“What the hell is a Latinx?” has got to be my favorite quote among many from Lydia Riera, Rita Moreno’s character on Netflix’s modern interpretation of the sitcom One Day at a Time. Lydia is the lovable yet problematic abuelita who constantly tests our wokeness.
If we as a new generation of woke Latinx folks cannot break down things like queerness, the meaning of words like “Latinx,” and the ingrained colorism and anti-Blackness that run deep in this community to our families, we are doing wokeness wrong.
Netflix got so much right with One Day at a Time (ODAAT)—only to go in the wrong direction by canceling the show last week after three seasons. When I refer to what it got right, I’m not just talking about replacing the original’s white divorced mother of two teenaged daughters with a Latinx family in Los Angeles.
I’m talking about having us behind the screen; at the helm of this show is co-creator Gloria Calderón Kellett, who is Cuban American. Calderón Kellett has been very outspoken about the need to make TV more inclusive and in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times she said was tired of seeing Latinas portrayed the same way, mostly as the girlfriends or the sister of gang members.
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“It got to a point where I was, like, ‘What am I doing?’” Calderón Kellett said. “This is not the narrative I want to tell.”
Have you ever thought about why a show like Friends was a hit with white audiences? I have a feeling that having white creators and white writers who know the quirks of white life in New York City had something to do with its success. So it’s not that difficult to understand why having people of color like Calderón Kellett as a showrunner made people like me, a queer brown undocumented artist, binge watch the show every season.
It also helped that the show’s producers and actors were not scared to tackle ssues with humor and care. I never saw the original Norman Lear sitcom (which spanned much of the 1970s and 1980s), but the premise was vaguely similar to the reboot: a single mother balancing her career and taking care of her children. Oh, and they also had a Schneider, the nosy-ass neighborhood handyman. In the reboot, the family is Cuban, and one of the kids identifies as queer. Oh, and the fabulous Rita Moreno reinvents the meaning of an entrance!
The show also approached queerness in all its complexities. When single mother Penelope Alvarez, masterfully played by the amazing Justina Machado, is giving daughter Elena the sex talk during season one, Elena surprises her mother by saying that “when I think about love, I see myself someday loving a woman.” In the following episode titled “Pride & Prejudice,” Penelope is confronted with her own prejudices about Elena’s coming out.
“My daughter came out to me, and I am not totally OK with it,” a drunk Penelope confesses to a stranger at a gay bar. “And I hate myself for it.”
Like many of Penelope’s monologues throughout the series, this one made me a teary-eyed mess. It immediately took me back to 18-year-old me coming out to my mother. She gently confronted me about an old journal of mine she’d found from the ninth grade. She “accidentally” read a journal entry where I wrote about questioning my sexuality. I’m pretty sure she read the whole damn thing cover to cover.
While she hugged me and said she didn’t care that I might be gay, she later confessed that part of her was very scared for me. Her own brother had come out of the closet in the early ’90s, and she began to project their tumultuous relationship into my own queerness. I don’t have any idea what it’s like to have a child come out to you. Neither did my mom at the time. The fact that she embraced me and told me she loved me was enough.
But seeing Penelope’s struggle on One Day at a Time, I was reminded how little we see these parents and these kinds of exchanges in media. Penelope’s character represents mothers of color who confront their own biases about their children’s queerness while also being very loving. Too often, TV depictions are either-or when it comes to parents of color dealing with LGBTQ issues. When we do see complex characters of parents with LGBTQ children in major TV shows, they’re usually white. Just think about Michael’s super-supportive mother, Debbie, in Queer as Folk.
Until that episode with Penelope, I only had shows like Will & Grace and the few Queer as Folk episodes I’d secretly seen as a reference point to being a gay man. I literally had my finger on the “previous channel” button while devouring Queer as Folk due to its explicit gay sex scenes. While a part of me was being represented in these shows, this ODAAT episode truly reflected my own coming-out experience.
Was ODAAT a perfect show? I could have done with a little less of needy white boy Schneider and more about Carmen, Elena’s Daria-esque best friend whose undocumented family gets picked up at an immigration checkpoint. We never hear back from her in the following seasons. And while the show did explore the issue of colorism in the Latinx community, it could have done more to show how anti-Blackness runs amok in our community. If Issa Rae can address brown and Black tensions in Insecure, why can’t more non-Black Latinx creators tackle anti-Blackness in their shows?
While Will & Grace did not entirely represent my experiences as an undocumented and queer immigrant, it sparked a younger me to use art as a vehicle to tell my own story. In 2011, a couple of friends and I started a media collective called DreamersAdrift, and we developed a web series titled Undocumented & Awkward. In the series, we re-created the awkward moments that ensue when you are forced to reveal your status as an undocumented immigrant. Our biggest goal was to use humor as a vehicle to tell our stories as undocumented millennials. My cultural references were telenovelas, Saturday Night Live, and yup, Will & Grace. None of us were professional actors, but we were lucky to live in a time where you could create your own content. And we did. The fact that some of our episodes got up to 15,000 views showed us that there is a hunger for new ways to tell stories of undocumented immigrants.
Part of me is very pissed off that Netflix is saying that low viewership prompted the cancelation. Numbers shouldn’t be the primary measure of success for One Day at a Time. Hollywood—pushed by online movements such as April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite and the successes of Crazy Rich Asians and basically everything that Shonda Rhimes puts her name on—is just now coming around the idea that our culture benefits from people of color being in front and behind the big and small screen.
And numbers haven’t always been a consideration when it comes to “mainstream” shows. Back when Seinfeld was a hit with a young demographic, a 1992 Variety article said “some observers feel it doesn’t possess the same broad appeal as Cheers” and the show was getting “murdered” in the ratings for its time slot. Yet the show was allowed to grow and eventually became one of the most successful ’90s sitcoms. Why then can’t a show like ODAAT continue to grow and develop more of an audience? Is it very naive of me to think this is possible?
Show creators Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce turned to the internet for help with the hashtag #SaveODAAT and are still looking for a new home for the show. But that may not be anytime soon because, according to Deadline Hollywood, “there is a standard clause in virtually all deals for Netflix series from outside studios that prevents the shows from airing elsewhere for a significant period of time—said to be two to three years—after they are canceled by the internet network.”
Whether the #SaveODAAT campaign works or not, the show touched so many lives, and some folks in the Latinx community are feeling seen. I say “some folks” because the Alvarez family does not reflect every single Latinx story. But I know some kid is watching and is already plotting their own show.