One Day at a Time’s Elena Alvarez is the Queer Latinx Teenager I Never Got to Be

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To end Pride Month right, we’d like to share some thoughts on Elena Alvarez from Netflix’s One Day At A Time. Played with style by Isabella Gomez, Elena is an example of the kind of queer, Latinx representation that we’d love to see more of in media. We invite you to enjoy this love letter to Elena, and One Day At A Time, from poet Julian Randall.

Happy Pride Month to all!

Mid-February and there’s a girl in a stark white tuxedo swaying with her mother, then her brother, then her abuela, then her landlord; Mid-February in Mississippi and she might as well be the only snow for miles. For the first time in months, miles from my own mother, I feel like dancing; for the first time in years, I start to cry. Through the tears, the world is mostly fractals and imaginings; beauty only its loudest color. For the first time I can remember, there is snow and Spanish in Mississippi; I begin to call that color home.

My mother doesn’t dance — not doesn’t “like” to dance, doesn’t dance, so don’t ask her. Story goes that when my mother was a little girl she was dancing with her sisters at a party in Washington Heights. Nobody agrees what the party was for, just that it was some occasion that brought all the daughters of families that fled Trujillo into a winter they couldn’t prepare for, briefly to a place of just being girls and a song. Story goes that my mother was never a gifted dancer; that Abuelo laughed from the corner, likely nursing a beer that chuckled like light off a wave. Story goes that after that laugh, my mother never danced again aside from once or twice at her wedding.

In the only photo of their wedding I have seen, it is New Year’s Eve 1984. She is standing and smiling next to my father, he is taller and wearing a smile that the flash washes out of his eyes. She is wearing an amber dress, like dusk dragging itself off the sky. Outside, past the little courthouse, I imagine dusk in Washington Heights; this is all before I was born. When I arrived in this world, the sun had already set on my chance to sway with my mother like the girl does with hers; like daughters of the same distance, quietly bridging the gap between what happened and what ought to be.

The girl’s name is Elena Alvarez, played on Netflix’s One Day at a Time by Isabella Gomez, and she is the representation I have been waiting on for years. Her family describes her the way anyone in my own family described me in my high school years: excitable, awkward, a nearly insufferable know-it-all. In conversation with all that, me and Elena share other qualities: we are ambitious, brilliant in our mothers’ second languages and utterly graceless in their first; and one more: being the only out queer member of our immediate families. So we share the concern in our mothers’ eyes. We share the sweat that gilds their palms when they think how many more people now hate their child than when they began. We share the silence that means they are trying; that translates to they love us but are afraid to say it in the wrong language.

I first thoroughly imagined telling my parents that I was bisexual on a bus to Providence on June 13th, 2016. If you know what that means without my saying then we probably live in the same history, cousins by virtue of the same grief. The bus swayed in slow time with a strong breeze, acres of green blurred into shoddy memory; the morning after the Pulse Shooting was aesthetically a day like any other day. To my parents, it was a day that was tragic but not the kind of tragic that made them think immediately where their son might be. Flanked by wind and trees for hours, I shuffled through the growing list of the dead whose names sounded like half cousins, through reports the shooter was perhaps a regular at the bar he massacred. Hour after hour the distance yawned between us until I knew that when I returned I would have to give my parents something else to worry about. It was the worst kind of translation; to take the silence and make it into a language where, like my own halting Spanish, they were most fluent in the anxieties.

I missed the boat on the first season of One Day at a Time. I found the show when I was quite alone in my Mississippi apartment, this place I moved to roughly a month after telling my parents that I was bisexual; this place about which my mother is always holding her breath. What this means is that I wasn’t granted the slow reveal of Elena’s queerness, it was mentioned in the second season trailer when I arrived; and I was deeply intrigued so I binged the entire thing in a matter of three sleepless days. When the theme song belts through my empty apartment, I’m generally salsa dancing; first nervously and then spinning, boldly but rarely well, holding hands with the air until it laughs like my mother would.

The thing I’ve always loved about salsa, even when I pretend I don’t want to dance with my friends to avoid demonstrating how much I was not taught, is its give and take. If the right song is playing, I mostly imagine another self who was taught what was laughed out of my mother decades before I could have existed. I imagine her taking my hand and this being the way she showed me what she has always tried and mostly succeeded at being: someone who smiles and laughs during your forward steps and is there to be gentle with your retreats; that this is how I would learn to do the same for her. But eventually, if there’s going to be a show, the song has to end, just like that my hand is empty again, just a boy swaying slowly where his mother cannot reach him.

When Mississippi’s muted green winter thawed into another relentless sun I came back this past summer to my parents’ house. On nights where my father is out of the house to learn tai chi or be briefly young again with his best friends, out in some bars where the hairlines froth slowly to grey; I spend most summer nights with my mother in different rooms, her exhausted from work and me trying to secure one fellowship or another. But on a couple of rare nights where the obligations of being my Abuela’s daughter are resolved early, and the applications are done, I have convinced her to start watching One Day at a Time with me. The too loud drum of the Netflix logo fades pixel by pixel and on the screen there we are: ourselves but not ourselves; my mother and me watching the queer Latinx teenager I never got to be.

In this episode, she is watching me dance with my first same-sex partner at prom. In this life, we are arguing about me mentioning that I am queer in my artist bio. In another episode, she is holding my hand while I lament establishing a Gay-Straight Alliance in high school without an ounce of the pushback and fear from the father who is so unlike mine; how lonely it is, when the world is more equipped to love you than your own family. In this life, my mother is reminding me that all she knows about where I live are the bodies that floated from the river.

In this life, she is telling me to be quiet because she is afraid that in my loud desire to live, I may well have killed her only son. In a season finale, we are both standing at Abuela’s hospital bed, as we did in our real life at my Abuelo’s; praying in different languages for the chance to say goodbye. It’s not a perfect comparison, nothing on screen could ever hope to hold everything my mother is. But it’s a chance, for a half hour at a time, for me to let her into this other imagination where we are swaying slowly to a song I know but can’t translate; these fragments of a life I’ve led when I am far from her, this dance I do to remember who she is.

A thing I had underestimated was understanding coming out as if it were a one-time TV event. An older queer mentor, when I was at a recent low point, reminded me that few people come out only once. I have to keep doing it, sometimes entering the room like Elena; too loud and always feeling like I have to announce myself or be lost in the noise. What makes the sitcom one of America’s great loves is that it is, at its core, not dissimilar to salsa. There is always more show, always more places to put your foot where there once was the foot of someone you love, and if you are lucky they love you back. I am lucky, my mother loves me more than her two languages can hold, and she is trying to learn better language for who I am and who I am moving towards being.

But, of course, songs end and sometimes, even when you are dancing your best, there is no more show, a snag in the music that beckons the quiet again. Shortly after the premiere of an astounding and brilliant third season, Netflix canceled One Day At A Time because of “low viewership numbers.” It’s not unfamiliar, I salsa by myself, I know back steps, I know absence where there should be someone who loves me. I am 25 so I remember bidding farewell to Taina, to The Brothers Garcia, to a host of families like mine but not mine; I remember the static that they left in their wake, I remember that if I close my eyes it sounded like snow.

I’m skeptical about this low-viewership, partially because everyone I know who watches the show watched twice to drive up the viewership numbers, but mostly because of how I met Elena, a season old already. Why did no one think to tell me that I was somewhere, alive and loud and young the way I have always wondered about? I was not a priority, I know that song too. No matter how daring and brilliantly crafted the show was, Netflix was not as committed to letting me know about it as it was about Bloodline, The Santa Clarita Diet or the final season of House of Cards. Not as committed as they were to paying millions on keeping Friends as if there wasn’t also TBS, somewhere else the show lives. There is space, I believe, in the imagination for all of us but always it seems that I am being made to beg to live in a good song a little longer; it seems I am always being made to ask the wrong people how I can be allowed to hold my mother’s hand for a while longer.

Like any relationship, any rhythm you sway to with someone who loves you and wants to shield you from all the imaginations that hate the idea of you and want to harm or end your body because of it, we take forward steps and backward steps. We salsa like this, awkward and out of practice at times but never losing each other’s eyes. It is mid-February and I am back in Mississippi; it looks like it might snow, my mother is holding her breath in Maryland for her bisexual son. I turn the TV on, I let the theme song play, I hear the show is coming back for a fourth season after all, I reach my hand out; I miss her and smile, I know I won’t be dancing by myself for long.

You can see more of Poet Julian Randall online on his Twitter page here

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