Correction appended, Oct. 9, 2014
In a crowded beverly hills, calif., hotel ballroom in July, a member of the Television Critics Association asked Gina Rodriguez, star of the new CW comedy Jane the Virgin, a seemingly simple question. Why had she turned down a chance to test for the Lifetime series Devious Maids to pursue a role like this one, about a young woman who’s artificially inseminated as the result of a hospital mix-up?
“Every role that I’ve chosen has been [one] that I think [is] going to push forward the idea of my culture, of women, of beauty,” Rodriguez, 29, said in a speech that quickly made the rounds online. “I wasn’t going to let my introduction to the world be one of a story that I think has been told many times.”
When Jane the Virgin premieres on Oct. 13, Rodriguez makes that introduction playing not a maid but the kind of character she never saw on TV as a kid. Unlike Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which feature multiple Latino actors in supporting roles) or Orange Is the New Black (whose Latina characters are all in prison), Jane the Virgin puts an ordinary Latina front and center without making a big deal about it–even though it is a big deal for Rodriguez. “To read a story about a young girl where her ethnicity wasn’t at the forefront, where her dual identity was so integrated in life that it didn’t feel like a separate conversation, was such a breath of fresh air,” the actress tells TIME.
Loosely based on the 2002 Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, the show follows a religious 23-year-old whose life is turned upside down when a frazzled doctor confuses her with a fertility patient. Jane’s Catholic grandmother is horrified; her mother, who got pregnant with Jane as a teenager, is more understanding; Jane’s boyfriend, who learns of the mishap midproposal, is dumbfounded; and the accidental donor, who happens to be Jane’s former crush, a cancer survivor and the owner of the hotel where she works, is blindsided. And that’s just the first episode. Rodriguez’s down-to-earth warmth and contagious enthusiasm helped make her an instant favorite when it came time to cast the role. “You expect it to be a really long search, and to see someone come in, literally the third person [to audition], it was amazing,” says executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman. “She’s 100% genuine and 100% fun. Sometimes I feel like I’m hanging out with one of my college friends.”
Rodriguez, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, was born and raised in Chicago as the only artist in her family. (Her older sisters are an investment banker and a doctor.) Inspired by screen icon Rita Moreno, a vocal critic of the limited roles available to Latina actresses, Rodriguez decided early on that she wouldn’t take roles that cast Latinas in a stereotypical light. That sometimes meant the graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts turned down jobs when she needed them most. “I have fought so hard to not take roles,” Rodriguez says. “I had to fight [myself] like, ‘Gina, you can’t pay rent. Are you really going to say no?'”
She didn’t have much to choose from. Hispanic people made up 17% of the U.S. population in 2013, and they’re major entertainment consumers: they purchased 25% of all movie tickets that year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. But according to a study from Columbia University, there wasn’t a single lead role for Latino actors in the top network TV shows or films of 2013. That’s in contrast to the 1950s, when the Latino population was smaller but commanded more prominent roles. (There have been occasional exceptions, like America Ferrera in Ugly Betty, which ran from 2006 to 2010 on ABC, and stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo’s new sitcom, Cristela, also on ABC.)
Jane the Virgin doesn’t shy away from its Latino heritage. It features an international cast (Jane’s father, for example, is played by Mexican actor Jaime Camil) and frequently pays tribute to the stylistic tropes and ridiculous story lines of telenovelas. But it’s not a “Latino show” either. Rodriguez expects the story of a multigenerational family responding to life’s curveballs to resonate widely.
“What’s beautiful about Jane the Virgin is it is giving you a glimpse into a life that happens to be Latina and also American without hitting you over the head with it,” she says. When Jane’s grandmother speaks to her in Spanish, Jane answers in English; at home, Jane calls her abuela but says grandma to her friends. This kind of code switching isn’t a major plot point or conflict, just a fact of life. The same goes for the cast, which includes a couple of gay and lesbian characters, and for Jane’s shape–you won’t hear a peep about how she’s both beautiful and not a size 2. On Jane the Virgin, diversity is paramount but rarely discussed by name. For Rodriguez, simply sharing her point of view is what matters.
“The show is bigger than myself, and it’s going to be big for the Latino community,” Rodriguez says. “[It’s like] finally seeing themselves on the billboard of Fast & Furious, of Superman, of Spider-Man, to see themselves in the same arena that they see everyone else in. They’re invited to the same party–and we belong here.”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Rodriguez’s age. She is 29.
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