Melissa Villasenor's 'Saturday Night Live' Casting Is An Important Moment For Latinx Visibility
When I think of contemporary Latinas in comedy, the list can start to feel painfully short: Gina Rodriguez, Sofía Vergara, Eva Longoria, and America Ferrera are amongst the few to come to mind. This is precisely why Melissa Villaseñor's Saturday Night Live casting, announced on Sept. 12, feels particularly groundbreaking. The 28-year-old comedian is based in Los Angeles, California and is of Mexican descent, making her the first Latina cast member in the show's 41 years on air.
For 10 years, Villaseñor has worked as an impressionist, stand-up comedian, actor, musician, and graphic artist. In 2011, she was also a Top 16 finalist on America's Got Talent . Her skills are indisputable; the poignant humor of her work equally undeniable. But Villaseñor's role as the first Latina to land a spot on SNL also marks an important step for Latinas in comedy, at large. As Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation For The Arts, told Fox News Latino, "[This] shows that we're making progress and that we are an important community that cannot be disregarded [...] This is an area that is undeveloped and underrepresented — Latinas in comedy. If Melissa does well, there will be a demand for more it will open doors for others."
When you place a strong, talented, Latina woman on a show with enough cultural gravitas to survive 41 years in a cutthroat industry, you undoubtedly offer a little reminder that such women have a place...
I'd venture to take his analysis one step further, though. Not only is Villaseñor's casting historical for Latina comedians striving for or maintaining careers in the industry: It's historical for young Latina women as a whole. Young women not used to often seeing themselves represented in pop culture.
Earlier in 2016, the Media, Diversity, And Social Change Initiative by the Institute For Diversity And Empowerment At Annenberg "found [that] Latinos are among the least represented speaking roles in film and TV, even though they make up about 17.4 percent of the U.S. population," as reported by NBC News. "Out of more than 11,000 speaking characters surveyed in film and TV, 5.8 percent were Hispanic or Latino."
Not only does this seemingly mean less speaking roles for Latino actors overall, but it means that Latinx individuals at home are very rarely seeing anyone relatable onscreen. For these reasons, Villaseñor's new role is an achievement both in professional and personal umbrellas: An achievement for an industry desperately in need of more diversity, and for consumers and viewers desperately in need of more representation.
In a story for The Daily Beast on the importance of actors Rodriguez, Longoria, and Ferrera's presence in Hollywood as Latina comedians, writer Gabe Bergado outlined the impact their characters might have not only in pop culture, but culture at large:
"Jane, Ana, and Amy are all their own individuals and show there’s more than just one way to be Latina [...] Seeing these women front shows on TV has a twofold effect: The Latino and Hispanic communities are getting to see characters and plots they can identify with culturally and they can also see people who look like them simply living their lives — just as real people of all ethnicities do every day."
Growing up in a culture in which you feel othered — be it for the color of your skin, your ethnicity, or your body — is never an easy fate. This is arguably especially the case for young women and girls, most of whom are already subject to the day-to-day consequences of culturally ingrained misogyny.
When you add to that a characteristic that further separates you from the norm — for example, having brown skin in a North American culture that still largely idolizes fair skin — the experience grows all the more complex.
Although my skin is fair, it's not difficult to remember what being one of the only Latinas in a high school of 3,000 pupils felt like. For many with similar experiences, it's likely not difficult to remember what eating foods foreign to your white, non-Latinx classmates or having an accent slightly different to theirs feels like. This is where the importance of representation comes in. For young women growing up brown or Spanish-speaking or otherwise different to the majority, seeing characters who help them break through toxic narratives of aspirational beauty (and aspirational womanhood) can mean the difference between feeling seen and feeling invisible.
In the last week alone, Villaseñor's SNL casting alongside Bomba Estéreo's "Soy Yo" video have felt like historical moments for little brown girls everywhere, and particularly those growing up in the U.S. or other nations where they often feel like the minority. This is not to say that these two moments will change the entire sphere of Hollywood or lead to the kind of Latinx representation still so needed in the industry as a whole. But they are moments that make that kind of future seem just a little more attainable.
It's evidence that we can have a place in pop culture outside of stereotypes. We are not limited to the role of bombshell or ladylike homemaker or Catholicism aficionado.
When you place a strong, talented, Latina woman on a show with enough cultural gravitas to survive 41 years in a cutthroat industry, you undoubtedly offer a little reminder that such women have a place: That we have a place in film, in comedy, on television, in music, in art, in pop culture. You crack the dominant narrative of otherness just a little bit more.
But Villaseñor's spot on Saturday Night Live is not only further evidence that Latinas have a place in pop culture (and that many will continue to fight for that place). It's evidence that we can have a place in pop culture outside of stereotypes. We are not limited to the role of bombshell or ladylike homemaker or Catholicism aficionado. We can be the funny girls, too: The ones who have likely been taught that there is a formula for being a woman, but who choose to break the recipe anyway.