I am sitting with my grandma on the couch, discussing a show’s rehearsal I was privy enough to watch. My grandma is the only person I really ever speak Spanish with, except for the occasional stranger who doesn’t understand English. But as I’m speaking, I’m realizing I don’t know how to say “rehearsal” in Spanish.
The word has escaped me. Or maybe it was never really there, as part of my Spanish lexicon. “¿Como se dice—I don’t know how to say this in Spanish!” Then, abrupt: “Ensayos. !Los ensayos!”
This is not the first time that’s happened, and it most certainly was not the last. There has been and there will be infinitely more instances when I can’t fully communicate with my grandma. Discussions I have with perfect strangers seem easier somehow; that’s all standard conversation—directions somewhere, what time it is, pleasantries and formalities. But the intimacy, and respect, too, within the dynamics of a familial relationship cause many barriers with our communication.
I have never seen that represented as strongly as I did in the pilot episode of Jane the Virgin: Jane’s grandmother, Alba, has found abortion pills. And she’s mad. Jane has lied about being a virgin this entire time. But, of course, Jane hasn’t lied. She was accidentally artificially inseminated by some man’s sperm—and trying to say all that in her second language is proving difficult. So, instead, she resorts to a weird game of charades.
I resonated with every second of it.
Well, not the inseminated part, of course. But the charades. How often I’ve contorted my body to represent an object, an animal, an emotion, a fleeting moment, even. How I’ve described around what I meant, so she may perhaps lead to it herself. Boils. How do I say boils? They’re like round, but misshapen, … things(?) on your body? Do you get it? If I cup my hand on my skin, will that make sense?
See, I am Jane Gloriana Villanueva. We all could be. But it helps that I’m Hispanic, can get type-A, that I live in Miami, that I’m a writer, that I lived lower-middle-class like she did, that my family is run by matriarchs. When the doctor told Jane her child was a boy during the finale and Xo said they know nothing about boys, my mom blurted the same: “That’s how I felt when you were born, Michael. I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about boys!'”
My mother is Xo, too. My mom loves to tell me how she thinks new parents get too dramatic with useless baby precautions. In the episode where Jane and Xo go to Lamaze class, the instructor says to all the expecting mothers, “Don’t let them take away your baby!” “Why would they take away the baby?” Jane asks, panicked. “Just to take his temperature, and then they give it back. This lady is being dramatic!” If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn my mom said those exact same words. I see my mom in Xo so often—that headstrong personality, and the actress’ New York accent, all blend into my mom’s New York accent and stubborn ways.
But I don’t say this all to mean that I’ve only connected to Jane and Jane the Virgin because of how much we’re alike. No, we’re very different. For one, Jane’s a woman; I am not. Jane is pregnant; if I ever get pregnant, I will be happy because I would be the richest person in the world for that phenomenon. Jane is in a love triangle; I don’t think that has or will ever happen to me. Jane had an unwittingly absentee father who turned out to be a telenovela star; my dad is a star, but privately to me and my sister.
What makes Jane the Virgin so special to me and my Hispanic-ness is that the Hispanic-ness is not a factor—until it is. “Colorblindness” doesn’t make way for progress, whether in society or in media. But when I get up in the morning, or when I see myself in the mirror, or when I have to explicitly describe myself, I can’t say that “Hispanic” is the first thing that comes to mind. Guy, brother, funny, strange, writer, son, American—so many more descriptors pop up first.
But, as with Jane and Jane the Virgin, that doesn’t mean it’s not in mind. Or that it doesn’t affect me. The way I communicate with older people in my family, as an example, just as Jane does. Growing up lower in the class system than my non-Hispanic white counterparts, statistically speaking, just as Jane did. And issues of immigration and documentation errors (or lack of documentation at all), which all seems like it would make my and Jane the Virgin’s Hispanic-ness so pervasive, but really is just a way of life.
For Jane and for me, our supposed otherness—our culture—informs our decisions, our ideologies, and our beliefs, but not with a conscious effort to think about that otherness. Sometimes, yes, but not 100 percent of the time.
That is what has made Jane the Virgin so groundbreaking, so relatable, and, if I can be frank, such a relief.
This past weekend, I saw Pitch Perfect 2. Actress Chrissie Fit plays Flo, a newcomer who is Guatemalan. All her lines refer to her being Guatemalan—she had diarrhea for seven years, she fled her country, that she will be deported once she graduates and could die. I’m not too sensitive; I am only tired. Too often Hispanic roles (or any minority roles) are just a result of that ethnicity—the pregnant teenager, the maid, the gang member whose culture is an excuse for his entire existence in that universe and that plot.
In real life, I know the pregnant teen, the maid, and, yes, even the person who fled their country in harsh conditions. All those factors, their Hispanic culture, it informs who they are. But it doesn’t decide who they are.
Nowhere else on television or in film is there such diversity in its own representation of diversity as there is with Jane the Virgin. There’s Alba who mainly speaks Spanish; Xo, the pregnant teen; Jane, the compulsive planner; Rafael, the rich playboy who doesn’t speak Spanish; there’s Luisa, who is gay, and spiritual, and a doctor; and there’s Michael, who is a police officer and who also doesn’t speak Spanish, and whose brother is wrapped up in bad business; Roman, who is evil; and there’s Rogelio, entitled and egotistic and kind. (They all represent different shades and races of being Hispanic, too.)
So often when I bring this up, people misunderstand and think what I yearn for is the perfect Hispanic character—they’re kind, they’re respectful, they have a fair upbringing, and they’re successful, flawless.
No. What I yearn for, and what Jane the Virgin has given the media landscape, is fully formed characters. Jane isn’t perfect. Like every human being, she’s flawed. She’s anxiety-ridden, she’s stubborn, she’s quick to judge (and she’s really judge-y, to boot). We could go through the entire cast of characters like this.
That is what Jane the Virgin has given me, and all Hispanics who watch. Beyond the callbacks to telenovelas we watched growing up, the chance to be represented as we see ourselves is its greatest gift. That it’s a compelling, funny, engrossing, and an all-around dang good show is just that much better.
A couple months ago, I sat with my sister talking about Jane the Virgin’s admittedly small ratings.
“Other people just won’t watch it because they can’t relate to it,” she said.
“I’ve been relating to ‘other people’ my entire life,” I said.
But with Jane the Virgin, I don’t have to try to relate so much. I connect with it in ways I have not before. And to me and my family, that kinship is transcendent.