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Over the past couple of decades, depictions of Latino characters have become more frequent in popular media, from Sofía Vergara’s portrayal of Gloria, the Colombian-born wife of the family patriarch on ABC’s uber-successful sitcom “Modern Family,” to Michael Peña’s portrayal of Ponch, an undercover FBI agent in the 2017 feature film reboot of the TV series “CHiPS.”
But just because we’re seeing more Latinos on screen and in popular culture doesn’t mean they’re being represented well. Vergara’s Gloria is hot-headed and has trouble speaking English, and Peña’s Ponch is hypersexualized, both noted stereotypes of the Latino population.
“Are we being asked to laugh with Gloria or are we being asked to laugh at Gloria?” asked Frederick Aldama of an audience of students who had gathered for a lecture he gave Wednesday afternoon at Arizona State University titled “Real and Reel Latinx Lives Matter.”
“Because there’s a big difference, right?” he said. “When the writers are asking us to laugh at her and we’ve never had the chance to laugh with her, it’s a problem.”
Aldama, Distinguished University Professor at The Ohio State University, is an award-winning author known as much for his imaginative comics that tell authentic stories of Latino life as for his scholarly work to advance the field of Latino studies.
“He represents the highest pinnacle of innovation in Latino studies at the present moment, and as we know, ASU is all about innovation,” said David William Foster, Regents Professor of Spanish at ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures, when he introduced Aldama on Wednesday.
Though they make up about 18% of the current U.S. population and are growing at a rate of about four times faster than any other demographic in the country, Hispanics and Latinos only see about 2% representation in media, Aldama said. What’s worse, when they are depicted, it’s often as one of a handful of negative stereotypes, ranging from hot-headed to oversexed to cowardly to criminal.
“This stuff should drive you nuts,” Aldama told the crowd.
His visit to ASU’s Tempe campus came midway through Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.
“This country is so good at erasing histories that are inconvenient to them,” said Aldama, who founded the Obama White House award-winning LASER: Latinx Space for Enrichment and Research. “We get one month out of the year, so we might as well have fun.”
Aldama grew up during the 1970s in California, when he remembers being punished for speaking Spanish or speaking English with a Spanish accent.
“It (knowledge of the Spanish language) became something we coveted but publicly were ashamed of,” he said.
Aldama’s father was a civil rights activist from Mexico City. His mother was of Irish and Guatemalan descent. As a teacher, she hoped to change the negative cultural view of Latinos, inspiring Aldama to focus on the subject as an undergrad at Berkeley, and later as a doctoral student at Stanford.
While studying media and pop culture, he said, “I wanted to know: What do they actually do in the world? Are they just entertainment? Are they more than entertainment? How do they transform audiences to act in the world? … What is pop culture studies? Why even bother? Because this stuff matters. … Media matters because it does act on us and it does change things; our ideas about people.”
When Aldama asked the crowd to name a Latino story or character they’d seen depicted in the media recently, the first two responses were “Jane the Virgin,” a satirical telenovela, and “Hustlers,” a 2019 film about the lives of exotic dancers that includes Jennifer Lopez among its cast.
“OK, so we have the virgin and the whore,” Aldama said. “Is that all we’re getting? I don’t know, I think we can do better.”
He said that doing better means putting Latinos behind the camera — writing, editing and directing — not just in front of the camera, so that more accurate, positive stories can be told.
“One Day at a Time,” a web series documenting the ups-and-downs experienced by a family of Cuban Americans, is a good example of that, he said, as is the 2014 film “The Book of Life.”
“What I love about this movie is, guess who (the) primary audience is? It’s you guys,” Aldama told the majority Hispanic and Latino students gathered to hear him speak.
Despite much of his lecture being focused on screen media, Aldama’s “big passion” is comic books.
“This is where we’re really going nuts,” he said, noting that “Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life,” the memoir of an undocumented immigrant by Alberto Ledesma, was recently chosen as required reading for freshmen attending California State University, Northridge. Aldama also gave props to Gabby Rivera’s “America Chavez,” published by superhero powerhouse Marvel Comics.
“Marvel is finally getting it; getting that we need Latinx’s … telling our stories,” he said.
Aldama himself has contributed to the genre with such comics as “Dora,” a story told from the perspective of a young girl detained in what he referred to as the “concentration camps” at the U.S.-Mexico border. His most recent endeavor is the children’s book “The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie,” a second-generation vegan chupacabra, set to publish in January of 2020.
“When we go to the library, we don’t see our stories,” Aldama said. “I want to make sure we’re not just thinking and teaching and studying this stuff. I want to be putting this stuff out in the world.”
In 2015 Aldama founded SOL-CON: The Brown and Black Comix Expo at The Ohio State University as a space where brown and black comic artists and animators can come together with students, indie comics, exhibitors and industry insiders to tell their own stories.
At his talk on Wednesday, health sciences senior Christine Otaluka asked Aldama what he thought about Afro-Latin American representation, noting how actor Jharrel Jerome, who portrayed the African American man Korey Wise in the Netflix drama “When They See Us,” identifies as Afro-Latin American but is only being recognized by the media as African American.
Aldama agreed that a better understanding of intersecting and multicultural identities is much needed in popular media, citing his graduate student Danielle Orozco's piece for “Latinx Spaces” titled “Race and Alien Face: The Other-Worldly Roles of Zoe Saldana” as acknowledgement of that.
“It’s an area that needs work, but we also need to raise awareness about it within our own communities,” he said.
Top photo: The Ohio State University Distinguished University Professor Frederick Aldama delivers a lecture titled "Real and Reel Latinx Lives Matter" at the Memorial Union on ASU's Tempe campus, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now