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Wiseacre Latinas

A soap disturbs the ethnic hornets’ nest.

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Devious Maids is the Sunday-night soap on Lifetime about five Latina domestic servants who routinely outwit their wealthy, decadent, self-centered, materialistic, and generally evil Anglo employers in the Beverly Hills monster-mansions where the maids have been hired to do the cooking and dusting. 

Five little maids from school are we .  .  .

Five little maids from school are we .  .  .

lifetime

The show is based on a Spanish-language telenovela, and its pilot was produced by Eva Longoria, the 38-year-old actress-veteran of the long-running ABC Sunday-night soap Desperate Housewives (both shows have the same creator, Marc Cherry) and, more recently, Hispanic-outreach diva for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and assorted other pet causes of America’s overwhelmingly Democratic Latino political bloc. 

But what Devious Maids has actually turned into is the focus of a Hispanophone media catfight over what might be called Latina yichus—the bloodline and credentials that would allow someone to define herself as queen Latina and then feel entitled to tell other Latinas what they ought to be thinking, saying, and doing. 

It would seem that every literate female in America with a Hispanic surname has added to the frenzy of digs at Ms. Longoria, and the consensus is that Devious Maids perpetuates a negative stereotype: that Latina women work as housemaids (even though nearly every household in America that can afford domestic help has at least one Latina on the employment roll). 

The pile-on has proved embarrassing for Eva Longoria. Best known for her good looks (she’s a former Miss Corpus Christi), her two tumultuous marriages, and several wardrobe malfunctions stemming from her off-and-on disdain for underwear, Longoria has been striving for years to cast herself as a Mexican-American power player. She has contributed lavishly to Latino causes, championed amnesty for illegal immigrants, and played up her part-time job at Wendy’s in high school as evidence of her working-class solidarity in a speech to the Democratic National Convention last year. She even obtained a master’s degree in Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge. 

But she was shocked when a DNA test coupled with genealogical research conducted by PBS’s Faces of America in 2010 revealed that far from “coming from the indigenous native people,” as she once described herself, she is actually 70 percent European genetically and a direct descendant of the Spanish conquistadors who presumably slaughtered and oppressed the indigenous Mexicans.         

I’m speaking freely about all of this because I’m a Latina myself. Or rather, I’m a Latina courtesy of the half-and-half rule of ethnicity that has made Barack Obama our first black president even though his late mother was a white Kansan distantly related to Wild Bill Hickok. In my case, it’s my late father who had the paleface chops: He was South-Bronx Irish. My mother, however, is the granddaughter of a traveling jewelry salesman from Andalusia who married a young lady from Mexico City and sired a son (my maternal grandfather) who married into an upper-middle-class family in Lima, Peru. I may have my father’s freckles, but hot Iberian sangre courses through my veins.

Mis hermanas in the Hispanic media elite have not been kind to Eva Longoria. In an open letter published by the Huffington Post, Michelle Herrera Mulligan, editor in chief of Cosmopolitan for Latinas, called the new show “a wasted opportunity” and “an insulting disgrace.” On Latina.com, Damarys Ocaña Perez wrote: “For decades Hollywood has consistently and almost obsessively cast Latinos in stereotypically negative roles. Gangbangers. Drug dealers. Hypersexual Latin lovers. And of course, maids—slutty ones, saintly ones, subservient ones, sassy ones, ones with ridiculously heavy accents.” Tanisha Ramirez, in yet another HuffPo piece, complained: “Aren’t Latina teachers’, doctors’, CEOs’, and entrepreneurs’ stories worth telling as well?” New York Times reporter Tanzina Vega, assessing a scene in Devious’s premiere in which the lady of the house (Rebecca Wisocky) threatens to deport soon-to-be-murdered maid Flora (Paula Garcés) for having sex with her villainous husband (Tom Irwin), sniffed, “Most maids, however, don’t sleep with their bosses.” 

Arnold Schwarzenegger, call your office.

The lengthiest and most sweeping denunciation of all came from a thoroughly expected source: Alisa Valdes, the mid-40s author of the bestselling chica-lit novel The Dirty Girls Social Club (2003), who is even better known, at least on the Internet, for her series of bridge-burning tirades against former bosses, former men in her life, and practically everybody who has ever tried to work with her during her decade-long (and so far unsuccessful) effort to bring Dirty Girls to a screen, large or small. Valdes’s article, posted on NBCLatino.com, is a worthy addition to her already extensive online polemical oeuvre:  

[Devious Maids] is about the way the Latina maid stereotype beautifully cleaves to the time-honored imperialistic way this country has dealt with its Spanish-speaking neighbors in the Americas. .  .  . You cannot colonize or occupy the lands of human beings you respect or view as your equal; it is better to simplify them in order to dehumanize them.

Ironically, Valdes, for all her talk of American imperialism and dehumanization of the Spanish-speaking, is, like me, only half Latina. Her father, a retired sociology professor and self-proclaimed Marxist at the University of New Mexico, was born in Cuba; but her mother hailed from an Irish family that had lived in New Mexico for seven generations.

In 1999, Valdes, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, took a job covering Latin music for the Los Angeles Times. Two years later, she abruptly resigned from the Times via a 3,400-word email to her supervisors that flew from computer to computer among amused editors across the country, was excerpted in huge chunks on the St. Petersburg Times website, and lives on electronically to this day as a textbook example of how to torpedo your career. 

In the email, Valdes belittled her fellow Times feature-writers (by name) as incompetent, overpaid hacks; she smeared herself with self-pity because she, an “excellent writer,” brought home a smaller paycheck than another Times critic who hadn’t even graduated from college; and she trashed the Times for using the word “Latino” to cover a range of different ethnicities, some with only a tangential relation to Spanish culture. “There is no such thing as a Latino,” Valdes wrote, even though she herself had been hired at the Times as part of a “Latino Initiative” program. 

Later, though, after Valdes returned to New Mexico, she decided it was all right to be a Latina after all, and started on Dirty Girls, a beach read about the love lives of a group of career women with south-of-the-border roots. The novel sold a half-million copies.

After that, Valdes’s life took a downward turn. In 2005, she divorced her husband, a sometime student 10 years her junior whose main job had been taking care of their son while she supported the family. She subsequently described him online as her “sociopathic ex-husband” who was being “investigated” for “cyberstalking” her and “abusing” their son. She blasted through her $475,000 advance for Dirty Girls, plus a reported six-figure advance on a 2008 sequel, Dirty Girls on Top, that did not sell so well, plus royalties, plus sales of some young-adult titles.

Her Lexus was repossessed, and she had to short-sell her half-million-dollar house. Meanwhile, she optioned out the rights to The Dirty Girls Social Club four times, including to Jennifer Lopez for a movie deal—and every option failed. By Christmas 2010, she had moved with her son back in with her father in Albuquerque and was sitting in front of her computer churning out blog entries, Facebook posts, and Twitter messages accusing Ann Lopez (the NBC producer of the fourth and final failed option) of racism, sexism, and lying for changing around the plot and characters in Dirty Girls—to the point that NBC sent Valdes a cease-and-desist letter on Christmas Eve. 

Just in the nick of time, Valdes managed to swing yet another book deal: a quickie memoir, The Feminist and the Cowboy, about her budding romance with a six-foot-four, good-looking, politically conservative 53-year-old bachelor ranch manager she had met on an online dating site. The cowboy made it clear from the outset that he wasn’t having any truck with Valdes’s feminism, temper tantrums, progressive political views, indulgent child-rearing practices, or anything else she’d learned during her stints in high-end graduate school and journalism. He also made it clear that he was the one in charge. 

I received an unsolicited review copy of The Feminist and the Cowboy in the mail, and I read it avidly, because Valdes really is an excellent writer, just as she claims. Though I must say I didn’t much care for the cowboy. From the photos she posted online, he seemed to be overdoing the Marlboro Man shtick, looking as though he was modeling, not really wearing, his Western duds. And he also turned out to be romancing another Albuquerque woman on the side. 

Still, it was impressive to take in how quickly Alisa Valdes melted in the presence of the first alpha male she had probably ever met in her life, and to savor her contempt for the “icky ‘liberal’ men, each icky in his own unique and decidedly hypocritical or terrifying way” whom she had dated before meeting Mr. Cowpoke. It was also fun to read the horrified reviews by feminists and the icky liberal men who love them when Valdes’s memoir emerged from its publisher, Gotham Books, this past January. Typical was Noah Berlatsky at the Atlantic, who accused Valdes of indulging in “pseudo-science nonsense .  .  . boasting self-abnegation, and .  .  . simple-minded feminist-baiting.” 

But then Valdes dropped a blog-post bomb declaring that the dogie-wrangler of her dreams was actually “a domineering abuser”—um, sort of like her ex-husband. In April 2012, Valdes had discovered she was pregnant; the
cowboy informed her that she could either abort the baby or never see him again. That would have been a deal-killer for me, and so it was for Valdes—until she suffered a miscarriage and jumped back into his arms. Later, the cowboy failed to exhibit appropriate sympathy for the injuries she suffered from jumping out of his moving truck during what proved to be their last fight.

The Feminist and the Cowboy duly tanked, and Valdes and Gotham Books are no longer on speaking terms. Valdes resumed robbing the cradle, and her latest flame is an Albuquerque volunteer coordinator named Michael Gandy (not the football player), who is at least 13 years younger than she. With no publisher and certainly no Hollywood entity willing to take her on for obvious reasons, Valdes is currently hunting for crowdfunding in order to make an indie film out of The Dirty Girls Social Club, done exactly the way she wants it. Indeed, the real gravamen of her beef with Eva Longoria was the fact that Lifetime, one of the four outfits to let its option lapse on Dirty Girls, is producing Devious Maids when it ought to be producing a series based on Valdes’s novel, with its upscale “powerful Latina protagonists.” Valdes pointed out that all the characters in the original telenovela were Latino, in contrast to the Anglo employers on Maids, “which allowed for class distinctions.” 

She wrote: “Longoria’s argument conflates race/ethnicity with socioeconomic status.” And actually, Valdes is right. The producers of Devious Maids (not to mention most Latino advocacy groups) tend to view “Latinos” as an undifferentiated mass of low-end and often-exploited laborers, ignoring the class distinctions that are self-evident to Latinos who live in the real world, whether north or south of the border. Still, she is only half-right: For Latinos, socioeconomic status is intimately bound up with race and ethnicity. Most Latinos, including me, have some indigenous blood; but in nearly all Latin-American countries, the upper socioeconomic levels of society—the ranks of the educated and successful professionals—are populated by lighter-skinned people with far more Spanish blood than the darker-skinned peasants and blue-collar workers at the bottom, who are often pure indios

It is from the latter group that the recent tidal waves of legal and illegal Mexican and Central American immigration into the United States have come—and it’s largely those immigrants who are the Latina domestics running their dry mops over the cherry-wood floors of Bel Air property porn. 

The real reason Devious Maids has raised so many hackles among the Latina literati is that they’re seeing themselves portrayed as members of a social class, and even an ethnic group, that they wouldn’t be caught dead belonging to. Indeed, the actresses who play the maids on Devious Maids, led by Ugly Betty veteran Ana Ortiz as maid Marisol, don’t look the slightest bit like real-life Latina maids. They’re willowy, toned-muscled ectomorphs with masses of exquisitely styled raven hair. They do their housework wearing skinny jeans and wedge peep-toes.

Real-life Latina maids tend to look more like Mildred Baena, the stocky, un-photogenic Guatemalan housekeeper who bore Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child. It wasn’t so much outrage at Latina “stereotypes” as well-disguised snobbery that threw Alisa Valdes, Michelle Herrera Mulligan, and others into high dudgeon: Is that what they think we Hispanic holders of Ivy degrees are supposed to be? Maids

Devious Maids, whose premiere episode drew an anemic two million viewers or so competing against AMC’s Mad Men, is likely to collapse of its own light weight. It’s hard to get interested in such cliffhangers as: Will maid Valentina (Edy Ganem) be seduced and abandoned by the frat-boy son (Drew van Acker) of her nymphomaniac employer (Susan Lucci)? Will maid Carmen (Roselyn Sánchez) get caught swimming naked in her boss’s pool? Who killed Flora? 

But it raises more interesting questions that ought to trouble the Republican policymakers who think that running, say, Cuban-descended Marco Rubio for president could attract the votes of the millions of Mexican Americans who have voted Democratic since anyone can remember. For example: What, exactly, is a Latino or a Latina? And what on earth do the numerous groups of people who bear the tag “Hispanic” really have in common?

Charlotte Allen is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard

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