How ‘Roswell, New Mexico’ Gets Reboots and Latinx Characters Right

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Roswell, New Mexico

When the reboot of the early 2000s series Roswell was announced I was against it. I’ve been fairly candid about my distaste for reboots and when it was announced that this new adaptation of the book series would be more faithful to the source material and feature Mexican-American characters at the forefront, I was hesitant. Now, it wasn’t the choice to deviate from the original show that gave me reservations.

My aversion to the show came from the fact the same network engineered another Latinx reboot of an old favorite: Charmed. Would Roswell, New Mexico follow Charmed’s lead and cast non-Latinx in Latinx roles? Would it encapsulate a character’s latinidad by placing a flag in a room without making it a vital part of the character? To say I was worried was an understatement. In fact, when the series first aired, I couldn’t sit through an episode, taking issue with things it didn’t do instead of looking at what it did.

When the show hit Netflix, I decided to give it another shot. At best, I finally liked a rebooted show from my teenage years and at worst, I was out a few hours of my time on the weekend. On my second viewing of the pilot, I pushed the original Roswell from my brain and instead took in the characters’ interactions on their own merit and I’m glad that I did.

If you’re not familiar with the series, Roswell, New Mexico is a reboot of the 2000s series which was originally an adaptation of a series of young adult novels title Roswell High by Melinda Metz. Developed by Carina Adly MacKenzie, Roswell, New Mexico is a different take on the same premise of aliens hiding in plain sight. In this adaptation, Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason) – no longer Liz Parker – is working in her family’s diner when she is shot and killed by a stray bullet intended to terrorize their restaurant as it nears the anniversary of her sister’s death. To save her life, her childhood friend and old high school lab partner, Max Evans (Nathan Parsons), uses his secret alien abilities to bring her back to life.

Max isn’t alone. His twin sister Isobel and friend Michael are also aliens, survivors of the 1949 spaceship crash in Roswell who were stuck in stasis until emerging in the 1998. The show follows Liz’s relationship with Max as she tries to deal with the bombshell that aliens are real as well as investigate the death of her sister, which wasn’t an accident. While the original series dealt with issues of abuse and poverty in the character of Michael, it didn’t do much to provide social commentary as much it worked to give use good teen drama.

In this iteration of Max and Liz, they’re adults, 10 years out of high school and is closer the original books that started it all, specifically by returning Liz to her identity as a Latina character. By choosing to move far away from the story fans already knew the series has won many over and has been a successful reboot that distinguishes itself against it’s previous iteration. Because of this, Roswell, New Mexico, even with its focus on science fiction, deals with issues of racism and bigotry experienced by Mexican Americans and Latinx more widely in the United States. While it isn’t the purpose of the show, Liz’s identity as a first-generation Mexican American is never forgotten.

In the opening scene of the pilot, our main character Liz  is stopped by the police on her way into her home town of Roswell, New Mexico. Having left the town after the death of her sister, she’s back for the first time in years. But this isn’t an “officer why did you pull me over moment,” instead Liz directly confronts the shadowed officer, reciting her rights and calling out the seeming discrimination as they check her car but let the person in front of her move forward.

If you’ve ever driven west, you know that there are a lot of border checkpoints, which makes driving while Latinx – specifically Mexican – an issue for some. The show opens while directly confronting that and Liz is set up as a woman who knows her worth, value, and won’t be pushed around by a system that views her as less than. That being said, it isn’t a racist cop who pulled her over but instead her old friend from high school, Max Evans.

Although Liz is safe, the show sets the stakes for our main character. As a Mexican American woman, she will be navigating a space where she will have to protect herself. While the dialogue is hamfisted at times, especially when dealing with social justice commentary, it is more real than that of other depictions of Latinx on screen. With the exception of Jane the Virgin, a show that was written by and for Latinx explicitly, Roswell, New Mexico isn’t a Latinx show. It isn’t made with just us as its intended audience. Instead, it’s a science fiction show that has Mexican American characters that are dynamic, non-stereotypical, and allowed to be just that. This is highlighted by two things – Liz’s father’s undocumented status and the use of Spanish throughout season one.

Liz’s father Arturo is undocumented, she is not. Their mixed-family status is a reality for many Americans and the fears that come with it make an everyday event like going to the doctor a fearful experience. When it comes to statements on immigration, the CW has found itself doing so with aliens in Supergirl which has been heavy-handed and reductionist. In Roswell, New Mexico, a show about three alien siblings living among humans, I thought that it would fall into the same tropey trappings that do more to make immigration campy than a real subject.

That being said, Arturo’s story and Liz’s experience of fearing for her father is handled in an authentic way in the show. As the Crashdown Cafe, the Ortecho’s family restaurant, experiences attacks from a racist townsperson who lost his sister in Rosa Ortecho’s accident including the direct beating of her father, the Ortechos have no hope. They can’t report the incident, they can’t seek justice for the man that attacked Arturo, and Max, a sheriff, can’t help either. But this isn’t because it will expose the alien secret, it’s because any entry of Arturo Ortecho into a state database could result in his deportation.

The writers handle this situation well, untangling the complexity of wanting justice and not being able to ask for it from the perspective of the undocumented and by showcasing that those who commit hate crimes agains the undocumented do this with knowledge they won’t be prosecuted and instead, the victim will be deported. The Otechos are exploited and scared, with the issue being resolved by the arrest of the culprit because of another crime against Liz. Additionally, when Arturo suffers a mild stroke, the Ortechos lean on Kyle Valenti, Liz’s high school sweetheart and doctor at the local hospital, to help him outside of the system.

Roswell, New Mexico

With all of this, it’s important to note that these events are a part of their story, not their whole story. Roswell, New Mexico balances the complexities of identity while also allowing its Latinx characters to be more than the issues their characters are tackling. These things inform their character growth but it isn’t all of it.

Seeing Latinx, just be Latinx on screen, outside of being tokens or stereotypes is hard to come by, even now. In UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report for 2019, Latinx had some of the lowest representation on screen in relation to their percentage of United States’ population, with only Native Americans in behind them. Roswell, New Mexico is the first time on a television network (not streaming) that I have seen a series that goes out of its way to show life in the Southwest the way it is, Spanglish and all.

Liz doesn’t just use Spanish with her father, it permeates her life. Her spoken thoughts to herself are in Spanish, the sass she throws at other characters, especially the Evans twins is in Spanish, and yet, like most Mexican Americans, the rest of her life is in English.

I speak like Liz. I live like Liz. From Liz’s father first use of “que barbaro” to the way that Liz rolls her “r” every time she says her sister Rosa’s name, the care that was put into crafting the Spanish dialogue in the series is noticeable and appreciated. The show doesn’t employ the use of English subtitles and perhaps my favorite thing is that the Spanish used does not come from Google translate. While it seems insignificant the fact that the show does not translate the Spanish used, privileges its Latinx viewers, and makes the language commonplace, normal.

Roswell, New Mexico

In addition to showcasing the small things of being Mexican American, the show doesn’t only show xenophobia from the white inhabitants of Roswell towards the Ortechos, but also from Sheriff Valenti, Kyle’s mother. The Valenti’s, also important to the story, are Mexican American as well. But like conversations in the Latinx community, Sheriff Valenti is strongly against undocumented immigrants, telling her son that her parents came here legally, the Ortechos should have too. It’s a small thing, mentioned in one episode but goes to show a very real issue in the Latinx community revolving immigration and the decision to include it in the series showcases that Latinx, Mexican Americans, are not a monolithic community.

In addition to exploring life in a small town as a Mexican American, the two of the lead characters, Liz and Kyle are Mexican American, played by Jeanine Mason and Michael Trevino respectively. With that said, Mason is Cuban American and Trevino is Mexican American, the son of Mexican immigrants. In addition to them, the cast also includes Carlos Compean as Arturo and Rosa Arredondo as Sheriff Valenti.

However, the show does have a Native actress, Amber Midthunder who plays Liz’s sister Rosa, a Mexican American in the show. This begs for me to explain that “looking Latinx” and being Latinx are two different things and brown folks aren’t interchangeable. While her parentage is uncertain, in that her biological fathers racial and ethnic identity is unknown, it is concerning that a show that has done so well to place Latinx at the center of a story that this would be the casting choice made.

Roswell, New Mexico

With Rosa’s actress aside, the show does give us Mexican American characters that are a doctor, scientist, restaurant owners, a troubled teen, and law enforcement. The characters aren’t the same or one-dimensional and none of them employ stereotypes like hypersexuality, accents that have no place, or a hot-temper. In addition, much of the background characters are also Latinx. While Roswell, New Mexico does a good job of showing a diversity of character type among the main Latinx cast, both leads, Mason and Trevino are white-passing, with both actors having played white or non-descript roles in the past. While I love them, Trevino especially, I wonder what could be down to expand the representation of Mexican Americans on the show by adding in darker skinned Latinx actors.

That being said, the show also highlights that although white-passing Latinx live in some privilege, they also have parts of their identity that keep them from being seen as white among the other citizens of Roswell. Sheriff Valenti is an Afro-Latina, Arturo is undocumented, and Liz doesn’t hide her identity and uses Spanish in her daily life. Whiteness, for Latinx, means performing it, and in Roswell, New Mexico this isn’t the case.

While Roswell, New Mexico will ring some bells with existing Roswell fans, it truly is a different show and a successful reboot. This is due in large part to the way the show explores the identities of its Mexican American characters and also in how it deviates the main story so strongly from the original series. In truth, by episode four of Roswell, New Mexico, I stopped comparing it to the original and began embracing this new story and characters. As a science fiction show, the series excels. As a reboot, the series creates a unique space for itself. And as a representation of Latinx on the CW it’s unparalleled.

3 Comments on “How ‘Roswell, New Mexico’ Gets Reboots and Latinx Characters Right”

  1. Great article. Maybe I am wrong but Is Jimmy Valenti native American? If he is, that is the reason Rosa’s too.

    1. So far in this series it hasn’t been said. – Kate Sanchez

  2. If I recall correctly, the showrunner addressed the concerns of casting Amber Midthunder as a Mexican American character, but it turns out that Midthunder’s mother was adopted and had at the time found out that her biological mother was Latinx. Then again, Midthunder was raised as Native American and identifies as such. Casting might have been swayed by the fact that Midthunder and Mason look crazy alike.

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