Latinx Characters in Hightown’s Second Season: ”A Much-Needed Dose of Context and Complexity”

Monica Raymund (left) as Jackie Quiñones. (Courtesy of Starz)

In Hollywood, there’s a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion, with some efforts at change and some success stories. But it’s an uneven success at best. Latinx characters are rarely portrayed on screen with depth, particularly when it comes to addressing the intersections of race, gender and sexual diversity. Season two of Hightown, a crime drama set in Cape Cod, changes that.

The second season of Hightown finally gives its diverse characters more depth, especially Jackie Quiñones (Monica Raymund), the Latina lesbian protagonist dealing with sexism, homophobia, racism and addiction. Hightown‘s season two serves as a model for those in the Hollywood writers’ rooms as they approach diversity and character complexity. 

So often movies and shows disregard key cultural and historical differences, flattening complex ethnoracial and sociopolitical issues in Latinx communities. Worse still, film and television often simply “name drop” all the Latinx references it can think of, particularly those that mark characters as “ethnic” in ways that are easily recognizable for non-Latinx audiences—food, music and a bit of Spanish here and there. But it doesn’t do anything meaningful with them. They are props to signify a generic Latinx identity devoid of history, conflict or future. 

Take Gloria, Sofía Vergara’s character in Modern Family. Vergara’s performance in and beyond the show has been incredibly successful and lucrative, making her the world’s highest paid actress in 2020, grossing $500,000 per episode, and $43 million annually. However, her character on the show reinforces gender, sexual, ethno-racial and geopolitical stereotypes.

Then there is the recent controversy with In The Heights, a film supposedly devoted to celebrating a diverse, mostly Afrolatinx neighborhood in New York City. Instead, it made headlines for its colorist erasure of Black Latinx people, particularly Black Dominicans. 

Hightown season two pursues a different path in telling Latinx stories. Instead of busying itself with intricate drug-related plot developments, it gives most of its characters a much-needed dose of context and complexity. In the case of Jackie, viewers are introduced to her father and family history and the storyline pivots away from her Latina lesbian womanizing persona allowing her to explore intimacy and show growth. 

Season two also gives us a nuanced portrayal of an Afrolatinx man struggling with his own vulnerability and fighting for survival. Osito (Atkins Estimond) is Black, he is dark, he is big and heavy, he is of Haitian and Dominican descent, he is a drug dealer and a hit man, and he is also the most strategic character in the show. He outsmarts dealers and cops alike and unabashedly reads Lean in—Sheryl Sandberg’s glass ceiling feminism manifesto—while in prison. 

Atkins Estimond as Osito. (Courtesy of Starz)

Osito is also physically and emotionally wounded, dealing with physical and emotional trauma. By exploring these complex feelings and emotions, season two moves away from “the Black drug dealer” caricature, and creates space for the man, an obvious yet still rarely given humanizing gesture to Afrolatinx characters—and people—in the U.S.  

These complex character developments are steps in the right direction, especially when taking into consideration that Latinos are now 18.7 percent of the U.S. population. Census data also showed increasing ethnic diversity and racial awareness within a group that is often portrayed as homogenous: the number of Latinos who reported more than one race multiplied by more than five times, from 3 million to 20.3 million.

As Hightown’s episodes advance, female and non-white characters gain prominence and nuance. The show focuses on the lives of three other women other than the main character. Charmaine, played by Imani Lewis, is a Black teenager caring for her young sister and seeking to control the drug market in Cape Cod. The two other women, both white, are state trooper Leslie Babcock (Tonya Glanz) and Renee (Riley Voelkel), a former stripper and soon-to-be Frankie Cueva’s wife. All three are dealing with abusive and emotionally unavailable fathers or partners and chauvinist colleagues as they try to elbow their way through a man’s world. 

All of these developments represent a turn from season one of Hightown, which centered around Ray Abruzzo’s (James Badge Dale) sexual misconduct and abusive behavior, which cost him his job. Jackie was his Latina doppelganger: She scoffed at protocols, disregarded procedures in the name of justice, and was self-centered and emotionally abusive to others, especially women. Yet, she always managed to save the day—a John Wayne wannabe trapped in the body of a lesbian Latina. 

However, by portraying Abruzzo and Jackie as flawed yet heroic figures, the show encouraged audiences to disregard these sexist and racist actions as minor infractions that are justifiable—perhaps even necessary—in the pursuit of justice.  

Season one makes accountability feel like punishment, reinforcing one of the most dangerous myths about an increasingly diverse society, especially in the #MeToo era: that efforts towards equity are little more than a conspiracy of women and Black men hoping to take the white man’s spot. 

In contrast, Hightown’s new season shows the role that thoughtful representation can play in revealing the human side of every story, particularly when it comes to historically marginalized populations like Latinx and Black communities, women and LGBTQ+ people. Their stories, like those of Jackie and Osito, remind us that, in activist and poet Audre Lorde’s words, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” 

Representation is key, not only for the growing and increasingly diverse Latinx communities that need to see their lives and stories fully represented in all their diversity and complexity, but also for the U.S as a whole. Hollywood is evolving, but it needs to keep checking itself and continue to shed stories with “minority” characters playing a supporting role. It needs to embrace the power of the many stories that truly make the nation great.

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Juliana Martínez is an associate professor at American University, Washington, D.C., and research and consultancy director of Sentiido, a Colombia-based organization that specializes in research, education and information about gender and sexual diversity.