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What ‘Jane The Virgin’ Star Thinks Latinos Can Learn From ‘Empire’

Gina Rodriguez arrives at the 32nd Annual Paleyfest : “Jane the Virgin” held at The Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 15, 2015, in Los Angeles. CREDIT: RICHARD SHOTWELL/INVISION/AP
Gina Rodriguez arrives at the 32nd Annual Paleyfest : “Jane the Virgin” held at The Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 15, 2015, in Los Angeles. CREDIT: RICHARD SHOTWELL/INVISION/AP

Gina Rodriguez is the breakout star of a breakout show. She plays the titular Jane, an accidentally-pregnant, type-A romantic, at the center of the excellent Jane the Virgin. Jane just premiered last fall, but Rodriguez is already making a habit of using her relatively new public platform to directly address issues around the representation of Latino characters in media.

At the Jane the Virgin panel at PaleyFest on Sunday, Rodriguez talked about this at length, first saying that “as an actress and as a woman of color I’ve been talking about this subject so much because it seems like such an algorithm, people are like, ‘how do we do it, how do we get into the Latino mind?!’ Like it’s different. I’m like, ‘is it different? because I don’t feel like my mind is different.”

She went on to say that a show like Jane “can unite and get our viewership just like Empire, ’cause where you at, 54 million plus?” But that can only happen if the Latino community which, as she said, “is comprised of multiple cultures,” acts as a unified force:

The industry says ‘let’s hire a Latino,’ and then the Latinos say ‘well, you want a Mexican and I’m Puerto Rican; you want a Guatemalan and I’m from El Salvador; you want a Cuban and I’m Dominican’ … We need to have the conversation; if they’re going to put us under one umbrella… if we want to be considered and we want to show and use our power to the fullest, we need to unite … They see us as one community and we need to be one community, because we all share the same struggle…. Let’s use our power as women, as Latinos, as whatever subculture you identify with, and at the same time celebrate being human.

If you haven’t watched Jane, you probably saw Rodriguez’s surprise win at the Golden Globes this year, a first-ever nomination and win for The CW. During her Golden Globes acceptance speech, Rodriguez subtly rebutted the notion that casting people of all ethnicities is just about satisfying some kind of color quota: “This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”

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Earlier this month in an interview with the L.A. Times, Rodriguez elaborated on the point, saying, “I felt like it was a win for the whole Latino community. And obviously, I vocalize that a lot — because I mean it, and because it’s true, and because it’s real… We need to see more Latino heroes on TV, because, like it or not, that helps shape perceptions.”

Jane is just one in a fleet of new, heralded shows — some ratings smashes, some critical favorites, the rare few checking both boxes — that revolve around characters of color: the Shonda Rhimes one-two punch of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, music industry-centric megahit Empire (succeeding where its nearly all-white country counterpart, Nashville, is struggling mightily), charming new family sitcoms Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish.

Just this weekend, Rhimes, Queen of Thursday Night, talked about the importance of representation while accepting the Ally for Equality Award at the Human Rights Campaign gala. Rhimes described how, as a child, when she was the only black girl in her class, writing made her feel “less isolated, less marginalized, less invisible in the eyes of my peers.” Shondaland is the adult realization of a childhood vision, a place where anyone, no matter how isolated and marginalized in day-to-day life, could see themselves reflected on screen and feel less alone in the world. Reporters, Rhimes said, often ask “why I am so invested in ‘diversity’ on television.” Well, Rhimes said, “I really hate the word ‘diversity.’” Her work isn’t about diversifying; “I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks.”

But all this visible progress, while obviously a cause for celebration, can give an outsize sense of just how overwhelmingly white media still is. Most TV writers’ rooms are dominated by white men. Exactly zero of this year’s Oscar nominations for acting went to a performer of color (and it’s not like there weren’t plenty of outstanding contenders.) “The Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Media” found that Latino men have all but vanished from TV and film as leading actors and that, as Rodriguez regularly notes, “on television and movies, Latinos continue to be represented primarily as criminals, law enforcers, and cheap labor… 69 percent of iconic media maids in film and television since 1996 are Latina.”

At the Television Critics Association press tour last summer, Rodriguez described turning down a role on Lifetime’s Devious Maids because she found the part “limiting for the stories that Latinos have… I think that the media is a venue and an avenue to educate and teach our next generation. And, sadly, right now the perception they have of Latinos in America are very specific to maid, landscape, pregnant teen.” Rodriguez, who has two sisters — a doctor and an investment banker — says she never saw Latina women playing those roles on TV while she was growing up. She didn’t want to be a part of perpetuating stereotypes, even if it meant passing up a great gig: “I wasn’t going to let my introduction to the world be one of a story that I think has been told many times.”

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In addition to all this gospel-preaching, Rodriguez is engaging in an education initiative for Latino high school students. Today, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which touts itself as the nation’s largest non-profit supporting Hispanic American higher education, announced Rodriguez is joining its Board of Directors, effective immediately. Rodriguez, who hails from Chicago and is of Puerto Rican descent, was an HSF scholarship recipient, as were both of her sisters. She attended Columbia University and went on to graduate from NYU Tisch School Of Arts.