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One Day at a Time’s Justina Machado on screenwriters’ biggest misconceptions about Latinos

“I have people that are not Latino arguing with me about what we’re like,” says the star of the terrific Netflix sitcom.

One Day at a Time
Justina Machado is giving one of TV’s best performances on One Day at a Time.
Mike Yarish/Netflix
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Justina Machado has a great laugh, one she uses to punctuate just about everything she says, no matter how serious the topic she’s discussing. She found the humorous side — or even the outright joke — of every question I asked her as we recorded the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.

Machado, a Chicago native, is giving one of TV’s best performances as Penelope Alvarez, the single mother, combat veteran, and stressed-out student who anchors Netflix’s wonderful, slightly miraculous One Day at a Time. The series, a remake of the 1970s shows of the same name, has updated its “single mother with two kids trying to make it” story for the 2010s, but it’s also become almost accidentally political with its tale of a Cuban-American family trying to navigate Donald Trump’s America.

Indeed, the first season, which dealt with one character’s parents being deported, among other now-pressing issues, was written, produced, and aired in the Obama era (albeit at the very tail end of it). One Day at a Time isn’t a show that starts from a place of topicality. It starts from a story about this one family and then tries to figure out how that family would navigate the world we all live in.

Machado’s career has spanned everything from ER’s landmark 1997 live episode to a regular role on Six Feet Under to a short-lived sitcom starring Arsenio Hall. And even in a career as successful as hers, she’s still been asked to play “the Latina character” far too often. So I wanted to know where she has typically drawn the line when it comes to accepting roles that might hew toward stereotypes.

Her answer was fascinating, and it led to other rich terrain, so I’ve transcribed this section of our conversation here, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff

Early in your career, when you were just starting to break in, what were roles you either didn’t want to take or felt like they were parts that were written for you where the person had no idea what your life was like?

Justina Machado

Well, I’ve always said no to things. Not even no to offers — I’ve said that. But even when I first started, if it was an audition I thought was ridiculous, I was like, “I’m not going in on that.” You know why? Because I grew up with no money, so I was like, “All right.” [Laughs.] Now it’s a different story. Now I’d be like, “Oh, god!” Before, it was, “Whatever.”

I would never have a problem playing a prostitute or a gangbanger if there was an arc. If there was an actual story to this person. It didn’t even have to be redemption, but an actual story. To me, if the character that they presented to me had no story, I didn’t even want to go in. And I didn’t play gangbangers. I didn’t play any of those things. I don’t know why. That never really happened.

What I did do was another thing that they put Latin women in, the suffering mother. It doesn’t matter how old you are. You can look 2 and they’re gonna make you a mom. [Laughs.] If you watch Six Feet Under, I was 27, 28 years old. I look like a baby. Freddy [Rodriguez] and I look like babies, but we had two kids. Even though that was one of the greatest shows. That was another show that was incredibly respectful of Freddy and I. [Creator and showrunner] Alan Ball worked with us, and if we thought anything was a stereotype or disrespectful, Alan Ball and [producer and director] Alan Poul took it right out.

But still. The suffering mother. The asexual cop. Or the oversexualized woman. I played a lot of those — they’re still all stereotypes. But I played a lot of suffering mothers, and I didn’t realize they were suffering mothers until I looked back at my career. I thought it was awesome because it was so dramatic, and now that I look back at it, I’m like, “Oh, I was crying a lot.”

Of course, when I was [starting out] in Chicago, there wasn’t a lot shooting back then in Chicago. And if I got a little part here or there, I remember twice I played the girlfriend of a gangbanger who got killed. That was me getting into the business. But once I got to LA and started to see things and realize things, I started to make decisions based on character. I did not want to play those roles, and I didn’t.

Todd VanDerWerff

A lot of entertainment has been written by white men and catered toward white men, and that’s why you see roles like the suffering mother come up. You think about your mom and think, “Oh, my mom cried all the time,” or whatever. But there are suffering mothers. As an actor, as someone who reads a lot of material, what is the way that we tell these stories about people who do exist, in ways that are not stereotypical — how do we tell stories about the suffering mother, about the prostitute, about the gangbanger, in ways that don’t stereotype them but try to capture the reality of that situation?

Justina Machado

The person who’s writing it has to do some research. The person who’s writing it has to know somebody, has to talk to somebody. He can’t just pick from little spots he’s seen on the news, or what they think these people are. To me, that’s pure laziness, to write characters like that. It’s ridiculous at this point.

The writer has a responsibility to know what he or she is writing about. Otherwise, it’s just fluff, unless they’re writing about themselves and what they know. But if they’re going to tell my story, they’d better talk to me. And they’d better be part of my world and try to understand and go at it from that point of view. And don’t argue with me about what we’re like. You know how many times I’ve come across that? We’re on a show, and I have people that are not Latino arguing with me about what we’re like. That’s crazy.

Don’t be so narrow-minded and think you know it all. As a white man, you’ve been the lion of the jungle for a long time. [laughs] You don’t know it all. We’re all learning from each other. Like, I wouldn’t know how to tell your story. I wouldn’t know how to tell even a story of a South Side Irish person from Chicago — and I’m from Chicago. But I wouldn’t be, like, “Yeah, I know that story.” No, I don’t know that story. We have to be able to know that we don’t know things. We have to ask questions and not make assumptions of what we think these people are like.

Todd VanDerWerff

What’s the misconception when you’re reading parts, or when you’re seeing other people play parts, about Latino communities you would love to see most go away?

Justina Machado

Accents. Get rid of that crap already. We’ve been here for a while. There are some of us who haven’t, but there are some of us who have, but [adopts heavy accent] we don’t have to talk like this. You don’t have to tell me that I have to come in with an accent. [drops accent] It’s ridiculous.

Accents and also throwing in Spanish for the hell of it. [laughs] I cannot tell you what that does to me. And you know why? Because people think it’s funny when someone goes off in Spanish. And yeah, it might sound funny, because you don’t know what they’re saying, and it sounds like [trills R] that. But that’s offensive. If it’s not there for a reason, it’s offensive.

And also, don’t think that we’re all the same. Like I said, we don’t all have the same immigration story. We don’t all have that same story. If you’re not going to write it well, don’t write it. We don’t need it. We’ll do something ourselves.

For much more with Machado, including her memories of the ER live episode, her thoughts on working with Rita Moreno, and the story of her worst night onstage (it involves stitches), listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.