The Female Gaze: “One Day at a Time” and Cuban-American representation

In Art, Arts & Entertainment, Film & TV
(Image courtesy of Netflix)

An Army veteran, a political refugee and a social justice advocate each forms her own distinct branch in the vivid Cuban-American family tree featured on Netflix’s new sitcom “One Day at a Time.” This reboot of the 1975-84 CBS television show offers fresh new perspectives by diving into Cuban culture and providing storylines that are astoundingly feminist.

Penelope Alvarez (played by Justina Machado) is a single mother raising her two children, Alex (played by Marcel Ruiz) and Elena (played by Isabella Gomez), with the endless help of her mother Lydia (played by Rita Moreno). Schneider (played by Pat Harrington Jr.) is no longer the building superintendent and ladies man with a mustache from the original show. Now he is a hipster landlord and ladies man (played by Todd Grinnell) with a fake mustache (that he takes off).

This sitcom features Cuban-American cultural flair and personal accounts of socio-political issues led by strong female characters.

Cal State Fullerton communications professor Vanessa Diaz, Ph.D., has researched Cuban culture and entertainment for 12 years and U.S. media for 10. Diaz said the changing political relationship between the United States and Cuba means that representations of Cubans have more weight than ever, but the growing attention to Cuban culture runs the risk of oversimplified portrayals.

Diaz said she has seen a few clips of “One Day at A Time,” and felt it shows the nuance of multigenerational Latino families and complexity, especially with Alvarez’s character.

Alvarez is a good mother and daughter, who is strong, funny and empowered.

“It feels like a more empowering kind of role than I think we typically think of as being allocated for Latina actors,” Diaz said.

Diaz said the oversexualized and heavily accented woman who stays at home is still the dominant media representation of Latinas. However, new platforms and shows have increased the diversity within those representations.

Being an Army veteran and Cuban-American shapes Alvarez’s experience as a single mother, especially when it clashes with her mother’s traditional opinions. Lydia is eccentric. She holds her heritage dear to her heart but doesn’t shy away from showing her sexuality, which is one of her many enjoyable attributes. She shows how sexual expression can be embraced by older people too, not just the young crowds.

Tradition versus modern ideals is a common theme among the three generations. The series begins with an argument between Lydia and her granddaughter Elena after Elena refuses to have a quinceañera, calling it misogynistic. This scene sparked my interest because it reminded me of my quinceañera conversation with my parents. I did not refuse one for ideological reasons but because I had no friends and preferred getting a sofa bed instead.

On the other hand, Elena has a change of heart after realizing that organizing a quinceañera would be a rewarding accomplishment for her newly single mother.

Kudos to both of them. If I had that perspective at age 14, I would have had one too (No, I wouldn’t). The quinceañera storyline continues until the last episode, sprouting arguments that incite laughter and blossoming connections that kindle tears.

Sexism also emerges as Alvarez is a nurse and her co-worker Scott (played by Eric Nenninger) constantly disrespects her in an episode. When she finally speaks up about his latent sexist attitudes, she discovers that he earns more than her despite having less experience. She is outraged. She quits but fears not only the consequences of leaving, but the consequences of resisting gender inequality when the livelihood of her family depends on her.

Her boss explains how Scott negotiated his salary while Alvarez didn’t. It had never occurred to her. The same way it had not occurred to her that Scott was sexist until her daughter said so. Even brief behaviors, whether they are intentional or not, can leave negative impacts. These behaviors are caused by assumptions, and in this case, around gender. As harmless as these remarks may appear, they hold significant influence on how individuals are treated and how they might view themselves.

Lydia, the confident kempt dancer, and Elena, the bold teenage feminist, have opposing views toward how they feel empowered. In one episode, Lydia encourages Elena to wear makeup to appear more presentable as an environmental crusader at school. However, Elena dislikes makeup and is hurt when her grandmother is disappointed. In the end, Lydia empathizes with her, takes off the makeup she is never seen without, and bares her feelings. Empathy, encouragement and respecting one another’s decisions is what makes this series eloquently feminist.

An integral heartwarming plotline is Elena coming to terms with her sexuality. It was a confusing journey for her and it was a difficult process for her mother to accept at first. She was confused by her reaction initially because she considers herself someone who accepts homosexuality and loves her children unconditionally. Viewing Penelope’s reaction and her attempts to suppress her sadness in front of her daughter was powerful. Some news takes time to settle in. Many emotions revolve around this event but key attributes shine in each of the characters.

Hispanics make up 17.1 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census, and what makes this series important is how it taps into one specific culture, and one specific family living in Los Angeles.  

Diaz said people are looking for unique representations of Latinos in media.

“How are they not just the same as every other Latino ever represented?” Diaz said. “How do we see the cultural nuances of the Cuban-American family versus the Venezuelan-American family versus the Mexican-American family?”

Latino representation and racial inclusion in general is vital in entertainment media.

“When they don’t represent me or you, they lose us as viewers or they isolate us and we feel like we are not important. We are not part of the conversation,” Diaz said.

Being historically accurate about Cuban experiences is also essential, Diaz said. History in the show is told through dry humor and painful secrets. From Lydia’s retelling of her emigration to the United States to the detrimental effects of deportation, this comedy elucidates prevalent social issues through the lives of strong colorful characters. Each branch is different, each is shaped by her Cuban roots and each branch lifts one another, providing support through the challenges blazing ahead.

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