Single moms have been characters in a ton of movies and TV shows, but none have really felt like realistic depictions, at least not to me. Most don’t hit on financial struggles, time-management problems, and myriad of other small day-to-day issues that come with parenting solo. Lorelai on Gilmore Girls is conveniently a single mother with wealthy parents, and the show only pays lip service to her financial struggles, while Twilight paints a rosy portrait of Bella’s upbringing that leaves out how truly hectic it is to raise children on your own. Never mind the fact that a ton (i.e. most) single mother characters in mainstream pop culture are white. If we ever see a woman of color in a single mom role, it opens up a ton of negative stereotypes outside of just being a single parent, which, again, is often used as a trope on its own. But with recent (and not-so-recent) calls for representation in Hollywood, it’s been refreshing to see One Day At A Time’s honest portrayal of single, Latina moms.
While we’ve come to expect that not every movie and TV show will be an accurate portrayal of its characters’ circumstances, this is especially true of how single mothers are depicted on screen. The mother-daughter relationship between single mom Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory on Gilmore Girls was initially a huge selling point for me, but ultimately, by making Lorelai a young mom with relatively supportive and wealthy parents, the show glosses over many of the hardships that single mothers face in favor of other storylines.
That made Gilmore Girls painful for me to watch at times, because I was seeing this idealistic fantasy, when I knew the hard truths about being the child of a single mother. The show’s unrelenting whiteness also didn’t help: Being part Mexican, I often don’t see myself represented on screen and unfortunately I’ve become complacent with this. But seeing a story about a single mom raising her daughter and wanting to relate so badly led to me not only pining away to see someone who looked like me on screen (and then feeling bad about myself when I couldn’t find a major character who did), but also feeling left out by this perfectly imperfect family that, at times, made me wish mine was like that, too.
That’s why it was so refreshing to watch One Day At A Time. In its depiction of Penelope (Justina Machado), a single mother living with her two kids and her own mother (Rita Moreno), the show manages to portray being Latinx to a T while also hitting on real issues. It helps that the writers' room for this Netflix original sitcom is very diverse — it’s made up of half Latinos and half women, and it’s clear that they’re writing a lot from experience. I have more happy memories with my mom than I do any other type of memory, and it’s like One Day At A Time went in there, dug around, and projected them onto my computer screen. From the show’s use of Latin music, which felt so authentic to the Latinx experience, to its recent plotlines like Penelope going back to school, One Day At A Time clearly strives to make itself relatable in its specificity.
It’s not just that I watched my mother do almost exactly the same thing as Penelope and go back to school — to keep her teaching certificate a couple years ago, my mom was told she had to enroll in college again, and I watched her stress about applying for loans, buy expensive-as-hell textbooks, and of course manage to find time to somehow raise four kids on her own — it’s that the show presents these struggles as simple facts of life that’s so validating. Just like Penelope, my mother was doing it all for the family, because that’s just what single mothers do.
There are other even smaller details that make the show feel so true to life that One Day At A Time effortlessly weaves into its episodes. One of the things I related most to was the setup of the Alvarez home. It’s not big; they live in a three-bedroom apartment that’s bursting at the seams (Lydia sleeps behind a curtained-off alcove in the living room). The lack of personal space and quiet rooms is so evident in the show, and it’s exactly how my life at home is. In one scene, Penelope needs to study for a class, but Alex is practicing the cello, Elena is making protest posters, and Lydia is hosting a ballet class. The meltdown that Penelope has is not only one that single moms have, but that anyone can have in a big, lively household. When at home, my mom’s small apartment makes it seem like the amount of people that live there (five when at full capacity) has doubled because of all the noise, and there’s hardly any quiet places to work. Just like Penelope, I often have to leave if I want to get work done.
It’s also the dynamic that’s inside this small space that feels on point. The matriarchs in the household on this show are really strong, as they have to be, but that leads to a more maternal and inherently accepting environment. Penelope’s daughter Elena is out and gay, and even though Penelope and Lydia struggle with things like pronouns or her political activism, they’re supportive. They allow the kids to be themselves, and that’s something that resonated with me deeply. Without the added machismo in the household from my father, which is a solid relief, we’re able to be who we want and both genders are able to flourish without the added stress of conforming to gender norms. This manifests in small ways, like feeling empowered to speak our minds without fearing punishment, and larger ones, like my brother being allowed to take dance classes or my little sisters being encouraged to feel confident in their math and science skills.
Finding something that just feels as real-life as One Day At A Time is really tough. We have the Lorelais and the Renées in the world, but so few single, Latina moms exist in mainstream media. To be able to not only see my mom’s identity, but also my own life, portrayed so well is something I yearn for. After watching One Day At A Time, I realize that I clung to it. I fell in love with the show and rejoiced with almost too much enthusiasm when it was renewed because shows like this aren’t made every day (or even at all). The saddest part is that it shouldn’t be like this. I shouldn't tear up at Coco because I’ve never heard the word “chancla” used so naturally in a big blockbuster film. And I shouldn’t cry because I see me and my mom rolled into one character in Penelope. TV and film need more Latinas in dynamic roles. It's that simple.
Just weeks ago at the SAG Awards, Gina Rodriguez pointed out that Latinx make up a huge chunk of the country (56.5 million plus in the country, as of 2015). "No big deal. You should throw us in a movie or two. It would make sense. We do buy one in every four tickets, every single weekend, and make sure that your movies do well," she said. People of color have been watching stories that don’t involve them for too long. But that doesn’t make it right that this should continue to be the status quo. Shows like One Day At A Time give me hope that slowly, maybe things will change.