The dubbers of ‘Desperate Housewives’
CHICAGO — The highest compliment I can pay “Now En Espanol,” a new documentary about the actresses who dubbed “Desperate Housewives” into Spanish, is that you don’t have to even like the Wisteria Lane melodrama to be fascinated by the women who brought the characters to life for Spanish speakers.
Premiering April 24 on “VOCES,” Latino Public Broadcasting’s arts and culture series on PBS, this film allows us a peek at the ups and downs of five Hispanic working actresses as they try to make it in a Hollywood culture that has very specific ideas of what Hispanics in this country are, and are not.
The five are a representative microcosm of the Hispanic population in this country. They are U.S.- and foreign-born, light-skinned and dark-skinned, blond and dark-haired, accented and flatly American in their speech as well as younger/older, single, married, childless and mothers.
Filmmaker Andrea Meller deftly illustrates what each of their stories has in common: not fitting into the neat little box that casting directors have in their minds when looking for women to fill roles.
Natasha Perez, a Venezuelan immigrant and the youngest of the artists profiled, speaks of the frustration she faces in being limited to roles as a tattooed girl gangbanger in get-tested-for-STDs public service announcements or crime dramas. She sighs: “Can’t I play a college student?”
Marabina Jaimes, a self-proclaimed “Mexi-Rican” (half Mexican and half Puerto Rican) speaks pointedly about her frustration in learning that there are limits to what she is allowed to do in the entertainment industry:
“I never really realized there could be any stereotyping or racism until I started doing TV,” Jaimes lamented, recalling the many times she’s been told “it’s too bad that you look the way you do” or to straighten her hair or change her name to something less ethnic-sounding.
But the diversity of this group’s experiences yields different viewpoints, even based on similar observations.
Ivette Gonzalez, a successful actress in her native Mexico, disagreed with her group about the availability of roles. “There are many people who complain that there aren’t enough Latinos in entertainment. It’s not true —every show now has Latino actors,” she said, as the film showed a montage of maids, gardeners and gangbangers. “For me, having dark eyes and dark hair has helped me. And if I had blond hair, I think I’d dye it brown.”
Gabriela Lopetegui, an immigrant from Uruguay, who was already a well-known TV star in her home country before taking her chances in Los Angeles, found that her light features “really limited me in terms of acting on camera because I don’t have the ‘typical Latino look.’” Lopetegui recalled being turned away at casting calls that were “for Latinos only,” and being told her career would take off if she started wearing brown contacts.
The barriers to more-lucrative TV and film work are what attracted each of these actresses to the opportunity to perform in Spanish for U.S. audiences when, in 2005, ABC decided to dub its most popular shows for a growing Latino population.
Considering that most Hispanics either speak English fluently or use English as their primary language, this surprised me. But, then again, I never had a clue that the “SAP” button on many TV remote controls was for the purpose of listening to English-language programming in several other languages.
These Hispanic actresses make their living in voice because they can’t seem to get on camera. They have faced the obstacle of Spanish-language services being outsourced to non-union, and therefore cheaper, labor in Mexico. But I don’t want to give away what happened; “Now En Espanol” really is worth watching, even if the film is at times perplexing.
I will leave you with the words of Jaimes, which will resonate with many: “Bottom line, there’s a conversation going on in the United States and Latinos aren’t part of it. You know — we have children, we’re doctors, nurses, lawyers, we’re paying taxes. Why isn’t anybody listening to us? Because we don’t have any place to talk, that’s why.”
If you’ve been following the drama over at PBS, you know it has been criticized repeatedly in the recent past for eliminating or downplaying personalities and programming originally designed to speak to underserved minorities.
I won’t wade into that morass but will say that whatever challenges PBS is facing, I hope it continues enabling Hispanic filmmakers like Meller to take us into worlds we never even imagined existed.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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