INTERVIEW: Vanessa Verduga on the Hotly Debated “Devious Maids” Controversy

PolicyMic.com said Devious Maids – Marc Cherry’s new Lifetime collaboration with Eva Longoria – “stirred up deep-rooted sentiments among the Latino community with some viewing it as a wasted opportunity that fails to deviate from stereotypical roles and others further calling it an insulting disgrace that does a tremendous disservice to Latinas in the United States.”

Actress Vanessa Verduga gives us a clearer picture of how the show defines Latina actresses and the existing Hispanic subculture in America.

Vanessa Verduga

How is Eva Longoria’s new show helping Latina actresses if they are playing maids — and the home owners are WASPs?
Devious Maids, intentionally takes a Latina stereotype and seeks to deepen it by exploring these three-dimensional characters that society chooses to stereotype. The leads are not Latina “maids” as a character description. They are fully realized, three-dimensional characters who happen to be maids. They are living a truth. The show has a heart, a brain and an agenda as it presents an entirely Hispanic viewpoint; one that opens up into flashes of social class insight; making statements on how the invisible working class see the all to visible dynamics of the privileged. It’s a groundbreaking depiction of Latina characters in primetime.

The show’s ensemble of devious hot Latina actresses are no stranger to Hollywood productions. Ana Ortiz, playing Marisol, was award winning best supporting actress, vivacious sister to Ugly Betty. Dania Ramirez, as Rosie, an estranged mother whose primary goal is bringing her child over the border, has already wowed audiences in a number of thrillers and The Sopranos. Roselyn Sanchez, playing Carmen, a wily little opportunist who pursues a singing career by taking a job as maid for a (Latino) rock star, made her debut as a knockout secret service agent in Rush Hour II. Edy Gamen, as Valentina, a willful teenager employed in maid service along with her mother, has broken ground in several independent films. The mother, Zoila, played by Judy Reyes, is a very familiar face. It should be. She is none other than the sassy Carla Espinosa on Scrubs.

That these five, extremely talented Latina actresses should come together for the making of the series is far more remarkable than the vying for who gets the most attention in the very forgettable movie, The Expendables. They are beautifully balanced, each one playing her role tightly, with no attempt to grand stage the others.

Men imagine Latina actresses as seductive. Is this helpful, harmful or both?
Men would like to imagine all women as seductive. I don’t think that is exclusive to Latinas. What has been exclusive to Latinas since the era of silent films is the depiction of the Latina woman as a heathen seductress with little morals, physically aggressive and with an insatiably sexual appetite. Even in this day and age Latinas are used as prop devices in a few white shows. I figure, why bother including us at all if our characters are shallow, vapid and exist just as eye-candy? Now that’s the real harmful stereotype. The industry seems to like the idea of Latinas — of the bodies, the cute faces — but it seems uninterested in hearing their stories. They are less than flattering, real-life stories, that, let’s face it, aren’t as glamorous as Mad Men. That’s why a show like Devious Maids is needed in order to turn that harmful stereotype, that misconception, on its head.

I haven’t seen this, although it’s a Marc Cherry production. I must assume it involves catty, gossipy women and home wrecking. Doesn’t this too reinforce negative stereotypes? I liked Desperate Housewives because bad behavior wasn’t exclusive to one racial background.
If you liked Desperate Housewives then I think you’d enjoy Devious Maids. The devious behavior shows no sign of discrimination and that’s what makes the show intriguing and interesting to watch. The Devious Maids are neither ambitious professionals working their way up the ladder in the corporate world, nor are they barely informed immigrants fearful they’ll get shipped back over the border. They are sexy, sassy and highly observant. They are visible to their audience and invisible to their employers.

This is, perhaps the most uncomfortable part. The sexy and sassy, sure! With enough leg showing and deep cleavage, the show would take off like a ball of fire, provided the five maids are dumbed down. They’re not. They observe the behavior of their employers with that “mama raised me better” look that reminds you sexy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re eye candy without a brain. It’s a subtle nuance, and perhaps one that can only be defined by culture. Devious Maids is a comedy/drama, based off the Mexican telenovela, “Ellas Son la Alegria del Hogar.” The comedic aspects are a blatant poke at a self-absorbed society, more concerned about their furniture than murder, more wrapped up in public appearances than their children.

Devious Maids is a murder mystery, with amateur sleuths trying to solve the crime, a throwback to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew era. The drama is often clichéd, the dialogue trite, but that’s typical of a soap opera. It is the antithesis to American comedy, which allows its main characters to destroy the property of night clubs and hotels, create havoc in outdoor markets, insult indigenous populations with bizarre imitations of their culture, steal motorboats in a hot chase, all in the name of “good clean fun.” Of course, since these main characters belong to the wealthy privileged, the repercussions for their delinquency are little to nothing.

Can someone make a show about Hispanic culture without rubbing in the race card?
It would be naive of me to expect somehow, a cast starring five genuine Latinas and with genuine Latina script writers on Marc Cherry’s team, was to elevate the viewer into a crystal clear realization that the entire Hispanic population was so well-incorporated into the white person’s world, there was virtually no difference in culture, background, education, social status and opportunities.

I am not one of these people who believes in cultural genocide. You know, as in forget who you are and just be a happy American. No, it doesn’t work that way. We are all different and that’s what makes us beautiful. And in the Latino community, we embrace our culture, our history, and the lives of our extended family. That’s what makes it interesting to see stories about people we know—people we can relate to, something close to our hearts. I am hopeful that as time progresses, the industry will keep opening its doors to more culturally diverse voices and our Latino stories will come to be seen as regular American stories, told for their truth, and not as race touting stories.

Why isn’t Cameron Diaz usually named in top Latina actresses countdowns when she is half Cuban, and the last name gives it away?
I think of Cameron Diaz as a Latina actress and have seen her on a few top Latina actresses countdowns. Actually, she’s on the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful Latino celebrities. Moreover, Cameron considers herself a Latina actress: “My Latin roots are very strong. All my life, because I’m blonde and blue-eyed, people who aren’t Hispanic can’t believe I am. And people who are Hispanic always think I’m not, because I don’t look like them. Being Latin is part of who I am and I bring that part to every role.”

So, I guess it would really depend on who is compiling the list and their personal bias against Cameron Diaz. To me, Cameron looks like my cousin just like Zoe Saldana looks like my other cousin. That’s the beauty of Latino families, we span the entire racial spectrum.

Who said that Latina women have curves and started this whole nonsense about one single body type all Hollywood Latinas must have? They all look like different women! Not to mention, why is any body type part of being an actress? WASP actresses don’t deal with that.
Our patriarchal society has a history rife with objectifying representations and reductions of women – perceiving a woman first as an object before considering her as an individual. To that extent the objectification of women makes no distinction of race or ethnicity. There are plenty of non-Latina actresses who have been objectified by the male-centric mass-market entertainment industry such as Scarlet Johansson, Christina Hendricks, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe, just to name a few. However, the difference between these actresses and Latina actresses is that they have been given opportunities to showcase themselves as substantive actresses. Thereby, proving that they can rise above the objectification whereas Latina actresses have rarely been granted those same opportunities.

I believe the discrepancy indeed has to do with discrimination. For instance, I was once told by an agent, in a very matter-of-fact way, that although I was ethnically ambiguous and the leading lady type I needed to become a more marketable stereotype if I wanted to work as an actress. That is, as a Latina, I was not going to be considered for leading lady roles, therefore, I needed to adjust myself accordingly. Of course, I discarded her advice as nonsensical. Unfortunately, that nonsensical mentality that seeks to perpetuate stereotypes and, in turn, intolerance, permeates throughout the entertainment industry. An industry that heavily influences society’s values and therein lies the danger.

Are you against non-Latinas playing Latina roles, or actresses doing the reverse, like when Jennifer Lopez was Italian in The Wedding Planner?
I’m not against non-Latinas playing Latinas or vice versa, provided the actress brings truthfulness to the role and doesn’t play it out as a caricature in a borderline minstrel show. Having said that, however, I must admit that I do not subscribe to the notion that Latino is a race. It’s an ethnicity that embraces many different races. Hence why we do not all look alike. Therefore, the fact that Jennifer Lopez played an Italian-American in The Wedding Planner did not bother me at all because 1) she wasn’t playing a caricature of an Italian-American, and 2) many Latinos have Italian ancestors, including myself, as well as ancestors from other parts of the Old World (Europe, Asia and Africa) along with indigenous ancestry. Just like the United States is a nation of immigrants so is Latin America.

If you wrote a big ABC or Lifetime show like Marc Cherry has done, how would you positively write roles for Latina storylines?
I believe it’s important to diversify the role of television by constructing our own stories. Devious Maids was a start, but we should not settle for just this. I would write roles that represent the modern Latina, like the one I play in my web series “Justice Woman” (JusticeWoman.com) about a Lawyer by day who becomes a masked vigilante by night. When I wrote Justice Woman, it wasn’t my intention to hit people alongside the head with the character’s ethnicity, but to present a superheroine who just happens to be Latina, rising and fighting corrupt tyrants, something we can all relate to.

I’m excited by the progress of Justice Woman, which has over 1 million views, is rated among the eight “must watch” Latino web series by Latina magazine and has landed me an “Outstanding Lead Actress” award at the 2013 LA Web Festival, with a heroine who is relatable to all women, independent of whether they’re Latina or not. I believe this is very important as it illustrates how we all have the same needs and same desires for equitable treatment.

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