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“Gordita Chronicles” feels like a deep-cut throwback to my childhood as an awkward chubby Brown girl growing up in a Latine immigrant family during the Reagan administration. The new HBO Max series is a blast from the past that I’m actually excited about, and one I frankly never thought I’d see.
Created by Claudia Forestieri, “Gordita Chronicles” is a conventional situation comedy and network-style memory show — but it’s really like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The series follows Carlotta, or Cucu for short (played by Olivia Goncalves), a 12-year-old chubby Brown girl who has newly emigrated from the Dominican Republic to 1985 Miami with her family. She’s immediately dropped from her familiar DR, where she’s well-known and well-liked, into “America the Beautiful” and a school where “everybody looks like Madonna.” Watching it feels like finding an old yearbook, and remembering things I have forgotten.
Cucu and her older sister, Emilia (Savannah Nicole Ruiz), quickly receive hard assimilation lessons in beauty and behavioral standards from, of course, white jocks wearing letterman jackets. Emilia, who is slender, quickly meets Chad. They’re soon making out furiously, but before long he’s making racist jokes and then ghosting Emilia. Cucu also has a run-in with a jock, and he introduces her to a word she’s never heard before: fatso. In this way, Cucu experiences two migrations: from the Dominican Republic to the United States and also from “gordita” to “fatso.” She explains that in DR, “gordita” means “little chubby” and is a term of endearment. In the U.S., “fatso” is another beast.
Cucu experiences two migrations: from the Dominican Republic to the United States, and also from “gordita” to “fatso.”
This divergence in how Emilia and Cucu are introduced to U.S. white masculinity totally tracks for me. Emilia has physical access to Brad as a thin Brown girl, but not full access to the “right” kind of femininity that would make her Chad’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, Cucu’s encounter with a jock begins with a hard collision; he literally runs into her trying to catch a ball. He doesn’t apologize. Instead, he tells her to “watch where she’s going.” This could have been a scene from my own childhood, where my fat body felt like a magnet for boys’ elbows and knees.
Born in the 1980s, I, like Cucu, grew up while the U.S. was drunk off its own fantasy of itself. I was raised by Mexican immigrants — my mother’s parents — in the Bay Area of Northern California. I was a gordita. Cucu’s story mirrors my own: growing up with one set of codes around how my body was seen and treated at home, and being smacked in the face with codes of conduct and beauty ideals at school. Primarily among them: the thin ideal.
One question I found myself asking while watching the first episode at the screening event in Los Angeles earlier this month was whether Cucu’s quick explanation of “gordita” as a term of endearment truly captured my lived experience of having that title. The “ita” at the end of the word does make it a term of endearment (or it “softens the blow” of the grown-up version of this word “gorda”). But for me, the “ita” at the end didn’t make much of a difference when someone was using that word to describe me. I already had the American context of this word hardwired into my brain. Similarly, my grandfather, who grew up in San Luis Potosí, often told me about being called “gordo” throughout his childhood and how hurtful it was. It contributed to his body dysmorphia, which he attempted to reconcile by becoming a competitive bodybuilder.
Still, watching Cucu navigate tricky pre-teen situations felt familiar; seeing her spirit stay in tack despite the insults and microaggressions was galvanizing. I was hooked just from the first episode. This is new for me, especially as someone who rarely watches TV. I didn’t know how much I needed to see Cucu. I was just rooting for her completely. I just want her to succeed and get everything she wants. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way watching anything in my life.
Cucu’s story mirrors my own: growing up with one set of codes around how my body was seen and treated at home, and being smacked in the face with codes of conduct and beauty ideals at school.
And then my media habits started to make sense to me. I just thought I was one of those weirdos who doesn’t like TV that much. Talking to my friend Ruthie about “Gordita Chronicles” made me wonder if this feeling — like you’d do anything to see the main character succeed, like you’re all in — is what other people — specifically thin white people — feel all the time? Maybe that’s what keeps them coming back.
Ruthie offered some jaw-dropping feedback: “I think you’ve probably conditioned yourself to set your expectations low. We’re all trained to expect to see a white, cisgender, thin character, so we prepare ourselves emotionally for all our media to look like that. If we didn’t do that, we’d just constantly be in this state of longing.” Damn. Yes!
Did Cucu rouse me from low-expectations-landia?
Watching Cucu, with her little pansita afuera and her side chongo, I can’t help but think, I could have been Cucu. I see Cucu through my eyes as a fat-positive feminist adult who embraces her body. To me, Cucu represents the ability to look back on my child gordita self and feel nothing but love, familiarity, and unwavering fandom. I look at Cucu and I see me. I don’t just feel reflected, but I feel proud. It’s not just that Cucu is a mirror; it’s that I like what is being reflected back at me.
“Gordita Chronicles” is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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