Empowerment Series: NBC Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell,” Alycia Pascual-Pena and Director, Maureen Bharoocha Share thoughts on Cultural Identity with AW
There are countless difficult topics that we choose to set aside. We cringe, roll our eyes, and avoid conversations about religion, politics, money, and race. People can be passionate about their beliefs. This usually leaves little room to embrace an opinion that contradicts their own. Individual thoughts on some of these issues are quite personal, and affect emotions, more often than not. Colorism hits a high note on the list of sensitive subjects for communities of color. It is the practice of discrimination against a person of a darker skin tone. Generally, it occurs among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Unfortunately, the Latino community grapples with an array of challenges that goes beyond prejudice. We are far from a homogenous group, finding our place in a world of mixed complexions, hair textures, dialects, and physical characteristics is not easy. But our struggles do not end there with close to a dozen dialects in the Spanish language, it makes it difficult to fulfill society’s widespread expectation of what a Spanish speaker is supposed to sound like.
Native Spanish speakers are sitting in classrooms across the US. Plenty of students are being told, they speak the language incorrectly. Students are learning “proper” Spanish, as outlined by the American school system. Latin American Spanish is the preference in schools, however, the variety of dialects is leaving many excluded.
Recently, Peacock TV’s “Saved by the Bell” tackled the difficult subject. The episode revolves around a student, played by Alycia Pascual-Pena, who confronts a teacher’s discrimination. The predicament pushes the character, Aisha Garcia, to battle insecurities over cultural identity after being corrected in a Spanish class.
Alycia is best known for her role in Amy Poehler’s, Moxie, released in the Spring of 2021. She is a pillar of cultural pride and is unapologetic when speaking against acts of social injustice. The young actress is a Bronx native who feels as strongly about her Dominican heritage, as she does about her convictions.
This episode was directed by Maureen Bharoocha, as part of NBC’s annual initiative Female Forward program. She is an accomplished Writer/Director with impressive credits that include Jimmy Kimmel Live!, HBO’s critically acclaimed female arm wrestler film Golden Arm, and the film The Prank – a dark comedy that stars Rita Moreno, Keith David, and Ramona Young.
AW had the wonderful opportunity to sit with both talents and discuss the powerful episode, as well as, their personal challenges with cultural demands, and the importance of telling our stories. Both women were open and honest when sharing their experiences and thoughts about these tough subjects. Our interview is available on AW’s YouTube channel in its entirety.
Alycia: Have you ever dealt with something similar to your character in real life? Who or what did you channel to give us such a realistic experience during your scenes with the teacher or at any time during this episode? “Lord, Have I!” I have too many stories to count. I am so grateful for my complexion, melanin, and having a mother who has empowered me as a Black woman. As an Afro-Latina, I have stories of walking into auditions, having other young Latinas, say “This girl is Black, why is she here?” I don’t hold it against them, it’s ignorance. It is unfortunate but I understand where that is rooted. In the Latinè communities, there has not been expansive enough conversations about colorism and internalized hatred. We come in different colors and speak Spanish, differently. Being a girl with braids from the Bronx who wore Timbs, people (even members of my own family), negated my Latinidad.
All of that goes to say, I have dealt with an immense amount of adversity and obstacles as a result of being an Afro Latina. I have people look at me in the eyes and invalidate my experience because I am black. The fact that I had this episode to tell the story of a Latina advocating for herself “Saying, Latinos, regardless of what our Spanish sounds like or the color of our skin, should be proud of our heritage and culture.” To play this character on this type of platform was such a blessing. I’ve sat in a Spanish classroom, as a native speaker, and was told all the time that my Spanish is “not right.” How do I go back home to my father, who taught himself English and learned to navigate this country, as an adult, that his Spanish isn’t correct? It is a culmination of all these emotions that is invalidating and dehumanizing, as a Latina. So, to have a character that spoke up and see a teacher held accountable at the end of this episode makes me proud. I hope Latinos, especially, Afro Latinas feel empowered, walking away from it.
Maureen: As the Director, how did you prepare and guide Alycia and other cast members on an episode that dealt with such a sensitive topic? For me, it is about listening to Alycia’s story and what she has lived. It’s also talking to the writers about why they wrote this and include the details. After listening, I was able to relate to so many of their feelings. I grew up in Santa Barbara, a lot of Spanish speakers were friends. I never knew this type of thing happened all the time. I’m so happy, I played a small part in a story that needs to be told. I come from a mixed family and struggled with people telling me, my identity. The story has not been told and it is such a universal subject within the Latino community, hence why it’s so important. I’m very happy to have been able to help Alycia tell her story and work with her. She is such a force and I felt very lucky this was the episode, I got to direct.
Alycia: Your character seemed defensive, hurt, and insecure, as she faced the dilemma of speaking of her feelings of discrimination. Have you questioned your own cultural identity at any point in your real life? I still do and think I always will. Growing up, of darker complexion than the Latinas I watched on television or auditioned with. I always felt the need to prove myself, whether dancing the Bachata better than anyone in the room or eating the most “platanos” (plantains) (or whatever, ridiculous notion I had as a kid). I question my identity all the time because I don’t look or sound like the Latinas “I was told, I am supposed to look like.” It started with my complexion but then on took on a more nuanced level. I had to navigate sounding different or defending my curl texture. Thankfully, I am at a place where I’m rooted in my truth. I don’t need validation from other people and understand my ancestral connection, heritage and did my due diligence to understand my roots. I know who Alycia is, as a Dominican and Afro Latina who stands proud.
We all have some decolonizing in the brain, which we need to do. Eurocentric standards of beauty are something so deeply rooted in every community. It is a rebellious act to tell yourself “I am beautiful how I show up today and thankful for the body I am in.” It is beautiful to stand in your truth, and important to know that it is your right to stand proudly, knowing that no one can take that away from you.
Maureen: You are half-Irish Catholic and half-Indian/Pakistani/Burmese/Muslim. Have you faced your own struggles with cultural identity? It is kind of rooted in our history – colonialism. On my dad’s side, he is Indian-Pakistani-Burmese-Muslim and grew up in Burma. Our family is Indian Gudrati but because of colonialism, they lived in Burma but that country became socialist and they naturalized to Pakistan. Details and nuances of this are confusing to people, so I try to bite-size it down to where people understand. I am grateful that my parents were from different cultures and religions, and did not change or convert. This taught me, we can be different and struggle with the same things. The experience helped make me become more aware of others. We can relate to one another as human beings. Now, I go through the world with a better understanding of people. This is why these stories are so necessary, they give us something we can relate to.
Alycia: This episode is packed with a lot of messages about cultural identity, discrimination, cultural pride, empowerment, (e.g., your character using her voice). What do you hope is the key takeaway for Latinos and non-Latinos watching this episode? I hope Latinos feel pride in the story told and the episode appears rooted in authenticity because it is the most important component of storytelling. I’d like them to be happy and empowered when seeing themselves in a different light. Hopefully, it influences a lot of Latinos to have those difficult conversations. We shy away from topics like colorism and having a social hierarchy connected to that, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. I love my community so much but know that we can do better. I still deal with a rampant amount of discrimination and racism from fellow Latinos, who I call brothers and sisters. I hope people feel seen and love it when I say “I am Dominican” to the camera. To be able to do this episode with Maureen was such a gift. She is a very talented director and storyteller.
For non-Latinos, I hope it encourages them to look outside of themselves. I always want to learn and do my due diligence about other communities. I want them to be part of larger conversations about marginalized people – queer, Asian, Indigenous, and people with disabilities. I want non-Latinos to learn something new. There is so much in this episode and I hope people take it all, in.
Maureen: As Director, what impact do you hope this episode has on the audience? I was so honored to do this episode and get to direct because it is such an important story to tell. I hope people enjoy it. It’s is a funny episode, and it is about something. Hopefully, you will learn something that you may not have known. You can support and be an ally by listening to those in these communities, anyone can do it.
We end all interviews with a positive message. Can you share something positive about your experience with this episode?
Alycia: Something, I always say, “Commit to your distinct truth and journey.” I have so much gratitude. Little did I think, I would be a black Latina in braids saying, “I am on Saved by the Bell!” I’d say don’t change, stay committed to your truth. For so long and many auditions, I straightened my hair. I was told that I shouldn’t say this or that. When I started acting, I was asked, if I wanted to change my name. Having an episode that validates me on so many levels, a decade later, is amazing. I say, stay on your path, even if it looks different, and feels you don’t have a chance. Tell your nuance multidimensional, unique, intersectional self, just commit! I have been walking on light because of how grateful I’ve been for the crew, Maureen, as Director and the cast, having two Latinas as the epicenter of the story.
Maureen: I am truly grateful. I come from features and directed Jimmy Kimmel Live but this was the first episode of television for me. I was very honored this was the episode I got to direct through NBC’s annual initiative Female Forward program. Getting to work with the cast and crew was great. I had watched Moxie and was already a fan of Alycia. As a director, working with actors that are exciting and light my fire was an amazing and positive experience. I look forward to working on more projects in the future. A lot of great people!
The team behind and in front of the cameras of this poignant episode were able to treat this topic with dignity and accountability. I watched the show, prior to conducting our interview. As a member of the Latino community, I felt seen and heard. Growing up, I did not see many people that looked like me on television. Outside of the occasional Latina playing a maid or vixen on television and films, we didn’t see ourselves portrayed in a positive light, much less telling our stories. Seeing our story play out on American television in a way that sheds light on a topic that affects all of us, in one way or another is a milestone.
Whether you are part of our community or not, I invite you to watch Peacock’s Saved by the Bell, Season 2, E7 “La Guerra de Aisha.” If you are Latino, or someone you know has been affected by the topic, check it out. If not, you may know or work with a member of our community. Learning of the struggles outside your race or culture is a great way to show support. The more we know, the better we can understand one another. Hopefully, these stories encourage everyone to practice acceptance and empathize with others who look or live, differently.
AW is immensely grateful to Alycia, Maureen, and the teams that helped make this interview possible for our readers. The goal is always to inspire, empower and encourage you during your personal journey. If we can help educate readers about topics that challenge perspective or offer a different one then we all win.
Please visit AW’s YouTube channel for the full interview and enjoy all the side conversations that took place during our Zoom meeting.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.*
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