How the Personal Side of Immigration Politics Plays Out on 'Jane the Virgin'
It’s hard to name a show on network television right now that has a better understanding of the experiences of legal and undocumented immigrants, and their American-born children, than the CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” which was nominated for two Golden Globe awards on Thursday.
Breakout star Gina Rodriguez plays Jane Villanueva, a religious young woman who’s accidentally artificially inseminated—she went in for a pap smear—and becomes pregnant. Villanueva is also, unsurprisingly, a virgin.
Margaret Lyons, a television critic at Vulture, praises "Jane the Virgin," calling it “one of the savviest, sharpest new shows in years,” in part because “[e]ach part of the story is driven by clear character wants, informed by their backstories, and complicated by their loyalties.” This isn’t a show primarily about immigration politics—it’s about having some random guy’s baby—but immigration is part of the backstory, and it plays the same role in shaping the characters’ wants and loyalties as it would real life. That’s also evident in the other social issues the show covers.
One such issue, for example, is reproductive health. Jane is the daughter of a teen mom (Xiomara, played by Andrea Navedo) and promises her grandmother (Alba, played by Ivonne Coll) she’ll wait to have sex until she’s married. In the pilot episode, as Jane debates keeping her own baby, she finds out that her devoutly Catholic grandmother advised Xiomara to get an abortion. That’s not a knock on her grandmother’s character, but an example of how the lines between pro-life and pro-choice aren’t as rigid in people’s everyday lives.
Later in the season, the show touches on the realities of mixed immigration status homes. On this Monday’s episode, Jane drops her lawsuit against the doctor who inseminated her because court cases make her grandmother—an undocumented immigrant—extremely anxious. In a flashback from the same episode Jane’s grandmother lectures Xiomara for not paying a parking ticket for the same reason.
Regardless of a viewer’s personal stance on deportations and the president’s immigration order, that’s the reality for millions of families. While pitching Obamacare, President Obama made a point of telling people that signing up for health insurance wouldn’t result in immigration agents showing up at the front door. “You know, if you have a family where some people are citizens or legally here, and other are not documented, the immigration people will never get that information,” he said.
In November, Diane Guerrero, the Colombian actress who plays Jane’s best friend, wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times about her family’s deportation and the need for permanent reform from Congress.
Throughout my childhood I watched my parents try to become legal but to no avail. They lost their money to people they believed to be attorneys, but who ultimately never helped. That meant my childhood was haunted by the fear that they would be deported. If I didn’t see anyone when I walked in the door after school, I panicked.
And then one day, my fears were realized. I came home from school to an empty house. Lights were on and dinner had been started, but my family wasn’t there.
The importance of a show like “Jane the Virgin” is that it portrays people like Guerrero in a way that isn’t demeaning, or dark, but motivational. Studies have shown that young girls and children of color experience lower self esteem after watching TV because of the way they’re portrayed—emotional, threatening, sexual, but rarely as the lead character. Seeing Jane’s story may mean something for children in similar situations—or at least Rodriquez hopes so.
“Jane is the first, second, third generation Latino story,” she said in June during an interview with Fusion. “You know, she grew up here in the States, her grandmother speaks to her in Spanish, she responds in English. She’s hard working, educated, going to school, trying to do everything that’s in her mind, and I want little girls to be able to follow something like that.”