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  • Anjana Bhat

Nikki Rodriguez & the Teeter-Totter of Color-Conscious & Color-Blind Representation


Nikki Rodriguez is an undoubtedly rising sensation among fans of the young adult genre. The 22-year-old Latina actress has appeared in multiple movies and shows in small roles, but her two most recent projects have taken her to greater heights, shining a spotlight on her potential future impact on the U.S. entertainment industry.

 

Her role as Vero in the well-loved Netflix original On My Block, and Jackie Howard in the latest Netflix drama My Life with the Walter Boys reveals the versatility that Rodriguez portrays through her acting, encoding her racial and gender identities in different ways.  Both shows embody themes of love, rebellion, family, and the stereotypical teenage angst that foster a sense of relatability among viewers. However, the underlying world-building and cultural representation in the two shows differ greatly.

 

Amidst the recent lull in color-conscious casting and accurate representations of the Latinx experience in mainstream U.S. media, due to heteronormative whitewashing, Netflix’s On My Block is a breath of fresh air. By casting actors of Latino and Afro-Latino backgrounds, the 4-season show chooses to integrate experiences unique to people of color (POC) under systematically underprivileged circumstances with the day-to-day experiences of the average middle-class white teenager.

 

The show’s juxtaposition of gang wars with senior prom, poverty with high school gossip, and familial struggles with goofing off with friends, normalizes the experiences of these teenagers without completely negating that significant aspect of their identities. For instance, the integration of multicultural experiences can be demonstrated through the character of Vero, played by Rodriguez. Vero first appears in the fourth season of the series as the Latina girlfriend of Cesar, who leads a gang called The Santos. Her personality is portrayed as bold, fierce, and also mildly possessive of the people she loves.

 

As the girlfriend of a gang lord in a lower-income neighborhood, her life is far from that of an ordinary teenager, but the drama that ensues when Cesar cheats on her with another character, Monse, showcases her relationship problems as a relatable teenage experience. Rodriguez’s role is just one of the many examples of how color-conscious casting in On My Block embeds racial and cultural experiences into the framework of an average high school teenage drama, elevating the viewing experience and highlighting ongoing societal issues in the United States.

 

In contrast, My Life with the Walter Boys is a much more light-hearted take on the American teenage experience. Being Nikki Rodriguez’s biggest role to date, the show debuted on December 7th, 2023, and instantly hit the top of Netflix’s charts with its captivating love triangle. With themes similar to shows like The Vampire Diaries and The Summer I Turned Pretty, this series is centered around Jackie Howard, an ambitious, smart, and driven high school student whose life is turned upside down when her family tragically dies in a car accident.

 

Jackie is uprooted from her home in New York City to live with her mother’s best friend’s family in the small fictional town of Silver Falls, Colorado. There, she faces the challenge of finding her place in her new home among the rambunctious Walter boys, adapting to her new high school, and navigating her romantic interests between two of the Walter brothers, Cole and Alex.


 

The show portrays Jackie’s experience in Silver Falls as that of an average teenager from a heteronormative family structure. It is implied that Jackie’s family was wealthy and that before they died, she led an upper-class lifestyle. Even after tragically losing her parents and sister, she is still well taken care of by the Walters and develops a close bond with them. Despite the show’s attempt at underscoring themes of family, loss, and change, those intentions are overshadowed by the central focus on love, which may have also detracted from having a racially conscious representation of Jackie’s character.

 

While Rodriguez is of Latinx descent, Jackie Howard’s race is neither confirmed nor denied throughout the show. The portrayal of Jackie as any other white American teenager while being a person of color alludes to the possibly color-blind representation of BIPOC actors in My Life With the Walter Boys. For champions of accurate Latinx representation in American media, some might interpret Jackie’s character as a step back in the progression of cultural diversity in the entertainment industry.

The portrayal of Jackie as any other white American teenager while being a person of color alludes to the possibly color-blind representation of BIPOC actors in My Life with the Walter Boys.

 However, regardless of the different ways Rodriguez’s racial and gender identities are coded in her most recent projects, it is undeniable that she is a brilliant actress who successfully portrays characters from varying backgrounds. Her presence as an actress of color in a leading role especially in My Life with the Walter Boys, changes the status quo on what a main character can look like. Straying away from the stereotypically white female leads in teen dramas, Rodriguez changes the face of the teenage experience and connects with her POC audience on a different level, boldly conveying the message that anyone can be a main character.

 

Audiences are eager to see more of Nikki Rodriguez, and after the traction My Life with the Walter Boys gained, she may become a household name in the U.S. entertainment industry soon; but we must continue to ask ourselves, at what cost?   

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