Long before “representation,” “inclusion” and “diversity” became Hollywood buzzwords, there was one show that had it all: “Ugly Betty.”
The ABC dramedy, adapted by Silvio Horta from a Colombian series, “Yo Soy Betty, La Fea,” premiered in 2006, and immediately drew a sharp contrast with the likes of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.” “Ugly Betty” wasn’t a complicated mystery or flashy potboiler — it was simply the story of a young Latina named Betty (America Ferrera) and the family that supported her as she chased her dreams working at a glossy fashion magazine.
Watching it as a twentysomething in 2006, I finally got to see a story about someone who looked like me, who had a family like mine, and who was given the story so few women of color get — the chance not only to chase our dreams but also to achieve them.
“Betty is a testament to the American Dream, and the American Dream is, in fact, alive and well, and within reach of anyone in the world who wants it,” Horta, who was found dead in a Miami hotel room Tuesday in an apparent suicide, said upon accepting the Golden Globe for comedy series for “Ugly Betty” in 2007. That dream has always been painted with the brush of white, middle-class Americans, excluding those of us who are defined by the word placed in front of our American status: Latin American, African American, Muslim American and others.
Before “Ugly Betty,” there had never been a Latino family on TV simply existing — living regular, working-class lives. The Suarez family wasn’t stereotypical or caricatured; their Latino-ness wasn’t exaggerated. And Betty herself reflected what many children of immigrants could, and can, relate to: living a life between two worlds.
As a first-generation Latina, I remember watching Betty trying to hold on to her culture as she stepped into a world that told her she didn’t belong.
In the pilot episode, she wears a big, colorful poncho with the word “Guadalajara” splashed across the front as she steps into the glam Mode Magazine offices. I immediately recalled the ponchos my mom would make my sister and me wear to school, and how much I hated it.
Instead of changing herself, Betty shone brightly. She had romances and was desired. She had opinions and thoughts. She was multidimensional and loved.
Truth be told, growing up I turned away from anything that highlighted how different my family was. I was the first child born in the United States to a family that had only immigrated seven years prior. Growing up between two worlds, I never felt like I quite belonged to either, and I was desperate to fit in with my peers. I rarely had friends over because I didn’t want to explain the Peruvian llama throws, what papa a la huancaina was, or why Incan Tumis were hanging all over our home.
But Horta, who was Cuban American, added little pieces of Betty’s heritage everywhere. Small things — like how Betty’s dad, Ignacio (Tony Plana), watched novelas every night on the only TV in the apartment — reminded me of all the evenings I would sit with my abuela and mom, watching a novela and listening as they commented back and forth on what was going on. The Mexican throw on the couch in the Suarez family’s living room took me back to the Peruvian flags scattered around my childhood home. I truly believe if there had been more shows like “Ugly Betty” when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have felt like an outsider in my own country — and might have had more confidence in myself, like Betty.
As a teenager, I remember being told that my full eyebrows should be waxed off — so that they would grow back thinner. A saleswoman at a beauty counter once advised me never to wear red lipstick because it just didn’t look right on a “Spanish” girl. I took these messages home and would study myself in the mirror, wishing I looked more like the white cover models on my favorite magazine, my confidence and self-esteem chipped away every day I set foot outside.
Despite constantly being told she wasn’t enough and being consistently underestimated, Betty was confident and always stayed true to herself. In pop culture, women of color aren’t typically allowed to be confident — and if they are, they’re seen as vain or conceited or anything but just secure in themselves. In Betty’s case, her looks and weight were always a target in the ultra-white world of fashion magazines, but instead of changing herself, she shone brightly, stood out and became an essential part of what made the magazine work. She had romances and was desired. She had opinions and thoughts. She was multidimensional and loved. Such messages are still important for young Latinas to see, and not merely because Westernized standards of beauty shouldn’t be the lens through which all women are viewed.
As “Ugly Betty” taught us — in Horta’s lasting gift to the Latinx community — loving who you are means owning who you are: your culture, your background, your family and your dreams, all the little pieces that make you you.