‘Griselda’ Is Great, But It Continues to Depict the Tragic Way Latinos Are Portrayed on TV

'Griselda' has been a hit for Netflix and loved among fans. But should shows like these continue to be made?

Elizabeth Morris/Netflix

When a new Latino film or TV series hits streamers, I’ll most likely avoid it. And that was my initial reaction to Netflix's Griselda

That’s because there’s a strong chance Latino-led shows will include some (or all) of the following: characters who are either criminals, cholos, gangsters, and/or narcos; or immigrants who speak broken English or with an accent. They’re most likely poor, work hard jobs, and their intense passion means they have little to no control over their emotions. 

There’s no doubt that these elements do portray (albeit dramatically) slivers of reality about the Latino culture. Latinos love hard, work hard, and spice up just about anything in life—that’s why we love our culture. The hesitation to view it onscreen comes from us knowing that the picture is incomplete, or an exaggerated version, and then the rest of the world takes that thin slice they see onscreen as major truths about said people, which then bleed out into real-life interactions.

That’s why I avoided watching Griselda for a minute. It is difficult to not look at a show like this without the thought that international audiences, and Americans even, who don't interract with Latinos in their day-to-day will be learning about Latinidad through crime dramas like Griselda and Narcos. Basing your knowledge about Latinos from this TV genre is like only knowing white people through The Wolf of Wall Street, Breaking Bad, or Pain Hustlers. The pieces aren’t all the way wrong, but they’re just not the full scope of who Latinos are. 

Since the Netflix miniseries is about Colombian drug queenpin Griselda Blanco, I was sure Griselda would be filled with Latino trope after Latino trope, causing some hesitation about watching it. At the same time, supporting Latinos working in entertainment (on and off camera) is important—so I gave in and watched. And ultimately, Griselda was a pleasant surprise.

What looks like it could be a high-budget portrayal of every Latino stereotype imaginable, which it is at times, becomes a powerful story about two women (Griselda, played by Sofia Vergara, and Detective June Hawkins, played by Juliana Aidén Martinez) confronting the realities of the illusory “American dream” and subverting patriarchal power imbalances like absolute bosses to the backdrop of 1980s Miami. They somehow become people to root for, even if both their lines of work have been harmful to Latinos in some way.

As a communication and media scholar who likes to think about the relationship between content (like films and TV shows) and contemporary American society, I wondered: “Why release this show at this time?” The way Latino culture is depicted onscreen matters. So when I say Griselda is good, it’s in comparison to the history of projects like it. And in that case, it is major progress. For a miniseries like Griselda, which is still the No. 1 show on Netflix weeks after its release, to glow with more universal, resonant emotions like determination and resilience shows me that it is a step forward overall, and that gives me hope.

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Vergara’s character has a monologue in Episode 2, aptly titled “Rich White People,” which boasts Griselda’s entrepreneurial and charismatic spirit. She is telling her new employees, who are former Colombian prostitutes, about their new game plan. “This is the country of dreams. I know you felt it when you got off that fucking plane. That sensation that it can all be yours. That feeling is more powerful than love, money, anything. But it turns out there are people here whose dreams have already come true,” Griselda tells them. “The people I’m talking about are white. And they’re rich. They represent a huge, untapped market no one’s ever thought to touch. And in this suitcase we have the power to bring the excitement back into their boring lives.” 

I wasn’t a drug queenpin in 1980s Miami, but it was satisfying to watch somebody firmly grasp the slippery American dream with tact and intelligence. If the Latino crime drama vibes pulled viewers in, they likely stayed because they were rooting for two female characters to get what they so desperately wanted: justice and the fulfilled dreams this country promises. At the same time, I am eagerly awaiting the time when the world will experience these themes and emotions for Latino characters outside of the context of prostitution and cocaine. 

This is not to bash streamers either. In the spirit of Griselda, the concept of supply and demand is at play. Streamers wouldn’t make these stories if viewers didn’t crave them. However, the frustration for Latino talent in Hollywood is that we have always been someone else’s definition of what a Latino is, as opposed to us deciding what that means for ourselves.

Movies and TV shows help us understand ourselves, and if we only see narrow views of the Latino culture that a Latino didn’t write, it’s hard for us to make sense of our place in American society. That’s what makes Griselda even more convincing. Vergara, in addition to starring as Griselda Blanco herself, executive produced the series and cast mostly Colombian actors—a clear example that when Latinos get to tell stories of their history, they maintain cultural accuracies that outsiders often miss. 

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Now, more than ever, the viewer’s attention is a premium currency, so it’s up to viewers to make production companies work for it by choosing to watch better, more reflective stories. If for no other reason, viewers must do it for themselves and their communities. Thinking of Griselda alongside other Latino-led stories like Society of the Snow and Wednesday is a mark toward expanded representations of Latinos and our stories—and that’s largely thanks to those behind the scenes at the major studios who make that happen. 

As film studies professor and author Charles Ramírez Berg once said, “The antidote to stereotypes is knowledge.” Shows like Griselda often display the worst of who we are, and we can only hope to see more stories that show us at our best, so the rest of the world can know who we really are, on and offscreen.

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