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Orange Is the New Black's Latina characters are women we hardly ever see on television

Flaca from Orange Is the New Black
Flaca from Orange Is the New Black
Netflix

Six years ago, Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was speaking to students at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. He was telling them about what it was like for him to watch TV growing up, when there were no people that looked like him on television.

"You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There's this idea that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror," he said. "It's that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn't see myself reflected at all."

American television hasn't changed that much since Diaz gave that speech in 2009. Nonwhite characters are still few and far between, and the few minorities we see on mainstream television tend to fall into frustratingly simple stereotypical roles. Asian Americans on television are usually scientists or doctors. Black women, with the exception of Scandal's Kerry Washington, are largely nonexistent.

One of the rare slivers of a reflection that nonwhite people and, more specifically, nonwhite women, have is Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, whose third season was released on Thursday night.

Last season, the show focused on Litchfield's Latina clan: from the salty and business-like Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) to the Smiths-loving Flaca (Jackie Cruz) to the bank-robbing Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat/Stephanie Andjar). And in doing so, it has garnered praise for portraying the Latina American experience in a more thoughtful way than what we've seen in the past.

"I wouldn't say we go out of our way to represent a broad spectrum," writer and producer Nick Jones told me. "All we can do is try to make our characters as specific as possible, and emotionally genuine to what we perceive their situations to be, based on our experience as humans."

Flaca: a woman we never see on television

"Being on television — that was a dream that didn't look possible to me," Jackie Cruz, the actress who plays Orange's Flaca, told me during a phone interview. "Growing up, I don’t remember seeing a Latina."

Cruz is 28. Like a lot of '80s kids, she grew up on a steady diet of Mickey Mouse Club, Charles in Charge, Full House, and Saved by the Bell. And like a lot of '80s kids, she grew up watching American television without characters or stories she could relate to. It's what Diaz was talking about — the characters on television and the ethnic makeup of casts don't reflect what the audience looks like.

Today's television programs are slightly more diverse than the shows Cruz grew up with. The most visible and successful Latina on television right now is Sofia Vergara, who plays Gloria on the acclaimed television comedy Modern Family. But her role, as hilarious as it is, still revolves around being an angry, sexy Colombian with an accent.

"The show's been on for years, but her character hasn't developed," Alex Alvarez, a culture editor and digital producer for Fusion, a channel developed by Univision and ABC, said. "She's still a clumsy sexpot. It's not challenging." Modern Family has found that even with Vergara, the show isn't a hit with Latinos.

Even without the support of Latinos, this sexpot stereotype has been successful in Hollywood. Before Vergara, Eva Longoria's Gabrielle Solis in Desperate Housewives was the clumsy sexpot of network television. It could be argued that Longoria's Solis was a bit more advanced than Vergara — she didn't have an accent — but she still was overtly sexualized compared with her colleagues, and was portrayed as a gold digger on more than one occasion.

And both Desperate Housewives and Modern Family made it to their sixth season — two more than the run of Ugly Betty, which featured more nuanced Latino characters. And if Modern Family is renewed next year (it's pretty much a lock), it will surpass The George Lopez Show, which, like Betty, actually had a sizable Latino audience.

"Hollywood had a stereotype, and maybe I didn’t fit it correctly," Orange's Cruz said, explaining the roles seems to be limited to sexy girls, hookers, and girlfriends (there's actually a Modern Family episode where the running joke is that Gloria ran a brothel). That kind of typecasting made it hard for Cruz to find parts.

"[Orange creator] Jenji [Kohan] created someone like me," Cruz said. "Because there are people like me."

The character that Kohan brought to life is Marisol Gonzalez, a.k.a. Flaca — Litchfield's resident hipster. Flaca, with her heavy bangs and Amy Winehouse–like eyeliner, likes the Smiths more than reggaeton, dates a boy named Ian who rides a Vespa, and has a knack for copy-editing, which she displays when she volunteers to edit the prison's newsletter. And Cruz has carved out a place for herself and for Flaca in the show's second season, delivering nimble, airy humor while maintaining Flaca's keen edge.

Seeing a Latina who likes the Smiths on a critically acclaimed television show seems like a such small thing. And it might be hard to understand why Flaca's musical taste matters unless you've grown up watching television shows where no one looks like or behaves like you.

"I love Flaca's character," Alvarez said. "You don't get to see Latino characters that are into anything besides 'Latin' music like salsa or bachata. You don't really see [characters like Flaca] on television."

"I believe we’re making history. There has never been the show like ours. Little kids are watching," she said.

Cruz told that me she was at Disneyland recently and was mobbed by 10 or so fans, most of whom were young girls. She giggled when I pointed out that there may be some elements on the show that might not be suitable for kids.

"You know what I mean, " she said mid-laugh. "Orange has opened up the door for Latinas in Hollywood. My character is opening the door for other Latinas. And I’m excited about that. … They're proud of me. That's what makes me want to cry."

Practicing Santeria

One of the more powerful episodes in the second season is "Low Self-Esteem City," the fifth in this season. It's a spotlight on Gloria Mendoza, who runs the prison kitchen. It's the first time since Daya (Dascha Polanco) in the first season that we see a Latina character given the show's signature flashback spotlight. And in the episode, we're plunged into Mendoza's troubled past and Santeria's prominence in shaping it.

Santeria, a religion that combines the Yoruban religion with Catholicism and Christianity, originated in Cuba and is, well, difficult and complicated to explain. On television, you run the risk of cheapening it (like what has been done with Haitian Vodou).

"I have a daughter with a woman from Cuban descent, but I didn't grow up in that culture and don't even speak Spanish," Nick Jones, who wrote the episode and produced the show, told me. "I really felt a great responsibility to get the details right. None of us wanted to turn Santeria into some general multipurpose 'magic.' It's a real religion, and you have to respect that."

Jones started by visiting botanicas, places where you can find Santeria supplies, in the Los Angeles area. He also received a cleansing and tried to question the person administering it. "It was actually difficult to get people to talk with us at first, which only strengthened the idea that this was a subject to take seriously," he said.

The show eventually hired a Santero to consult on the show. That Santero received the blessing of his spiritual adviser. "Selenis, who plays Gloria, was also an invaluable resource," Jones said, adding, "Besides the Santeria, there were also details we tried to get right in terms of Puerto Rican versus Dominican idioms."

The result is a more well-rounded portrayal of the religion. Some responses were a bit flip, but for the portion of Orange's audience that's familiar with Santeria, the show seems to have done what it sought out to do: to portray the religion in a respectful and thoughtful light.

The little monsters

Despite the progress that Orange and shows like it have made, American television is still largely white. Nonwhite Americans make up around 37 percent of the population, but on television, and according to a study of the 2011-'12 television season from UCLA's Bunche Center for African American studies, nonwhites only represent 5.1 percent of the leads on broadcast television dramas and comedies. On cable, that number improves slightly to 14.7 percent— still way below what the US actually looks like.

And the number of nonwhite writers in the television industry, writers who could conceivably create and solidify roles for nonwhite actors that defy stereotypes, is still very low:

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These statistics highlight the importance of what Orange is doing and why Cruz and many of the show's fans say the show is changing history. And there are signs that the Americans television industry gets that it needs to start representing what Americans look like. Orange remains a standard.

"It's wonderful but actually kind of embarrassing that it is being praised for showing that a show can be diverse and still be a hit," Jones said, explaining that television should be better when it comes to reflecting minorities. "I mean, duh. America is diverse, but TV executives are slow to evolve. Netflix is a new breed, and they understand what is obvious to the rest of us."