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Television

TV has a new kind of heroine: The Latina genius. Here’s why it matters

Tess Romero from left, Isabella Gómez, Sierra Capri and Paulina Chávez.
Tess Romero, left, in “Diary of a Future President”; Isabella Gómez in “One Day at a Time”; Sierra Capri in “On My Block”; and Paulina Chávez in “The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia.”
(Disney+ / Netflix / Netflix / Netflix)

The new year has already given viewers not one but two TV shows featuring Latina leads. On Feb. 17, Netflix premiered “The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia,” a sitcom about a Mexican American genius who, at 15, already has her PhD and works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Since last month, Disney+ has released weekly episodes of its new series “Diary of a Future President,” which travels back to the formative years of a Cuban American girl in Miami who will grow up to become president.

Similarly, Monse Finnie (Sierra Capri) of Netflix’s “On My Block” (which returns March 11) is portrayed as the most studious of her friends: Early in the show’s first episode, the young Afro-Latina character goes away to a prestigious writing camp and later, when she discovers her estranged mom is a writer, she connects with her as an aspiring author.

Elena Alvarez (Isabella Gómez), of Pop TV’s “One Day at a Time” (March 24) is a top student, champion debater and outspoken activist who’s dating a nonbinary partner who shares a mutual love of “Doctor Who.”

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It’s a sudden growth spurt of on-screen representation for Latinas, a vastly underrepresented group in both TV shows and movies. Most notably, they’re shows built around a specific kind of Latina, one who’s gifted beyond her years and appears destined for greatness. Ashley and Elena are wildly talented students — geniuses, even — in ways Latinas haven’t been portrayed before.

As recently as the mid-1990s, “The Bell Curve” argued that black and Latino children were less intelligent than their white counterparts.

That bias can be found in previous shows about child prodigies such as “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” and “Young Sheldon,” which center the adventures of very smart white boys, with few alternatives featuring black and Latino characters.

Growing up, I was used to being the only Latina in an AP class, the odd 14-year-old who dreamed of going away to college and the weird sixth-grader who asked her mom to buy a first-aid book because she wanted to start learning everything she would need to become a doctor. I relate strongly to these characters in ways I never thought I’d see on any screen.

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In “Diary of a Future President,” Elena Cañero-Reed (Tess Romero) is a type-A, straight-A student whose dedication to school has already cost her a close friend who doesn’t want to appear uncool. She often leans on her mother (Selenis Leyva) for advice and sometimes precociously tries to advise her back.

She faces the same problems any sixth-grader faces, only she usually thinks her way through them — with varying results. In her series, Ashley Garcia (Paulina Chávez) is a wunderkind who’s forgotten what it’s like to act like a child, to work among peers her own age and nurse a crush on a football player.

Her social awkwardness is often a punchline on the “The Expanding Universe,” but it’s balanced out by her uncle’s (Jencarlos Canela) own, fairly normal foibles.

Both of these young Latinas are unapologetically ambitious, and when they are made to feel bad about their book smarts or talents, they eventually learn to stand up for themselves. Both Elena and Ashley count on friends to get them through tough spots, and both are close to their families — even if they’re a little rebellious from time to time.

In essence, they’re part of the long tradition of plucky heroines in YA adventures, except now they’re allowed to keep their cultural identities intact, not whitewashed. Where once Latina nerds or geeks were nonexistent on TV, they can now live as fully fledged characters, not just sidekicks or stereotypes.

America Ferrera as “Ugly Betty.”
America Ferrera in ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” a trailblazer for the recent wave of Latina geniuses on TV.
(ABC)

In a way, these new characters are the younger cousins of ambitious young women we’ve seen before, including Betty (American Ferrera) of “Ugly Betty” and Jane (Gina Rodriguez) in “Jane the Virgin” — both of whom have dreams that take them far beyond where they are when audiences first meet them.

From magazine editors and romance novelists to businesswomen (Starz’s “Vida”) and artists (Netflix’s new “Gentefied”), there’s already a trailblazing tradition of career-driven Latinas on TV — now, YA series are expanding those powerful images to include Latinas still coming of age.

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According to a recent study by USC Annenberg, only 3% of leading characters in the top 100 movies from 2007-18 were Latino. Many of these roles veered toward stereotype: Annenberg’s study found that Latinos are frequently depicted as poor, uneducated, criminal and/or stripped of any semblance of Latino culture.

Behind the camera, there was only one Latina director in over a decade of movies on the list, Patricia Riggen. There are few equivalent stats for TV, but the picture from the past few years is not much brighter.

Alongside timely, immigration-themed reboots of “Party of Five” and “Roswell, New Mexico” bubbly, aspirational shows such as “Diary of a Future President” and “The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia,” offer hope that TV of the future will finally look like its audience, and combat the hateful rhetoric that has been increasing across schools and playgrounds of late.

As years of research has shown through several Geena Davis Institute studies, young viewers are influenced by whom they see playing scientists or leaders on TV, meaning shows like this can inspire young Latinas to take on STEM classes or leadership roles, as well as help other kids accept Latinas in these advanced classes and groups.

The only drawback is that these characters can sometimes feel like an over-correction to decades of erasure and stereotypes. They can feel so perfect that they’re no longer relatable.

In the case of “The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia,” its title character is the only smart Latina in the cast, aside from her sociologist mother (Cristela Alonzo) — who plays more of a supporting role in the show.

It can feel tokenizing to have only one bright Latina, especially if the show never explores whether Ashley ever feels isolated by that experience.

There are, of course, countless experiences for Latinas to share. They don’t have to be NASA-level geniuses or future presidents for their stories to matter; they can deal with the drama of their peers and obsess about their favorite TV shows like other kids their age.

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Still, it’s exciting to watch these brilliant Latina characters and their potential to inspire young audiences. Until recently, it was so rare to see any Latinx character whose strength lay in her or his smarts — I even wish Ashley’s doctorate-wielding mom was more central to the show, as a nod to the generations of smart Latinas who never saw their experiences on TV.

After all, Latinas like her have always been a part of our communities. It’s television that’s just starting to catch up.


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