarceration, she has nothing left on the outside. Everything she used to know — her neighborhood, her boyfriend, and her friends — are all gone. She has nowhere to go. 

"This series is kind of like a room of trick mirrors, where you think you’re going to see one thing but you’re shown another."

nicole froio
However, to Dolores’ relief, there is one old establishment that managed to stay open: the snackbar Empanada Loca, managed and owned by her old friend and stoner Luis (Alejandro Hernández). He offers her a place to stay and free guava and queso empanadas. Luis clearly has feelings for Dolores, but she seems ambivalent — at best — toward him. 
Her first kill is perhaps justifiable: In an attempt to get extra time to pay for the exorbitant rent for Luis’ shop ($11,000???), Dolores offers their landlord a massage. When the landlord tries to sexually assault her, Dolores’ instincts kick in, and she strangles him to death.
It isn’t Dolores’ idea to start making landlord empanadas, but it’s certainly convenient for her that Luis takes charge of covering up her murder. For Luis, human flesh is a delicacy and experimenting with it is a privilege. His theory is that, eventually, Empanada Loco’s clients will digest the landlord’s body, ensuring Dolores won’t need to worry about potentially going back to prison. Dolores abhors cannibalism and refuses to try the landlord empanadas that become famous across the neighborhood, but she certainly has a taste for blood after her first kill. She starts murdering people who piss her off or who say something she didn’t like, thus providing Luis with more meat for his human empanada menu.

"The Horrors of Dolores Roach also challenges the idea that women always have reasons to be violent, that there are always systemic justifications for what women do."

nicole froio
Much has been written — rightfully — about how the public and the criminal system more harshly judge women who commit crimes. However, to add nuance to why women commit crimes in the first place and how marginalization might lead to harsher incarceration sentences, it is necessary to highlight the unjust and racist criminalization of women of color’s survival tactics. Dolores was unjustly incarcerated for way too long for weed possession, a drug that became legal in some US states during her time in prison. It was this unjust prison sentence that put Dolores in her difficult financial circumstance, one that her landlord tried to take advantage of, leading to her first killing.
However, The Horrors of Dolores Roach also challenges the idea that women always have reasons to be violent, that there are always systemic justifications for what women do. Throughout the show, it becomes clear that Dolores is unlikeable; she wasn’t a good person before incarceration, and she has not improved since her release. In a stunning scene toward the end of the first season, the actress who portrays the on-stage version of Dolores insists there were reasons for Dolores’ actions — circumstances beyond her control that led her to kill. Dolores herself disagrees, saying she could have chosen not to kill certain people, but instead, she decided to kill anyone at any time for any reason. She doesn’t see herself as a victim, and she doesn’t want others to see her as such either. 
Dolores Roach is not the kind of woman of color who needs nuance. Rather, the nuance doesn’t justify what she does; it damns her. She’s not an anti-hero. She’s a full-on villain. The Horrors of Dolores Roach seems to ask the question: What if some women are just bad people? What if some women are rotten and do bad things because they enjoy them? What if, for some people, the circumstances don’t really matter all that much? And generally, is there a certain amount of resistance in accepting that women can be cruel, abusive, and even murderers?

"She’s not an anti-hero. She’s a full-on villain."

nicole froio
The casting of Machado in the role of Dolores was simply perfect, as she rarely gets the opportunity to play someone unlikeable. Her last big TV role was in One Day At A Time, where she took on the role of a Latina mother, so it was refreshing to see her embody a character that stands out from her usual work. In the midst of efforts to produce positive representation for Latine people, The Horrors of Dolores Roach seems to be pushing back, exploring the possibility of Latine people taking on roles that are more complex and not so clear-cut as being a good role model for a marginalized population. After I watched the first season, I kept asking myself: Is there space in the entertainment industry for Latine actors to take on roles like Sweeney Todd, or is that a privilege reserved for white actors? 

Gender & Sexuality: B 

It was interesting to see Machado in a role not related to motherhood or family care. Machado seems to be enjoying the opportunity to be a murderer on screen, which I suspect is because this is a rare character role for a Latina actor. Dolores is bisexual and has a prison girlfriend, Tabitha. Nelly (Katia Updike) is a trans woman, but her transness isn't central to the show.
There were also some weird choices with regards to Luis that made me feel uncomfortable — like, do we really need to make the cannibal a survivor of child sexual abuse and frame that as a justification for what he did? Survivors of sexual violence already deal with a lot of stigma, and I don’t really think we needed this explanation when Dolores’ character seems to be challenging the idea that violence always has reasoning behind it.

Regional Diversity: C

It was exciting to see a Latine-led show taking place in New York and tackling gentrification head on, but there wasn’t much regional diversity. 

Language: A 

I loved the transitions between Spanish and English; they felt very realistic.

Race: D 

There wasn’t much shade diversity and there was one Afro-Latine character I could discern, Sophia (Adargiza De Los Santos), who appeared in two episodes.

Stereotypes & Tropes: C

I’m  undecided on whether this show is breaking new ground or whether it might re-inscribe Latina women stereotypes as aggressive and overly violent. I do believe Latine actors shouldn’t have to always take on roles that represent our community well. After all, white actors don’t ever have to worry about that. Roach’s admission that she killed people because she wanted to, not because she had to, was certainly something that inspired reflection on how I think about women who commit violence. In some ways, I think Machado is challenging the benign ways in which we see Latina women as homemakers, mothers, and carers, but I’m still unsure on what the message of the show is when it deals with the plight of formerly incarcerated Latina women. 

Was it Actually Good? C

I was very excited to watch it, and most of the time, I was certainly entertained. I disliked some of the narrative choices, and some of it was a little too gory for me. It’s certainly worth a watch, but it’s a lukewarm recommendation from me.

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