Betty Suarez, the lead character in the ABC dramedy “Ugly Betty,” was the unlikeliest of heroines and everyone ― from those who taunted her on the job at an upscale fashion magazine to her close-knit family to the audience watching the show at home ― thought so.
“All the stuff you want to do, owning a magazine … it doesn’t happen for people like us, unless you’re J.Lo or something,” her nephew Justin (Mark Indelicato) told Betty (America Ferrera) on the stoop of their home in Jackson Heights, Queens, where they lived with her undocumented father, Ignacio (Tony Plana), and her spirited sister, Hilda (Ana Ortiz).
Justin was only in middle school and yet he already understood that success was limited to a select few from his family’s working-class background. For him and so many others, the American Dream was exemplified by the beautiful Jennifer Lopez, one of the few examples of U.S. Latino representation in Hollywood in the 2000s.
But Silvio Horta, the creator and showrunner of “Ugly Betty” who died earlier this month, offered an alternative version of prosperity for new generations of Latinos through a character who was less aspirational and more relatable, a young woman who wasn’t conventionally attractive but was still the daring protagonist of her own life.
Betty had bushy eyebrows, braces, glasses and frizzy hair — pop culture’s hallmarks of the ugly duckling. She was also curvy, which was unfortunately groundbreaking for a show in 2006, as evinced by the second episode of the series. Drama arose over releasing an actress’s unretouched photos at Mode, the fashion magazine where Betty worked. Sure, there had been curvy girls on television before, but they somehow always seemed to be the butt of the joke, a caricatured sidekick to the more traditionally good-looking lead. Not Betty.
Let’s not sugarcoat it. Betty was harassed by her co-workers because of her looks, lack of fashion sense and Latinidad. It was no secret around the office that everyone knew she had only been hired because her supervisor’s father didn’t want his son, Daniel (Eric Mabius), sleeping with his assistants anymore. In an attempt to embarrass her and drive her to quit, Daniel has her fill in for a model at a photo shoot. Watching Betty stand alongside those models, attempting to strike sexy poses in a revealing outfit she is wholly uncomfortable in while everyone laughs at her, is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the series. She is also routinely called fat and one of her co-workers, Amanda (Becki Newton), has a penchant for using an exaggerated Spanish accent around her and warning her not to get chimichurri sauce on important documents.
Yet somehow Betty remained strong. She never buckled under the pressure of her hostile work environment — though doing so would have been understandable. Instead, she focused on her dream of writing for magazines.
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