'Orange Is the New Black' and Ethnic and Racial Differences Within the Latinx Community

by Rebecca Bodenheimer

7 March 2017

One of the most important messages of this show is that race is not all encompassing, but rather, it intersects with gender, sexuality, class, religion, and region in diverse ways.
Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) and Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) 
cover art

Orange Is the New Black

Cast: Taylor Schilling, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning

(Netflix)

The fourth season of Orange Is the New Black has a lot to say about inter-ethnic hostility within the Latinx community. Although it turns out to be a recurring theme throughout the season—and yet more evidence of how the show is unparalleled in its intersectionality, weaving issues of gender, race, and sexuality together in various ways for different characters—episode two, “Power Suit”, takes a deep dive into these conflicts.

I was amazed by the complex treatment in this episode of the tense relations between Dominicans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans in New York; this is a level of nuance and depth not common in mainstream media or television. The inmate whose story is given the flashback treatment, Maria Ruiz, does not have an easy relationship with the Dominican nationalism her father clearly tried to inculcate in her. As the flashback progresses, we see her rejecting the ethnocentrism of her father, which is primarily directed at the new waves of Mexican immigrants whom he sees as attempting to take over “Dominican” territory in New York.

Although we’re never told exactly where Ruiz grew up, it’s a safe bet that it was in Washington Heights, which began to be defined as a Dominican barrio with increasing migration from the island in the ‘60s and ‘70s. If we assume that the character is in her mid-20s-early 30s, this means she grew up primarily in the ‘90s, which is exactly when Mexican immigrants began to arrive in New York City in much larger numbers.

Ruiz ends up hooking up with a guy of Mexican descent, largely as a direct act of defiance against her father; he eventually kicks her out of the house for this “betrayal”. However, she also pushes back against his factionalism in a more philosophical manner, questioning why these inter-ethnic boundaries are so important to him. She challenges his assertions of Dominican pride, suggesting that the real reason for his antagonism towards Mexicans has to do with his drug-dealing operation: they’re the new drug dealers on the block, cutting in on Dominican territory. 

What’s fascinating about the episode is the shift in Ruiz’s thinking about her ethnic identity that happens as the present-day prison scenes progress. While in the flashback scenes we progressively see her rejecting Dominican nationalism and exclusive notions of identity, the opposite is taking place in the progression of the prison scenes. (In fact, you could say one of the main themes of the whole season is Ruiz’s shifting identity and status inside Litchfield, as she eventually rises to the top of the Latinx food chain, assuming the position of jefa, boss.)

At the beginning of the episode, she rejects the attempts by Blanca Flores, a fellow Dominican inmate, to unite over their shared ethnic identity. One of the most interesting scenes takes place in the TV room where inmates are watching a World Cup qualifying match between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. One of the new Dominican inmates refers to the Haitian players as cocolos, a historically derogatory term similar in use to the “N” word, used to refer to non-Spanish-speaking blacks in the Dominican Republic. (The term originally referred to English-speaking Caribbean laborers who came to work in the DR in the early 20th century, but its meaning has shifted to refer to blacks seen as less “native” to the country). Ruiz retorts that this inmate probably has cousins darker than the cocolos, to which the latter responds, “they ain’t black black, they indigenous.”

Ah yes, the famed Dominican denial of blackness: the island is known for its use of the term indio (indigenous) to refer to people who, in another context, would be labeled black. Clearly the show’s writers know their Caribbean history, as they weave in nuggets of the historic and racialized antagonism between the two countries residing on the island colonized as Hispaniola 500+ years ago. Ruiz asks Flores why she is so invested in the outcome of this match, given how terrible the Dominican soccer team is. After all, like its Spanish Caribbean neighbors Cuba and Puerto Rico, it’s baseball that constitutes the national sport of the DR, not soccer. Flores responds that it’s all about the homeland, the same words used by Ruiz’s father in her childhood.

Later, Ruiz and Flores are part of a conversation involving Daya and Aleida, the mother and daughter inmates of the show, who, as Puerto Ricans, (i.e., the “original” New York Latinx who were themselves besieged by huge waves of Dominican immigrants in the ‘60s and ‘70s), blame the new Dominican inmates for clogging the bathroom drains with their “kinky hair”. This not-so-veiled reference to the high proportion of Dominicans with some degree of African ancestry also assumes that blackness is incompatible with Puerto Rican racial identity (yet another narrative of racial erasure). While Flores calls them out on their racism, Ruiz says nothing and even defends Daya.

At this point, it seems that Ruiz feels no visceral connection to her Dominican identity. Nonetheless, after Ruiz witnesses Flores getting a beat-down from two new white inmates lamenting the huge numbers of Latinx inside Litchfield (and who will launch a “white power” movement as the season progresses), her Dominican pride kicks in and she decides to participate in a revenge beat-down of one of the white girls. Thus, it seems, she has come full circle. What we are left with at the end of the episode is a feeling not of inter-ethnic solidarity among Latinx, but rather a further splintering of identity politics.

Returning to the use of the term cocolos to refer to dark-skinned “outsiders” (such as Haitians) in the DR, one of the most hilarious and ironic moments of the episode takes place early on, when all the inmates are called to gather in the chapel. The most unlikely character is chosen to make one of the most interesting racial commentaries of the episode. Leanne, one of the “redneck” inmates, proceeds not only to school her bestie Angie on the fact that there are major differences between Latinx (Mexicans vs. Dominicans), but also spouts sophisticated knowledge about the historic racial tensions between the DR and Haiti and the fact that Dominicans overwhelmingly deny their blackness as a result of longstanding anti-Haitian sentiment. After Angie lists several stereotypes about Cubans (smoking cigars and swimming to Florida) and Colombians (coffee, coke, and “hips don’t lie”), Leanne says about Dominicans, “They talk a lot and play baseball, and are always like ‘I’m super not black’ even though Haiti is on the exact same island.”

I laughed out loud at the sheer absurdity of two characters who clearly stand in for “white trash” and who have regularly expressed racist sentiments, displaying such a sophisticated understanding of inter-ethnic differences and hostilities among Latinx/Caribbeans. Of course, upon hearing Dominicans (and other Latinx) boiled down to three features, Angie responds, “That’s right. Yeah, I hate them.” Genius writing.

Orange Is the New Black is without a doubt one of the most diverse shows on television, not only in terms of its cast but also in terms of its representations of life experience. This diversity goes far beyond race, but also extends to the various representations of gender and LGBT identities among the inmates. These women run the spectrum of femme-butch representation, from Morello, the epitome of femme and the heteronormative desire for a traditional marriage in which a man takes care of his woman, to Big Boo as the ultimate dyke lothario and cynic, to trans woman Sophia. Of course, one of the most heavily recurring themes is the deep racial segregation of prison life—you don’t run with girls of other races. There are exceptions, such as Asian outcast Brook Soso finding her way into the black girls’ group via a sweet romance (which, however, is not devoid of racial stereotyping) with one of my favorite characters on the show, Poussey.

We’ve seen time and time again on the show the ways that race and gender intersect (and in most inmates’ cases, also with poverty), in both predictable and surprising ways. So, while the generalized racial segregation is not surprising, one of the things I most appreciate is the complexity of the storylines between characters of the “same” race, evident in this hostility among the Dominican and Puerto Rican inmates.

In this same episode, we’re treated to another manifestation of inter-ethnic hostility: black inmate Cindy, who converted to Judaism last season (first as a way of making herself eligible for the better kosher meals, but who seems to have genuinely taken on Judaism as an identity marker) has a new bunkmate, a black Muslim. In one of their first exchanges, each of them challenges the authenticity of the other’s chosen religious identity. In previous seasons we’ve seen rifts among both black inmates—particularly when V took over their group in the second season—and white inmates, such as the beef in season one between Piper and “Pennsatucky”. However, we’ve also seen inmates with diametrically opposed worldviews becoming allies/friends, such as fundamentalist Christian crusader Pennsatucky and proud dyke Big Boo. One of the most important messages of the show is that race is not all encompassing—the show actively resists lumping all blacks, Latinx, or whites together—but rather intersects with gender, sexuality, class, religion, and region in diverse ways.

Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen ) and Cindy Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore) square off

Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen ) and Cindy Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore) square off

Perhaps one of the reasons Orange Is the New Black can tackle issues of race in such a complex, deeply layered manner is because it deals with relationships between women. Like portrayals of men’s prisons (I’m thinking specifically of the representations of prison race relations in Sons of Anarchy), there is racial segregation and nepotism (Red and her white kitchen crew before she had to share the job with Gloria), fighting, backstabbing, bribery, opportunism, an understanding of the need to appear intimidating, etc. However, there’s also reflection by many of the characters about their behavior, and that includes the ability to change or at least be flexible about their racial perspectives.

The cross-racial relationships portrayed in the show don’t seem contrived, inconceivable, or placed into the storyline as tokens of interracial harmony. The reason they are believable is that they are set against a backdrop of racial exclusion; in other words, cross-racial relationships are the exception. The audience buys into these exceptions because we trust that the show isn’t attempting to portray a “post-racial” vision of sisterhood or gloss over the reality that there are still deep racial divides in America and many indications of the continuing existence of white privilege. Orange Is the New Black is a powerful, poignant, and sometimes hilarious reflection of this history, starting with the show’s clear intention of portraying its main character, Piper, as the ultimate recipient of white privilege: a liberal who never quite realizes her position of privilege.

Returning to the representation of inter-ethnic tensions among Latinx communities, rarely has television seen such a historically informed (yet very entertaining!) deep dive into this issue. What’s more, this episode takes on issues that are still taboo in some parts of Latin America, namely the place of blackness in national identity. As is evident in comments from both Dominican and Puerto Rican inmates, signifiers of blackness—dark skin, kinky hair—are not something to be proud of in many parts of Latin America; rather, they are denied or projected onto others. Because Latin American countries have historically included a mixed-race category in their official population counts, many Latinx draw a hard and fast line between mestizo/mulato (mixed race) and negro (black). This presents a major contrast with racial categorization in the US, so shaped by the “one-drop” rule that lumps everyone with African ancestry together as “black”.

Afro-Latinx have only begun to be recognized in recent decades as a distinct population group in many countries, such as Mexico, Peru, and Colombia. Thus, to delve into the racial politics of Latinx identity and give this issue some airplay is not a small feat. In terms of the bigger picture, like Litchfield’s prison population—as Flores tells Ruiz, “we’re the majority now”—Latinx are the largest population of color in this country, and it’s about time their issues, stories and differences were better represented on TV and in the media.

Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance academic and writer/editor who has published widely on music, regionalism, and racial politics in contemporary Cuba. She has a PhD from UC Berkeley and is the author of the book Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba (2015). Current writing projects include non-academic essays related to various pop culture subjects and issues of race/representation.

A version of this article was previously published on The Outtake.net.

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