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A dust-up over Latina roles in 'Devious Maids'

In adapting the new Lifetime series about housemaids in Beverly Hills, Marc Cherry was worried about a backlash about perceived stereotypes. Eva Longoria of 'Desperate Housewives' supported him in his project.

June 01, 2013|By Yvonne Villarreal
  • Judy Reyes, left, and Susan Lucci in "Devious Maids."
Judy Reyes, left, and Susan Lucci in "Devious Maids." (Guy D"Alema, Lifetime Publicity )

Fish have to swim. Birds have to fly. Marc Cherry has to write women.

At least that's how the creator of "Desperate Housewives" explains why he jumped into another female-heavy series after a headline-grabbing run with his ABC drama that included behind-the-scenes havoc and a face-off in court with one of its stars. And already, the new one is proving to wag as many tongues.

With "Devious Maids," Cherry shifts his focus from the sordidness of suburban life to the class wars playing out in high society. Set in Beverly Hills, the series centers on five Latina domestic workers who know the dirty secrets of their well-heeled employers and later become strongly bonded when a housemaid is murdered.

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An adaptation of the Mexican series "Ellas son la Alegria del Hogar" (They Are the Joy of Home"), the new Lifetime show seeks to exploit the success of upstairs/downstairs dramas like PBS' "Downton Abbey." Of course, the program, which is executive produced by "Desperate Housewives" alum Eva Longoria, comes with Cherry's signature camp and sass slathered onto a melodramatic foundation.

But even before the show's premiere June 23, there already seems to be some cleaning up to do. The soapy drama — crammed with scheming maids, Spanish guitar-strumming and accordion-heavy transitions — finds itself accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes.

The title didn't do itself any favors, and after a sexed-up trailer hit the Internet, the criticism heated up even more. The backlash put many on the show on their guard.

"First of all, I want to know the angle of your story," Longoria began in a recent phone interview with The Times. "Is it a positive one or a negative one?"

The actress, who recently received her master's degree in Chicano Studies from Cal State Northridge, said she was dismayed by the reaction to the series — before its premiere.

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"What I didn't expect was that much criticism from our own community having not even seen it," said Longoria, who defended the show in an op-ed for the Huffington Post. "It doesn't define our culture, if we're playing these types of roles."

Instead, Longoria said the show should be celebrated for being the first mainstream English-language drama that features five Latina main characters — Ana Ortiz ("Ugly Betty"), Dania Ramirez ("Entourage"), Roselyn Sanchez ("Without a Trace"), Judy Reyes ("Scrubs") and Edy Ganem ("Livin' Loud").

They all represent the downstairs: Marisol (Ortiz) is a college-educated woman who goes undercover to solve the murder mystery. Rosie (Ramirez) wants to bring her son to the U.S. and must grapple with trying to pay for an immigration lawyer. Carmen (Sanchez) is an aspiring singer who hopes working for a famous pop star leads to her big break. Zoila (Reyes) is a vexed mother to daughter/co-worker Valentina (Ganem).

With the exception of young Ganem, the actresses have relationships that have been nurtured over years of auditioning for the same small pool of Latina roles.

"It was weird to not have to compete in an audition with them," Sanchez said. "But a nice weird. A long overdue weird."

And an opportunity, Ortiz added to move beyond the clichéd "loud-mouthed sassy girl or tough New Yorker" that Latinas are often sought to play.

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"I have never been given a chance to play a character that is strong, powerful and well-educated," she said. "We know there's a responsibility we have to make it successful because if it doesn't, industry people will be like, 'Oh, well that didn't work!' And then who knows when the next opportunity like this will happen."

But at the start even the actresses who would play those roles didn't appreciate the show's conceit.

"Honestly, my first reaction was not unlike the blowback we're getting," Ortiz said. "I understand where people are coming from because, as a Latina and being in this business as long as I have, I was like 'Really? Devious Maids? What, are we all going to be called Maria? But it was a show from Marc Cherry, who I respect greatly, so I resisted the urge to write it off completely."

Cherry, nicknamed affectionately by the cast as Mr. Cereza (Spanish for "cherry"), also needed early persuading. The Mexican media giant Grupo Televisa, which last year opened a small Santa Monica-based studio, approached Cherry to adapt one of its titles for English-language television. When Cherry heard that they wanted one about Latina housekeepers, he toyed with the idea of having a racially diverse group of maids. He soon reached out to Longoria for advice.

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