Sunday, October 20, 2019

'Taina' Star Christina Vidal On the Show's Important Legacy

Taina Star Christina Vidal On the Show's Important Legacy

Taina actor Christina Vidal and Soledad O'Brien talk about the importance of representation.

Latinx is the largest and fastest-growing racial minority in the United States. Latinx students enrolled in schools, colleges, and universities has doubled from 8.8 million to 17.9 million from 1996 to 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yet USC Annenberg found that 47 percent of the top 1,200 movies from 2017 to 2018 completely erased Latino speaking characters. And of the top-grossing 100 films from 2007 to 2018, only 3 percent had Latinx leads or co-leads.

NBC News reported that out of the 30 shows green-lit by the five major television networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and CW — in the 2018 pilot season, only three featured Latinx stars: ABC’s Grand Hotel, the CW’s Roswell, New Mexico, and Charmed.

The question isn’t just why there should be more film and television programming from Gen Z Latinx, but when?

“When you’re young and forming your identity, you’re constantly looking for outside sources to give you reassurance on what you’re doing right or wrong,” Veronica Rodriguez, the story editor for HBO’s comedy series Skate Kitchen tells Teen Vogue. “The lack of Latinx representation can have the younger generation feel limited, judged, stifled, and put into a box that honestly has been defined by people who don’t know much about them.”

From 2001-2002, the Nickelodeon series Taina was one of the first Latinx-led shows on television. The series followed the journey of a Puerto Rican teenager going to a performing arts high school in New York, pursuing her dreams of becoming a famous singer and actor.

The show resonated for many because Taina reflected the aspirational dreams that many young girls have to be someone, and that someone didn’t necessarily have to be a singer or dancer like Taina, but Taina had a passion for something and she wasn’t going to stop until those goals were attained.

The upbeat, catchy theme song stayed with viewers, including its chorus: “You know I cannot wait to see my names in lights / No one’s gonna stop me you’ll see / I will go far / Taina, Taina.”

The series included guest appearances by Shakira, who appeared as herself and showed Taina how to belly dance to her hit “Whenever, Wherever.” The members of 3LW (Adrienne Bailon, Kiely Williams, and Naturi Naughton) were cast as the senior girl group Blue Mascara that Taina was eager to join, but the group gave her an ultimatum in choosing them or her best friend. Solange Knowles and Kelly Rowland also guest-starred in the series.

Taina’s journey was coupled with struggles in holding onto her Latinx heritage while still defining life with the things she liked about American culture, which was relatable for many Latinx viewers and opened the eyes of non-Latinx viewers to a culture that wasn’t as “other” as they may have thought.

Episodes included Taina failing her Spanish test, and her grandfather growing concerned that she was forgetting her heritage, and Taina not wanting to wear pink or the traditional dress usually worn for a quinceanera.

Despite massive rating success, the network canceled the series after two seasons due to talent issues and business “deals not part of the plan.”

“When I did Taina [17 years ago], I certainly didn’t have the life experiences I have now to understand the power of meshing entertainment and [Latinx] representation,” says Christina Vidal, who played Taina Morales. “As a teenager I was thinking about what the show could do for me. But now as a grown woman, I know such lead roles for Latinx representation carry a responsibility that is so much bigger than one person.”

Vidal is carrying that responsibility into her next starring role, in ABC’s upcoming family sitcom United We Fall, a show that will follow the trials and tribulations of Jo (played by Vidal) and Bill (played by Will Sasso) as they raise two young biracial kids — with unsolicited advice and opinions from Bill’s judgmental live-in mother and Jo’s large Latinx Catholic family.

United We Fall is intended for all ages. “It’s really just about two people, their families, and the different dynamics there,” Vidal says. “Culture is there as a backdrop, but it’s there, and you can’t not see it.”

Journalist Soledad O’Brien offered some food for thought on the topic of visibility onscreen, particularly as someone who’s advocated for diverse storytelling throughout her career. “Why is it that when you have people who are not white on television shows, race automatically is thought of as a focal point?” she asks via phone.

“Why are they not just people acting like themselves who are living in interesting situations and experiencing their lives? No one would ever look at a show with white people and say that they are acting white or that their race is a focus,” adds O’Brien, who was behind the Emmy-winning reporting and acclaimed CNN documentary series Black in America and Latino in America.

Paul DeBeneditts, Nickelodeon’s Executive Vice President (EVP) of programming and content strategy, told Teen Vogue that because representation is an important fabric of storytelling, “networks should serve viewers with meaningful, authentic connections through stories and characters that reflect a world that kids see every day, while opening up their minds to a broader world that they may not know.”

“It all starts with everyone placing value on diversity,” DeBeneditts continues. “From there, the biggest challenge is getting access to these voices and having the voices get access to us. Telling diverse stories stretches across every segment of an organization. It also means putting people in place at the company that will bring these stories to our audience.”

In 2000, the Chicago Tribune reported a television first when Nickelodeon had three Latinx-themed shows on at the same time: The Brothers Garcia, Taina, and Dora the Explorer. This trail blazed a path for future Latinx-led shows, like George Lopez (2002), Ugly Betty (2006), and Jane the Virgin (2014), that created a universal interest for series that didn’t just entertain but also educate about Latinx culture.

The Brothers Garcia had been turned down by networks until Nickelodeon gave the series a green light and made history, airing it in 2000 as the first sitcom in English based on a Latinx family with an all-Latinx cast and creative crew.

“That’s why it’s important to have Latino representation not just on camera but within the writer's room as well,” Vidal says. “There’s a huge gap between experiencing something from the inside and being a spectator. Things can be misconstrued or misunderstood as a spectator who lacks the history behind it. There’s something in Latino blood, culture, and the generation that passes on, and only when you have grown up in that can you properly represent and bring light to that truth.”

However, showcasing Latinx in marginalized ways, and what we stereotypically know to be Latinx, can be just as bad as the lack of representation because it’s representation in a very close-minded way.

The Latino Media Gap gathered data that supported that Latinx people continue to be represented as criminals, law enforcement, hyper-sexual, or cheap labor across TV and film, with 69 percent of maid roles being played by Latinas since 1996.

“Coming of age [stories] are so incredibly painful and beautiful for anyone, but multiply that by a thousand for someone who is searching for some kind of relatability outside of their immediate circles,” says Rodriguez, who received a grant as the 2019 Sundance Institute Latinx Fellow.

When Rodriguez’s non-Latinx content creators ask her about casting a gardener or a maid as Latinx, the first thing she asks is if there are other Latinx on the show, because if not, it’s problematic.

“I choose to show the change that I want without qualifying it by explaining why I’m doing it,” says Rodriguez, who is also a story editor for Disney Channel’s Latinx-led comedy Gabby Duran and the Unsittables. “The second I explain myself, I’m propelling this idea that I have to ask permission to break a stereotype, like if I have a Mexican character who loves sushi instead of tacos.”

Despite Latin American media known for white-washing, it’s also important to see more of an effort of inclusivity of people whose identities intersect with Latinx and other ethnic minorities, like Afro-Latinx. The ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder does this with character Tegan Price, who is seemingly African American, but over time viewers can see her going to salsa clubs and speaking fluent Spanish, without any qualifier about her being Latinx or not.

“It feels freeing to get to a point now and realize that I don’t have to change anything about myself or prove anything to inhabit two extraordinary cultures at the same time,” says Amirah Vann, who plays Tegan. “To be on television and represent that, I hope it frees others to realize that they are worthy, and you don’t need to earn inclusivity in a community because you don’t look like what’s stereotypically known of that culture. You just are.”

There is also diversity within the Latinx community, where a Honduran’s experiences may differ from Ecuadorians, Columbians, Panamanians, Costa Ricans, El Salvadorians, and so on.

Having just one Latino on a show — as an actor or a writer — doesn’t automatically check the box that Latinx representation is accounted for because diversity within Latinx is so vast.

“Just because someone is Latino doesn’t mean they know everything it means to be Latino,” Vidal says. “One of my friends, who’s Mexican, and I share stories about how we grew up and we see so many similarities from our habits and how we cook. But then there are other times when we realize differences, like a word we use in Puerto Rico meaning something completely different in Mexico.”

Although there has been progress onscreen for Latinx representation, there is still an uphill battle as a lot of Latinx-led shows are not experiencing longevity.

Earlier this year, when Netflix tweeted that not enough people watched One Day at a Time to renew the series, a #SaveODAAT went viral in an attempt to change Netflix’s mind. The series follows three generations of a Cuban American family in Los Angeles — a divorced, Army veteran single mother, her teen kids, and mother. Netflix still canceled the show but CBS-owned Pop TV picked it up for its fourth season.

“If social media was what it is now in the early 2000s, Taina absolutely would have continued for much longer,” Vidal says of the series ending after only two seasons. “The audience has so much more power and say than they realize.... For the last four and a half years, I’ve been getting hit on Twitter and Instagram about how Taina should come back.”

Considering the numbers, maybe it should.

Nickelodeon recently debuted The Casagrandes, a animated spin-off from network hit The Loud House which follows the Casagrande family, big, loving family.

Nickelodeon also recently revived the network's beloved animated preschool series Dora the Explorer in the form of a live-action movie, which was released in theatres in August 2019. The film starred a largely Hispanic cast, including Isabela Moner (100 Things to Do Before High School, Legends of the Hidden Temple, Transformers: The Last Knight) as Dora, Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives, Overboard) as Dora's mother, Elena, Michael Peña as Dora's father; Eugenio Derbez (The Casagrandes, Overboard, Instructions Not Included; How to Be A Latin Lover), as Alejandro, a mysterious jungle inhabitant who tries to protect the teenagers from the marauders.

More Nick: Nickelodeon Reveals 'The Casagrandes' Theme Song, Performed by Pop Star Ally Brooke!

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