How Awkward Latina Characters with Deadpan Humor Made Me Feel Seen

Growing up in Queens, New York in the late ’90s, early aughts, I was the odd gal among Latinx friends, as an introvert with a deadpan, quirky humor that seemed too strange for the culture

Cynthia Via

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Via

Growing up in Queens, New York in the late ’90s, early aughts, I was the odd gal among Latinx friends, as an introvert with a deadpan, quirky humor that seemed too strange for the culture. Most Latina characters on TV or film at the time were portrayed as over-the-top sexual, bubbly, or dramatic, such as Karen Sisco in Out of Sight (Jennifer Lopez), Angie Lopez in the George Lopez Show (Constance Marie), and Elisa in 30 Rock (Salma Hayek). Many of them with curvy bodies like J.Lo, Sofía Vergara, Rosie Perez that exuded a confidence I was lacking  as an awkward skinny teen. When people started saying, I wasn’t “Latina enough,” it felt true, meaning if I wanted to be seen as what a Latina “should be”, I had to be like a superficial image perpetuated in the media. I saw myself more clearly in Wednesday from The Addams Family, animated characters like Daria, Spinelli from Recess, or Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls. And, I wished for equivalents in the BIPOC/ Latinx community. Nowadays, the variety of Latinx characters and comedians on screen with unexpected stories and personalities, bring an inclusive spectrum that highlights our weirdness. 

Among high school friends, many of them immigrants, I worried that my personality wasn’t representative of how our culture was perceived. Around my senior year, I stopped caring about the mold I was supposed to fit as an immigrant in white America. There was a pressure to conform and assimilate, absorb a successful career like a doctor or lawyer, seemingly the only American dream out there. I started discovering my messy, retro style, reading books, like Number the Stars, Awakening, Sula, Native Son, and I realized I wanted to be a writer. Especially because I wasn’t shy about broadcasting my opinions and critiquing society for the sake of principles, taking inspiration from comedian Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites who was the quirky, ’90s-alt girl of the era. Similarly, I always believed it was better to be a rebel than to be in a place you loathed. 

Witnessing Jenna Ortega on Netflix’s Wednesday was a moment for me. It was a rare sighting: a Latina character on screen who was anti-social with a no-holds-bar morbid, deadpan delivery. I share Wednesday’s penchant for killjoy opinions, her need for solitude and writing over the bells and whistles of superficial cliques. Her one liner quips are iconic including “I act as if I don’t care if people dislike me. Deep down… I secretly enjoy it.” And my favorite, “Anytime I grow nauseous at the sight of a rainbow or hear a pop song that makes my ears bleed, I’ll think of you.” Similarly, seeing her in femme horror films, like X and American Carnage highlights young Latinas in America with agency and real opinions. The skeptical and irreverent slant of those characters is something I longed for when I was younger. 

Wednesday Jenna Ortega

Wednesday. Jenna Ortega as Wednesday Addams in episode 104 of Wednesday. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Another emergence in the spectrum of Latina characters is Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation. A few years ago, my partner nudged me to watch April, saying with a wink, “you might like her,” and I couldn’t believe her dry sarcastic humor existed within the context of a Latina. She was peak millennial weird in Ingrid Goes West, then appeared as the introspective lawyer, Harper, with a deadly sarcastic flavor in White Lotus, proving she could expand her signature vibe. She was inquisitive about her place in the world among rich-types: “I think we’re their diverse friends. Their white-passing, diverse friends.”

A few years ago, my sister nudged me to watch Diane Nguyen, a nerdy, self-deprecating writer in the animated series BoJack Horseman. “You’re like Diane—I’m not even lying,” my sister said, insisting I watch it. And yes, she’s a Vietnamese American character, but her layered, flawed personality is largely absent for BIPOC females on screen. She’s introverted in social gatherings, but unexpectedly bold when the moment demands it. Diane struggles with depression in the vapid, empty world of “Hollywoo,” stubbornly clinging to her idealism. Among many of her inspirational lines, this one stands out: “like at the center of the farce there’s this nugget of something real and pure. And that strange, beautiful something is why you put up with everything else.” She also often dives into self-righteous rants that alienate some, but they’re filled with truth bombs.

Despite being introverts or outcasts, these characters still made their mark on the world, and they didn’t always betray the true parts of themselves to assimilate. Wanting to get out of my shell, while exploring my dark, deadpan humor, I started doing improv and stand-up before the pandemic. Initially, I gravitated toward deadpan comedians like Steven Wright, Martha Kelly, and Tig Notaro, and was encouraged by Melissa Villaseñor’s quirky humor, and Julio Torres’ off-beat comedy. Their existence fueled my type of strangeness. Villaseñor’s work on SNL with sketches like Melissa Seals the Deal, or her standup about her Latina mom asking questions showed me that vulnerable, awkward family moments could be a place of discovery. 

Melissa Villaseñor Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

Melissa Villaseñor Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

As I continue exploring improv and stand-up, I’m realizing how dark humor has a place in my culture. It comes from a feeling of rebellion, needing to show the absurdity and silliness of our lives. My humor is intertwined with my Peruvian ancestry, having grown up with a family of unofficial oral storytellers. My parents often tell stories about friends getting in trouble back when they lived in Peru’s countryside, sometimes with weirdly funny, ominous endings. Some stories teach you a lesson, like don’t climb a tree during a thunderstorm or touch prickly leaves on the side of a hill. My aunts once told us about their near-death experience when a car tumbled down a road. “We almost died and realized we were thrown off in different directions,” they’d say, cracking a laugh. It wasn’t funny, but to them it was, because life could be random and cruel, yet they were alive despite it. 

Acknowledging how ancestry informs my humor and watching these characters on screen makes my perspective feel valuable, and not at odds with my culture, but within the context of Latinidad. More so than the unexpected attitudes these characters and comedians thrive on, they also have a real connection with the audience, since they move beyond the superficial to a surprising honesty about individuality. Life experiences are layered, complicated and perhaps we’re all a bit flawed, so shouldn’t our characters reflect that? My personality is eternally informed by my childhood in Peru, moving to the states, and trying to assimilate. It doesn’t have to be tied to a white standard as portrayed in the media (dying your hair blond, playing a sexpot, marrying a white husband, or buying a giant house to impress your circle.) If you think about it, this mindset falls exactly in line with the colonial mentality plaguing Latinx immigrants, who were hoping to leave behind European influence. 

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aubrey plaza BoJack Horseman Featured gothic Jenna Ortega Melissa Villaseñor peruvian Wednesday series
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