If you looked at the majority of TV shows or movies set in Boston, you’d never guess almost 20% of the people who call the city home identify as Latino or Hispanic. Onscreen, there’s almost no one speaking Spanish or Portuguese on the T in from Jamaica Plain or East Boston—to say nothing of the other local suburbs and towns where Caribbean, South and Central Americans have moved to and where their children will grow up. But through the lens of filmmaker Paloma Valenzuela, those communities make up the world of her web series The Pineapple Diaries (2015-2020).
“I’ve been passionate about this subject of representation and that there be more [media] that really reflects the stories that can come out of this country,” said Valenzuela. “The concept of the white everyman is just not true. Hollywood has made it seem like the universal stories have to be told by white characters. I think that we’re seeing a shift, and yet I still feel that there’s more work to be done.”
The Pineapple Diaries follows the misadventures of Maite (Adobuere Ebiama), Montserrat (Leandra Rivera), Reggie (Elisanett Martinez), Catalina (Inés de la Cruz) and Feliz (Valenzuela), a group of Black and Latinx friends in Jamaica Plain, celebrating—and sometimes poking fun at—their everyday experiences. The pilot introduces many of the series’ regulars while Maite’s on a comic odyssey to wire birthday money to her grandmother in the Dominican Republic. It’s an errand that many people with relatives abroad could tell you about, but in The Pineapple Diaries, it becomes a cross-neighborhood tour of different characters, their relationships, their money problems, their disapproving parents, their frustrating jobs, and their hopes for the future.
In between funny episodes where the young women skewer men who catcall them and hold a contest to fake the best orgasm, there are exploratory monologues and storylines that unpack some of the baggage around concepts of identity. One of the first “Interlude” episodes details Maite’s thoughts on what it means to be Afro-Latina and confronting racism within the Latinx community. And later in the season, Danny (Danny Mourino) wonders about the pressure to act macho, even if it’s disrespectful to women.
Even before The Pineapple Diaries became a fully-fledged web series, Valenzuela had showbiz dreams. She had studied acting at first, but switched gears when she discovered the power of writing her own stories. “I graduated college with the dream of being a writer, producer, director, [but] I hadn’t even considered the thought of doing it independently,” said Valenzuela. “I took a teaching job for three years, and I just thought to myself, I need to regroup and get back to what it is that I said I wanted to do.”
In 2014, Valenzuela started working on the project that would become The Pineapple Diaries. She wrote characters without knowing who would bring them to life, then asked friends from college and acting classes. It was a true DIY project with no certainty of what would happen next.
“I knew I wanted to make a show that really reflected what my corner of Boston and Jamaica Plain looks like and what my group of Dominican girlfriends looked like, how we’re all different shades and our complexities,” said Valenzuela. “Just the idea of a show where I feel like there could be Latinx characters that are not some sort of stereotype. Why can’t there be like a Seinfeld style comedy show, but with Black Dominican women characters?”
The first season debuted in 2015, and Valenzuela has continued to build out her web series ever since. In between juggling different gigs and teaching workshops (including theatre classes with Company One), she finds new issues to discuss and scenarios to explore with her collaborators. As in real life, some of the series’ actors have moved away—and some have come back to Boston just to continue the series.
And The Pineapple Diaries is just the tip of the iceberg of Valenzuela’s recent works. She’s currently working on a feature-length script and a new series idea, and has also worked with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on their Luminary Lens Series, which features artists responding to art in the museum. She has more collaborations with local artists in the works, and a new project on deck. And she’s still teaching—and not just theater, but now screenwriting too. Instead of waiting for Hollywood, Paloma Valenzuela carved out her own creative path on the East Coast.
“Maybe this is just my personality, but there is no other option except to feel hopeful,” she said. “Let’s try to fix the problem now.”
Monica Castillo is the arts and culture reporter at Colorado Public Radio. Her work has been featured by NPR, RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Remezcla, The Wrap, and other outlets.