Commentary: The Tóxicos of ‘Love Island USA’ are too familiar for Latino fans

Love island has become very familiar to Latinos.
(Illustration by Diana Ramirez / De Los)
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The thing about reality dating shows is they need to be messy. Thankfully, “Love Island USA” delivers just that.

And this season, it delivered something else that’s often missing from reality dating shows: pure tóxico representation.

For the uninitiated, “Love Island USA” is the American arm of the U.K. dating show “Love Island.” It’s a wildly captivating series that features dozens of aspiring influencers, lower league footballers and Dairy Queen managers as they attempt to find love, or at least enough fame to garner some lucrative brand collaborations, while living inside a villa that is cut off from the outside world.

If contestants don’t couple up with someone every week or amass enough votes from viewers, they’re at risk of being dumped from the island and losing out on a $100,000 prize.


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The show plays six nights a week, meaning seasons can last almost 60 episodes, and I am seated for every single one.

What has always felt fun about the U.K. version as a Mexican American living in the U.S. is the anthropological nature of watching the dating rituals of spray-tanned fame seekers from a country and cultures outside my own. However, while watching the U.S. version, which ended on Sunday with the crowning of Hannah Wright and Marco Donatelli, I became quietly distraught and simultaneously mesmerized beyond my wildest expectations.

Over the course of the season’s 37 episodes, several Latinos came through delivering big tóxico energy that felt extremely familiar.

I watched 22-year-old Kassy Castillo, a student from Texas with major Cookie Monster pajama girl energy, lob F-bombs in her raspy voice at Leo Dionicio, a gorgeous 21-year-old Dominican salesman who professed his love for her. Then two days later Leo had sex with Johnnie Garcia in the shared bedroom with all the other contestants present. Upon arrival, Johnnie, an admin manager whose fun facts include breaking her nose twice, was dead set on landing Leo, only to have him drop her and beg for Kassy to take him back.

Then there was Kenzo Nudo, a videographer living in Scottsdale, Ariz., who’s originally from Puerto Vallarta, who falls madly in love with Carmen Kocourek, a sweet-faced blond gym rat who also lives in Scottsdale. Kenzo admonishes and essentially slut shames Carmen for her participation in a “heart rate challenge” that requires all contestants to perform lap dances in order to raise their fellow contestants’ pulses.

After watching this all play out, I experienced war flashbacks of girls I knew in high school and moments of machista B.S. that I have worked to eradicate from my life through the power of therapy. And I wasn’t alone in that recognition.


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“I grew up watching telenovelas with my grandma,” says Kayla Noonen, a “Love Island” fan from Irvine who works in cannabis. “I felt like these characters, especially the ‘Love Island’ ones, are almost a telenovela trope, especially what was happening between Leo, Kassy and Johnnie.”

For me, Kassy was the embodiment of so many girls I grew up with in south San Diego. So much so that I immediately Googled to see where she was from. This is all to say I would die for Kassy.

“With Kenzo we saw one side of machista culture; possessiveness with a hint of purity culture,” explains producer and host Kat Lazo. “Kenzo was the only one to go into the challenge with a different expectation for how his girl was supposed to act. This social assumption that his girlfriend wouldn’t fully participate in the game as a sign of ‘respect’ for their relationship was something that was also co-signed by the other Latino on the show, Leo.”

Yes, the Leo who cheated after only two days of being away from the partner whom he recently professed his love to.

Was it surprising that Kenzo took issue with it? Not really. We all have plenty of stories of the same treatment, either experienced firsthand or by the many women in our lives burdened by the weight of machismo.

“There is something to seeing that toxic, Hispanic man trope play out on TV,” says Valentina Ramirez-Cruz, co-host of the “Love Island”-themed podcast “Villa Birds.” “Like, what is it particularly that allows for Latino men to be so comfortable when it comes to lying and cheating,” she adds with a laugh. “I mean, it has to be the machismo.”


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Before Latino men start filling the comments section, obviously not all Latino men cheat and lie. But the stereotype does exist, and there are still plenty of Latino men who fall into it.

It’s long inherited, even though there’s a growing sea change within our culture that’s prompting men to be better with regard to machismo and misogyny, and women to address the ways they reinforce and perpetuate it.

“With Leo, we saw the other side of machista culture, the playboy. What is there to say but that we’ve all interacted or know a Leo,” says Lazo. “I’ve been guilty of entertaining men like Leo in my past; they’re smooth, they’re good looking and they know it.”

Having feelings for multiple people isn’t wrong. However, as Lazo points out, what makes things toxic is when you haven’t assessed and processed your own feelings first before acting on them. Therein lies Leo’s mistake.

“In the case of Leo and Kassy, we have the classic story of a man growing at the expense of women’s emotional well-being,” she says. “Kassy and Johnnie had to get hurt in order for Leo to ‘evolve’ into a ‘better man.’ It’s so quintessential ‘Latino man culture’ to have high respect for women the way Leo does for his mom but also disregard the emotional well-being of women, [as is the case with] Kassy and Johnnie.”

Even with all this, we watched. We ate it up. Lazo, Ramirez-Cruz and Noonen each mentioned how much they love the show and the absolute mess that was this season. That doesn’t mean co-signing the behavior but it’s essentially watching chisme happening in real time with the added bonus of understanding the cultural context behind contestants’ completely idiotic, often problematic decisions.


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While so much of it feels like a Latinx thing, it’s important to remember this is also a larger issue of modern dating culture and what reality TV is all about.

“The environment of ‘Love Island’ is about exploring your options and not really caring about screwing over other people,” says Noonen. “So it comes down to this embodiment of being toxic. People can really swing into that. Sometimes people go too far because it’s been rewarded on these shows, right? You get liked for being scandalous.”

Still, there’s the familiarity we know and can laugh at, because in the context of reality TV as opposed to actual real life, it’s fun. Ultimately Hannah, who is Mexican and Black, did win after having a sweet, mostly bump-free journey on the show. And yet, all we could talk about were the messiest of the bunch.

That’s what we come to “Love Island” for. That’s what we go to the group chat for. And that’s where I want it to stay.

Alex Zaragoza is a television writer and journalist covering culture and identity. Her work has appeared in Vice, NPR, O Magazine and Rolling Stone. She’s written on the series “Primo” and “Lopez v. Lopez.” She writes weekly for De Los.