Imagine, for a second, that it’s summer 2002. Social media as we know it doesn’t exist yet, so naturally, in between mall hangs and chatting with friends (via AIM or your family’s household landline), you plop onto your neon-hued inflatable chair, grab some ‘00s-era snacks (Pop-Tarts and Trix yogurt, anyone?), and press play on your favorite network: the Disney Channel.
Although the Disney Channel has been around since 1983, in the early 2000s, it was arguably in its heyday, releasing a string of TV series and original movies that are now cherished classics for many millennials. For countless Latine kids of the ‘90s and 2000s, one such classic is “Gotta Kick It Up!,” which premiered 20 years ago on July 26, 2002.
Starring America Ferrera as Yolanda “Yoli” Vargas, Camille Guaty as Daisy Salinas, and a mostly Latine cast, the film follows a group of Latina students at an under-resourced middle school in Southern California. When the teacher who was volunteering as the school’s dance team coach retires, the future of the team is called into question. But as luck would have it, the school’s newest biology teacher, Ms. Bartlett (Susan Egan), just so happens to have a background in dance — and even attended Julliard, the sleuthing Esmeralda Reyna (Sabrina Wiener) discovers.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can probably guess what happens next.
“Gotta Kick It Up!” — beloved as it may be for Latina millennials like myself — unfortunately falls victim to the white savior trope that is all too common in “diverse” films. From “Dangerous Minds” to “Freedom Writers” to “The Blind Side,” Hollywood has a clear penchant for feel-good stories about white people saving the day, further playing upon stereotypes that people of color are utterly aimless without their white counterparts to guide them.
‘Gotta Kick It Up!’ — beloved as it may be for Latina millennials like myself — unfortunately falls victim to the white savior trope that is all too common in ‘diverse’ films.
One of my greatest frustrations in my recent rewatch of “Gotta Kick It Up!,” nearly two decades after my initial viewing, is how helpless the young women seem. This portrayal does not sit right with me. Yes, they are ninth-graders, but as is so often the case for Latina teens, they are mature beyond their years. As the eldest daughter of immigrant parents, Esmeralda, for instance, basically raises her younger brother — a responsibility that goes mostly unnoticed by her well-meaning parents who obviously take her for granted.
The film’s lead, Daisy, is arguably the least mature of the group; she got in trouble for dancing in Ms. Bartlett’s classroom, and in lieu of detention, signs up for the dance team instead. But she’s the most naturally gifted dancer, and when she’s on, she’s on.
These are young women with talent, intelligence, responsibility, and passion. In fact, after Ms. Bartlett tells the team they’re not ready to compete following a disastrous debut, the entire group demonstrates their savviness and enters the competition anyway, behind their coach’s back. Predictably, Ms. Bartlett’s ego is wounded when the team does well and comes in third place. It turns out they might not need her as much as she thinks.
By the end of the film, Ms. Bartlett acknowledges that holding back the girls from competing really had more to do with her own baggage and trauma than with them. It’s a nice sentiment, I suppose, but it only further underscores the problem with these white savior narratives. At some point or another, the plot veers away from the marginalized characters — the ones whose stories should be centered to begin with — and winds up focusing on the white savior because hey, they have a sob story, too!
With the gift of growth and experience, rewatching it admittedly felt more cringe than heartwarming.
Another shortcoming of the film is its lack of diversity in terms of representing the spectrum of Latinidad. From what I could tell, there are no Afro-Latines in the movie. There was one Black student on a competing school’s dance team, which also seemed like a complete missed opportunity to not feature an all-Black squad. There was also no queer representation, which was unfortunately common back in the 2000s, but today, it’s a glaring void.
Like other Latine-focused entertainment of the era, from “Taina” to “The Brothers Garcia,” I gravitated toward “Gotta Kick It Up!” because it was one of the few visible examples I had of other Latina girls and families simply going about their day-to-day lives. And when you grow up in a predominantly white place like myself, those portrayals are life lines of sorts — vital connections to a culture and community that might not exist otherwise.
Yet while the movie represented one of the first times many of us felt seen on Disney, not all of us did. And two decades later, with the gift of growth and experience, rewatching it admittedly felt more cringe than heartwarming.
I kept imagining how much stronger the story would have been if Ms. Bartlett had been Latina. Why couldn’t she have been? Ms. Bartlett — the dancer turned tech exec turned teacher — could have been, say, Ms. Badillo. And seeing that character arc would have been incredibly influential for a young, 12-year-old me.
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