Why I love Alba from “Jane the Virgin”

Can I just take a moment to express my love for Alba, from Jane the Virgin?

Ivonne Coll as Alba in Jane the Virgin

The show’s telenovela genre often gets on my nerves, but every time I am tempted to stop watching, Alba opens her mouth, and I have to stick around for another episode. Literally, she only needs to speak-because my affection for her has everything to do with her exclusive use of Spanish.

Oh, she’s not the first immigrant grandma to speak the language of the old country on American television. You need an old fool to reify the hegemony of the  English language by comparison every once in a while. But even when they’re not fools, elderly foreign characters usually don’t get to speak their language long enough to make any sort of statement. For example, Grandma Huang might speak exclusively in Mandarin in Fresh Off the Boat, but she doesn’t have enough lines for it to be significant beyond a simplistic representation of the old ways. Alba, on the other hand, has a lot of lines, and is greatly involved in the life of her granddaughter, the protagonist of the show.

She is so present, in fact, that the surprise and humour of hearing her speak Spanish to people who answer in English wears off quite quickly. You just learn to juggle subtitles and spoken dialogue and to find humour in what is being said, rather than how it is said. Unless you’re like me, and the language ping-pong reminds you of your own Spanish-speaking grandma arguing with your dad. He would tell her off for speaking Spanish, arguing that she was leaving us non Spanish-speaking kids out of the conversation. “I’m Spanish, and so are they!”, she would answer. Needless to say, the bilingual scenes between Alba and her daughter Xo –the core of Alba’s appearances- speak to me on a personal level, as they express a generational gap and stubbornness that I recognize from my own family.

I say “stubbornness”, because both parties can speak the language used by the other, but choose not to. Unlike Grandma Huang again, Alba didn’t move to the US late in life to follow her children; she moved there decades ago as the head of the family. This means that her use of language can only be a deliberate choice (we also hear her speak English on at least one occasion; her English is rusty, but it’s there). As for Xo, we’ve heard her speak fluent Spanish. It’s just that they each represent a different approach to immigration: Xo is the good immigrant, who’s assimilated to the host culture, whereas Alba is the bad immigrant, who refuses to assimilate. She doesn’t even live in the US legally.

abuela alba

But what I love about Jane the Virgin is that it spins the concept of the bad immigrant on its head. Alba might be an undocumented alien who won’t speak English, but she still functions and is completely accepted in her world. She works and provides a roof and a haven for her girls. People respect her language choice, whether or not they speak Spanish themselves. Most of the time they don’t even mention the language difference. Going even further, you can see that Alba, the bad immigrant, is actually the heart of the show. She speaks the language that the other Latin American characters only use on special occasions (to say “I love you”, to impress someone, to deliver bad news, or to refer to the telenovelas that are the show’s premise), and she serves as Jane’s touchstone and moral compass.

Really, by being so lovable just the way she is, Alba puts the immigrants’ need to assimilate into question. Her desire to stay true to herself, conveyed by her use of Spanish, doesn’t stop her from contributing to the narrative; it actually makes her essential. And if Alba’s difference is so crucial, maybe other people’s are as well. And we should preserve those differences, instead of trying to erase them.

So yeah, Alba is badass.

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