It wasn’t until my dad passed away that mom had friends, and perhaps because of this she’s referred to his death as the best thing that’s ever happened to her. “La verdad,” she once told me. “Me sienta la vida de viuda. Me siento libre.”
This was not easy for me or any of my siblings to hear, but I may be the only one who understood why she said it.
While my dad was a strong, loving and supportive father, he was also a controlling husband.
Since his passing, my mom’s intense anxiety attacks that led to her body temporarily stiffening in a stroke-like way basically went away, she goes on vacation every couple of months and, most importantly, she has friends. Friends she hangs out with and gossips with without my dad power calling her every 30 minutes to see when she’s coming home to make dinner. Friends he didn’t continuously blast, making my mom feel like she couldn’t hang out with them without having problems with him.
Now she has her friends though, and she’s happier than I’ve ever seen her. It makes my dad’s passing a strangely bittersweet thing.
In Latino culture, we’re taught early on to prioritize our relationships over our friendships. It’s evident in pop culture, which seems to reinforce this notion.
CREDIT: Orange is the New Black/Netflix
I recently read an awesome piece in Vogue, written by Kellee Terrell, on Why it’s Important to Show Black Female Friendship on TV. Terrell writes about how the HBO series “Insecure” is so meaningful as it portrays funny-as-hell black women as more than just the sassy sidekick. They characters are complex with the same career and life struggles as anyone else, and they rely on each other for love, support and the occasional wine down. As a Mexican-American woman, I love the show for that same reason.
Latinas are rarely portrayed on television and film within our friendships. Currently we have “Orange Is The New Black,” which shows the Latinas of Litchfield Penitentiary supporting each other through incarceration, a forbidden affair with a guard that leads to a baby, fighting for kitchen dominance, proclaiming their love of The Smiths and other ways. They brawl and bawl with each other and against others, and through flashbacks we can see who they were before they were trapped behind prison walls.
OITNB is perhaps the most important show on television in its portrayal of Latinas because it highlights a side of our experience that’s rarely shown importance: our friendships.
CREDIT: Orange is the New Black/Netflix
It doesn’t stick to the stories of the men in their life, because there’s a lot more to worry about in prison. It’s also telling that the best example we could find of strong Latina friendships is one where the cast is almost devoid of male characters.
If we’re to believe TV and movies, our experience is often relegated to love triangles and catfighting over guys. Most shows that center on a Latina character would fail the Bechdel Test, which asks viewers to check for three criteria in film and TV: 1) does the show/movie have two women in it? 2) Do they women talk to one another? 3) Do they ever talk about about something other than a man?
This leads me to ask: does this reflect our culture? As Latinas, are we taught that our lives should revolve around men, and that our friendships don’t matter as much? And, most importantly, should that be the case?
Spoiler alert: I do not believe that should be the case, but read on for reasons why.
Racking my brain for examples of Latino-centric shows and movies in general was tough as there is a severe lack of our stories in Hollywood. So coming up with examples of when female Latina friendships took center stage or even shared the stage with a romance was even harder.
While “Jane the Virgin” showcases the title character’s close relationship to her mom and abuela, especially as she navigates motherhood, Jane’s storylines mostly revolve around the drama that is her love life. Watching the show I’m constantly asking “Where are your homegirls, Jane?”
CREDIT: Jane the Virgin/The CW
I’m just saying, if I was accidentally artificially inseminated with some fine-ass hotelier’s sperm even though I was engaged to a white boy detective, I’d be texting my friends STAT “Ey, some shit went down. Emergency lady hang tonight plz?” And I know I’d get a response within a minute that read “Oh shit! Ok let’s do my place, I just bought wine. Should we get snacks?”
The story arch involving Jane (played by Gina Rodriguez) and her best friend Lina (played by Diane Guerrero, who also plays Maritza on “Orange Is The New Black”) over the course of the show revolves around bad friend moves on Jane’s part and the two questioning whether they can even be friends since Jane is so wrapped up with the men in her life and her baby. There’s moments of sweetness between the two, but it’s obvious Jane’s friendship with Lina is not seen as important as her romantic entanglements by the writers. The friendship as a whole is mostly forgotten until someone in the writer’s room remembers it’s a thing.
A quick poll: how often have you had a Latina friend drop you when she got a boyfriend? How often have you been guilty of doing the same thing?
I never forget my best friend in ninth grade telling me we couldn’t hang out anymore because she now had a boyfriend and would need to spend her time with him. When I said that was dumb, she accused me of being jealous. Both things hurt, and our friendship never recovered.
CREDIT: Jane the Virgin/The CW
Over the years other friends wouldn’t explicitly say this but would drop from the face of the earth as soon as they got a man. And for the most part we shrug because that’s just what happens. We also talk a little shit, let’s be honest. Once they’re single again, though, they run back into their girls’ arms, and even if we were annoyed we take them back. And then they get a man again and the cycle starts all over.
Pop culture, and Latino culture, tells us that our lives are more interesting when they revolve around men, so it’s not a surprise that this is what we see on TV and in movies. But that’s a dangerous card to play as it tells women that their worth is measured by their ability to get a man and tells them it’s okay when their life is controlled by the presence of a man.
Which reminds me, let’s talk about that other troublesome aspect of Latinas and relationships: the idea of permission and when our partners are empowered to take the role of our watcher.
In the episode “Chapter 60” of “Jane the Virgin, Fabian asks Jane out, but only after asking permission from her dad first. This is portrayed as a romantic gesture. But, uh, isn’t Jane an independent adult woman with a child? Her date doesn’t need to ask her dad if it’s chill if he asks her out.
Pushing a lack of autonomy onto women is a problem because it leads men to believe they can control women’s choices and actions, even while hidden under the guise of protection or romance.
Also, raise your hand if you’ve been getting ready to go out with your girls and a friend or family member said “Oh, Juan lets you do that?” or “Did Juan say it was ok?” Juan might be your boyfriend or your husband, but why is he your watcher?
There’s a big difference between considering or informing a partner if you have plans with your friends, and asking them for permission.
Again, men are too easily given power over a Latina’s life, and that’s especially evident when it comes to our relationships with our friends. And when we see this romanticized or normalized over and over on TV and movies, it reinforces the idea that it’s okay to control us. It makes them think we need it.
There is no way I could deal with the issues Jane has without my friends having my back, pouring the margaritas and just being there to support. But also, there is no way I’d be happy not doing that for my girlfriends. Friendship is a two-way street. And there is no way in hell I need to ask permission to hang with my girls, especially when they need me or I need them.
Telenovelas aren’t much better at portraying female Latina friendship.
CREDIT: Amigas y Rivales/ Canal de las Estrellas
Protagonists are usually seen caught in a bitter love triangle, fighting their friends or enemies for a man’s affection, competing against their friends, generally suffering over love and having nearly no one to talk to about it other than a family member, a sirvienta who serves as a pseudo parent and confidant, or a friend whose sole function is to listen to protagonist’s problems, then I assume go back into a dark cupboard where they stare into a wall thinking of compliments to pay their BFF. There was literally a novela called “Amigas y Rivales,” because apparently amigas can’t help but hate on each other and try to snake each other’s dudes?
And as we all know, telenovelas always end with a wedding, because that’s when our female protagonist truly has it all.
Not only is this unrealistic, it’s problematic. Female friendships should be given the same amount of importance as our romantic relationships, and it’s time pop culture reflected that so as to end this tired trope both on and off screen. Any woman who’s been married or in a relationship knows that shits not easy, and you need your girlfriends to laugh with, complain with and talk to about everything that affects our lives, which, yes, may include men and love. But that’s not necessarily our default. We are more than the sum of the men and drama in our life.
Shouldn’t the happily ever after of a Latina include her girls?
CREDIT: Mi Vida Loca/HBO Films
I look to the classic cult film that centered specifically on Chicana friendship, “Mi Vida Loca.” Sad Girl and Mousie were unbreakable best friends, sticking by each other and their gang. Until, of course, their friendship crumbles when Mousie sleeps with Sad Girl’s boyfriend, and gets pregnant. While this plays into the whole idea that women can’t be friends without trying to bang each other’s man (another tired trope), in the end the two friends stick by each other. The film’s lesson was to show these young women as warriors and survivors, as well as sisters. Because girls it ain’t easy, but it’s a bit easier when you have good friends on your side. They’re happily ever after was about each other.
I truly believe that had my mom had her friends while my dad was alive, she would have been happier then and not see his death as freedom. He might have even been happier, because a strong friendship between women has the positive side effect of making your romantic relationships stronger. Your girls got your back, can tell you when you’re being unreasonable and can have the wine ready when life gets hard.
It’s time pop culture reflects that for Latinos.