Issue 8 2021 (2)

Citizens May Laugh: Latinx Comedy and the Politics of Documented Migration

Juan Llamas-Rodriguez (University of Texas at Dallas)

Twenty-first century U.S. fictional media has featured a significant number of Latinx characters with immigration storylines. Such prevalence can be attributed both to the resurgent pro- and anti-immigration movements in the country during this time and to the rising call for more diverse representations on television. These television characters often fall within a dyad of citizen and undocumented migrant. In some ways, this binary depiction reflects the traditional demographics of Latinx people in the country. At the same time, the all-or-nothing move from no immigration documentation to full citizenship creates heightened dramatic stakes and allows creators to argue that both groups deserve protection despite their different constitutionally mandated rights. Less common in these media is the depiction of documented migrants — those with temporary visas and permits, some form of temporary protected status, or green card holders in the process of acquiring citizenship.

This audiovisual essay examines three U.S. English-language comedy television shows that have depicted the dramas of documented migrants over the past decade and a half: Ugly Betty, One Day at a Time, Jane the Virgin. The storylines found in these media center on three general aspects: the anxieties over acquiring and/or losing documented status, the politics informing different immigration opportunities, and the bureaucratic stages in applying for and receiving documentation. These representations of documented migration, and the formal and narrative strategies they mobilize, illuminate the multiple avenues of operation for the process of uneven political capital accumulation that we call citizenship.

The analyses in this essay are informed by Tanya Gonzalez and Eliza Rodriguez y Gibson’s theories on Latina camp aesthetics and their concept of “nervous laughter” as a complex reception process that “emphasizes the political engagement implicit in the pleasure and identification during the production and reception of texts that humorously engage painful topics.” (53-4) Gonzalez and Rodriguez y Gibson foreground how otherwise serious plot points are diffused with jokes. I extend their framework to argue that this “nervousness”, an ambivalent stance held together only through the deferral and misdirection of comedy, also reflects the position of white Latinx subjects immigrating to the U.S. through legitimate bureaucratic procedures. Understanding how this ambivalent stance infuses the shows’ engagement with the politics of citizenship requires focusing on their narrative elements, their historical allusions, the temporal dimensions of serialization, and the ideological struggles present in popular comedy. I argue that the burden placed on these shows to represent the “Latinx experience” means that the series often oscillate between critiquing the U.S. immigration system and reinforcing the promise of citizenship as a just and worthy status to aspire to. The immigrant character’s proximity to whiteness remains unacknowledged in the shows, partly because of how strongly the shows are asked to stand in for Latinx representation. My contention is that the erasures belying their aspirational narratives come forcefully to the fore when we analyze these shows in tandem. 

The critiques offered by my audiovisual essay draw on Latinx scholars who analyze how citizenship operates as a legally justifiable structure to normalize inequality. As Cristina Beltrán argues, “aggressive immigration enforcement can be witnessed and enacted by a liberal polity whose citizens and policing apparatus can legitimately claim that its actions have been democratically approved as lawful, necessary, and authorized.” (91) Hector Amaya’s analysis of Latinx media such as Ugly Betty likewise reveals how citizenship operates as a technology of power “codified in law in such a way as to simultaneously acknowledge the promise of legal equality and the justification for inequality.” (26) 

Formally, my audiovisual essay mimics the playful aesthetics of these shows, including split screens, overlaid text explanations, and contrapunctual editing. I also borrow specific stylistic tropes and gags from the shows themselves to emphasize parts of the argument. By analyzing the comedic treatment of serious topics through an audiovisual medium, Citizens May Laugh demonstrates the critical achievements of these Latinx comedy shows at the level of form as well as the constraints of serialized fictional narratives that prevent a more sustained critique of the politics of documented migration.


  • Amaya, Hector. Citizenship Excess: Latino/as, Media, and the Nation. New York: NYU Press, 2013.
  • Beltrán, Cristina. Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020.
  • Gonzalez, Tanya, and Eliza Rodriguez y Gibson. Humor and Latina/o Camp in Ugly Betty. New York: Lexington Books, 2015.

How to cite this article: Llamas-Rodríguez, J. (2021). Citizens May Laugh: Latinx Comedy and the Politics of Documented Migration. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 8, 2021(2). ISSN: 2659-4269

Other videoessays in this issues:

Andrés Sanjurjo García (UPF/UDC)

From the Archive