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From ‘Modern Family’ to ‘Superstore’ to ‘Charmed,’ a look at Latinas on TV

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Sofia Vergara on the ABC series, "Modern Family." (Tony Rivetti/ABC)
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"Modern Family" is one of the longest-running sitcoms currently on TV, now in its 10th season on ABC. The show has made Sofia Vergara a star — so much so that she is the highest paid actress on TV, according to Forbes.

When looking at the landscape of Latina representation, Vergara’s success stands out. But so do the stereotypes her character embodies. In her book "Latinas & Latinos on TV," Isabel Molina-Guzman analyzes recent comedies, assessing the good and the bad.

I spoke with Molina-Guzman, who is a professor of media and cinema studies as well as Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about some shows on TV this season. The following is an edited transcript.

In your book, you talk about how Sofia Vergara is this really notable pinnacle of achievement because she’s one of the most recognizable actors on TV as well as the highest paid. On the other hand, as Gloria, she’s playing this sexualized Latina stereotype.

Personally, I love her. I think she’s a brilliant comedian and a very smart comedian. She’s playing a stereotypical character, but Gloria has also been allowed to be more nuanced in ways that are unexpected and really interesting. Her sexual politics on the show are much more progressive than the more conservative stereotype. For example, Latina women and mothers in particular are often portrayed as more Catholic and more socially rigid, whereas Gloria seems more socially conscious than a lot of the characters.

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But we can’t forget her only way to access that visibility is through this decades-old stereotype that is super-familiar to most U.S. audiences. And that’s a problem. The scope of representation is so narrow that for Sofia Vergara and this character, her path has to be through this spitfire Latina trope, which means: usually has an accent; usually very temperamental; tends to look a particular way and have a particular body type.

You also talk about the idea of color-blind casting in the book. America Ferrera now stars on the NBC comedy "Superstore," which I really love, and that show takes more of a color-blind approach, where everyone is just this beleaguered big box store employee.

That’s one of my favorite shows, too. I think one of the things that has changed over the years is the rise of Shonda Rhimes and her success with color-blind casting, where ethnicity and race are not necessarily the motivating factor in storylines. And "Superstore" falls into that, but it’s also very smart about finding humor in the ethnic and racial differences of its characters.

Right, last season there was a storyline where a delivery guy started flirting with Ferrera’s character in Spanish, and that ended up playing on some of her insecurities about her own Spanish fluency and not feeling Latina enough.

And one of the best episodes from the first season was the whole salsa wars episode ("Shots and Salsa") where they want her to dress up in the sombrero and she refuses to do it because it’s stereotypical and she feels like her manager is just asking her to do it because she’s Latina. So they’ve played with it. But it’s not the primary focus of the story, and I think that’s fine.

I just wish that talented Latina and Latino actors got to play the same roles as white actors get to play, but maybe more embedded or informed by a particular set of experiences. There should be a space for that. And for pushing back on stereotypes and allowing us to see a broader spectrum of what it means to be not only Latina but African-American, Indigenous, Asian — that’s been the general problem.

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