In honor of the tenth anniversary of Red Tent Living, we are featuring a monthly legacy post written by one of our regular contributors from the past decade. Mal Arnold first wrote for us in 2016 and became a regular in contributor in 2018. Her Latina voice is a profound gift to us all. This post originally appeared in August 2020.
My weary body quietly walks down the stairs after successfully getting two cranky toddlers into bed for their afternoon nap. I ache for sleep, but I also want to spend the next hour enjoying something that brings me joy. Not sure what to do, I mindlessly scroll through the options in our various streaming services until the yellow lightning bolt of The Flash stops in front of my eyes and I decide to catch up on the latest season.
Some time later, I am sitting up on the couch with the excitement of a kid shoveling sugary cereal into their mouth while watching Saturday morning cartoons. I feel something stirring inside of me, but I can’t quite put my finger on the emotion until I press pause on a certain scene; tears are in my eyes, and I realize my inner child is tearful and awe-struck.
There are four women in this shot that I have paused. Not just four women, but four women of color.
I soak it in.
Four strong, brave women with Asian, Latina, and African American ethnicities that are emphasized and celebrated.
All four women have consistent story lines reflecting strength, loyalty, and intelligence. They are not the stereotypically weak feminine characters and they certainly are not on the butt end of a joke. Instead their characters are vital and valued. They have the ability to protect themselves and fight with strength equal to their male counterparts.
It may have been a CW network show, but they managed to capture something my childhood was deeply hungering for – someone who looked like me.
As a young child, I remember quietly searching every movie and show for a character who reflected the girl I saw in the mirror.
I longed to see my face up on that screen. The search for a mirrored connection even extended to the dolls I played with growing up. While all my friends sat playing with the dolls who looked like them, I sat proud and undeterred with my first American Girl Doll, Addy, despite the hurtful jokes about having the African American doll.
A couple of years later when the company released their first Latina doll, Josefina, everyone kept asking me if I would get the “little Mexican doll” to replace Addy. With tears in my eyes and anger seeping out of my pores, I staunchly refused. I thought it was because I was just protective of my favorite doll. I think it went so much deeper than that–somehow I recognized that neither doll was equal to each other, but both were below the valued line.
In my teens, I searched my comic books for someone who reflected my skin tone. Every time I opened a new comic book and saw dark hair I would become excited only to realize that it was still a white person, not a Latina or Afro-Latina character. I think deep down I was hoping to find a superhero or supervillain to declare that my skin was powerful and beautiful.
I look back at all the TV shows and movies I consumed growing up, and the truth is that all the faces on the screen looked nothing like me. They all had milk white skin, smooth blonde or various shades of brown hair, and blue eyes. They were popular and valued.
There were a few movies I was allowed to watch that featured a Latina as the lead, but those felt so rare. What felt even more rare was finding a Latina lead, or side character, who wasn’t portrayed as either the “ugly” misfit, a sex object, a drug user, a manipulative liar, or a ridiculous character grossly exaggerated to get a few laughs. Most Latina leads felt stripped of their “distinguishable” Latina qualities in each movie to make them a more palatable “white” woman.
Yet now as a grown woman, I am watching a superhero show with four talented women of color, and it feels glorious. I think of the other shows I have watched that are truly diverse and allow Latina and African American women to take up space in their full spectrum of beauty and culture. I think of the actors who paved the way for these women to be taken seriously, and I remember that in order for this to continue we, the audience, must be loudly supportive.
Hope stirs inside of me as I press play and continue watching faces that reflect my own, and I wish with all my heart I could take this moment, and others like it, back to my younger self so she can find comfort and pride in the beauty of being Latina while growing up in a white world.
Mal Arnold is a passionate Latina wife and mother who is a chaser of dreams and believes in living life with abandon. She writes to pour some of herself out for any who care to experience her heart, but is also an avid reader, lover of old movies and going on journeys with family as well. She has seen heartache and trauma in her past and is learning to let her Maker heal her broken places.