A black and white photo of Gina Rodriguez.

Our Shackles Aren’t Invisible or An Illusion: A Response to Gina Rodriguez

Earlier this summer, Jane The Virgin star Gina Rodriguez teamed up with Clinique for their “Difference Maker” campaign. In the promotional video for the campaign, Gina shares her success story, hoping to inspire other young, disadvantaged kids like herself. A colored pencil, a yellow highlighter, a stack of books, and other school supplies flash across the screen and an empty notebook suggests that our lives, like Gina’s, are bursting with potential; it is simply up to us to direct them.In the video, Gina differentiates between her passion, which is acting, and her life’s purpose, which is, “to free someone from those invisible shackles. Because they are invisible. They are an illusion.”

Gina tells us she comes from a “predominantly Latino, gang infested neighborhood in Chicago,” where kids get discouraged at a young age and fall into a trap of “can’t and won’t.” She had the “unfair advantage” of having parents who encouraged her to pursue an education and unlike others, she was “lucky” enough to “get out.”

Towards the middle of the recording, Gina can be seen boxing as her father tells her, “Every single day when you wake up, step in front of that mirror and say: ‘Today is going to be a great day. I can and I will. Say it or it won’t happen.’” This belief in the power of positive thinking is both common and incredibly harmful. The attention is focused on an individual’s behavior with no mention of the structural problems and inequalities that keep them down both emotionally and socio-economically. It tells us our attitudes — not the obstacles stacked against us — are the problem.

I understand where Gina is coming from. I, too, had an “unfair advantage,” when it came to higher education. My parents sacrificed everything for me to go to college. And it did seem unfair. Although I was undocumented and did not qualify for federal financial aid, my mom and dad threw their life’s savings into my education, working overtime hours and giving up going on vacation for six years. We – that is, Gina and I – are extremely lucky. Yet, unlike Gina, I don’t believe that education is the one-size-fits-all solution for our community’s disempowerment.

If, like Gina claims, “education is the only way to get out,” what about Latinxs who could not or did not want to pursue a higher education? What about those who don’t fit into the category of the sympathetic, respectable brown person? What about those who aren’t high-achieving students? What about those whose dreams don’t involve “getting out”?

Gina tells us that she faced countless obstacles on her path to success. She says, “I had a lot of things that I was up against. My skin color, my body type, where I came from. I had all of these challenges, but education was knocking all of them down.” I can’t speak for Gina, but in my case, education did not knock down those obstacles. In a lot of ways, it reinforced and intensified them. As a graduate student, often times I was made to feel unwanted, undeserving, and unwelcome. Instead of being empowered, I was tokenized. Instead of feeling safe, I felt vulnerable. Instead of feeling like a member of the community, I felt like an outsider. Is this what empowerment is supposed to feel like?

Let me take a moment here to vocalize how much I admire and respect Gina Rodriguez. I watch Jane The Virgin every week without fail. I cried when she won her Golden Globe. I emailed her speech to my mom, thanking her for all she’s done for me. But, I want to end this discussion by reminding Gina – and everyone watching the Clinique campaign – that our worth as Latinxs does not come from our ability to overcome obstacles, nor does glorifying this ideal Latinx stereotype help our community move forward. Reinforcing the “power” of positive thinking as a solution to systemic inequalities and telling ourselves that “we can and we will” doesn’t do much for the kids without papers, for kids with parents who can’t afford to send them to college, for kids whose parents have been deported, for kids who would rather not go to school, for kids who don’t want to leave our barrios, our ““predominantly Latinx, gang infested neighborhoods.”

Because sometimes, leaving is not an option. And sometimes leaving doesn’t makes things easier. It makes them worse. Sometimes we do get “caught up in a cycle of can’t and won’t” and it’s not because we’re weak or lack motivation – it’s because we’ve been beaten down by a system that’s not going away. Because our shackles are real. And they look like Jesse Romero getting shot by the police because he was inscribing “gang-style graffiti” in his neighborhood. They look like thousands of children being separated from their families due to deportation. They look like Yale University choosing to disregard student’s pain and trauma by keeping the name Calhoun College. They look like a Latinx student going to Brown University for a conference and being assaulted by a campus police officer.

Gina, the first step towards breaking our shackles and empowering our community is to acknowledge their existence.

Header credit: Screen shot from ad, via People.com.

Durham, NC

Barbara is a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina interested in im/migration and migrant activism and organizing.

Barbara is a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina interested in im/migration and migrant activism and organizing.

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