Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Watching Devious Maids En Español

So, here's my secret: I really like Devious Maids.

Just before it premiered in 2013 I remember that there was a lot of criticism about the show. It disappointed many that the first time a US tv show would have an all-Latina lead cast would be a show about maids. Devious ones at that.

The death of Lupe Ontiveros in 2012 seemed prescient to the debate. In her obituary in the NYT, the number 150 stands out. It is the low estimate of the number of times she played a maid on screen. I will always remember her turn as "Nacha", a maid in "El Norte", which we watched in my high school Spanish class, over and over. She also played the maid in "The Goonies," antagonized by the butchered Spanish of Corey Feldman. The obituary alludes to her efforts to break the stereotype and play more dynamic roles. She is quoted as stating that if she performed an audition in perfect English, she wouldn't get the part - an issue Sofia Vergara probably faces even today, despite not playing the maid on Modern Family.

150 times. That is the context to the criticism: as Latinas so often already play maids in US entertainment, why couldn't this show be different? Why couldn't this show present Latinas as doctors or lawyers? Eva Longoria, a producer of the show, wrote an essay on the Huffington Post responding to this criticism directly. As she points out, isn't it also important to tell the stories of maids from their perspective? Aren't their stories valuable too?

Of course, one twist in the plot is that not all five lead characters are actually maids. One is a lawyer disguiding herself as a maid to unravel the dirty secrets of the white people who employ them. Another is an aspiring singer. But that's an aside. I wanted to write about the experience of watching Devious Maids en español and how it completely changes this context of US racism, stereotypes and typecasting.

I watched the first season of Devious Maids on Hulu, dubbed in Spanish. I felt that, since the storyline is a little fluffy and very over-the-top, it might be fun to practice my Spanish comprehension while enjoying this guilty pleasure. It wasn't so far-fetched to imagine that the five Latina lead characters were speaking Spanish - they do occasionally throw in a little Spanish in the English version. I believe all of the actresses speak Spanish fluently. But the dynamics between maid and employer shift significantly when everyone is speaking Spanish. Suddenly, the story could be set anywhere - Miami, Mexico City, Caracas. It is very grounded however, in the idea that this is Beverly Hills culture: white, rich, elitist. But, you don't think there are white, rich, elitist people living in Beverly Hills who also happen to speak Spanish and happen to be from Latin America? When you hear her speaking Spanish (even though it is only dubbed) can't you imagine the red-haired, dark-eyed Perri Westmore as a telenovela star? Or Susan Lucci as an ex-beauty queen from Venezuela? Evelyn Powell serves a similar role on the show as the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey by delivering one-liners that make the wealthy seem out of touch with the real world. When she is dubbed in Spanish, you could easily imagine her as the kind of evil villain that rules late-night Univisión. 

Most Americans are confused by the differences between race and ethnicity and have a hard time contemplating that someone could be both white and Latino. Or black and Latino. Or any other combination of race, nationality and ethnicity. But all Latin American countries have populations of mixed ancestry. It is perfectly reasonable to pretend that when Susan Lucci is dubbed in Spanish, she might really be Latina.

In English, Devious Maids has a Latina Maid vs.White American Employer set up. When you watch in Spanish, you can almost take ethnicity out of the equation. You could pretend that, as everyone is speaking Spanish, they are all Latinos, maids and employers alike. They could, in theory, be from the same Latin American country. The employers could be immigrants themselves. Then you are left with race and class. The maids have varying skin tones. The employers, in the first season, were mostly white, with the exception of Alejandro - the Latin Music Pop star. All of the employers are filthy rich - that's why they live in Beverly Hills!

 Watching Devious Maids in Spanish takes out the discrimination based on ethnicity and brings to the forefront discrimination based on race and class. It's structure really is much like that of a traditional telenovela with the white actors playing the wealthy and powerful and the people of color playing their servants. In Devious Maids there is one big difference: the story is told from the point of view of the maids, not the employers. This is what makes the show such a breakthrough.

Now, in the second season, you have a wealthy black family who employs Rosie as a caregiver. You have the Russian maid, Odessa, upset by Carmen's ascendance to Alejandro's (fake) girlfriend. You have the Powell family (briefly) employing a Lebanese maid, rather than Latina. And Marisol isn't even pretending to be a maid anymore. 

*While I'm enjoying the second season, unfortunately, Hulu doesn't seem to be offering it in Spanish anymore. It really does change the whole experience!

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