Amidst the ongoing struggle of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found comfort in Romancelandia—the community of authors, fans, and anyone else connected to the popular romance fiction industry. Since April, authors have promoted free virtual roundtables, book discussions, and other fun events, which is where I first learned about Alexis Daria’s romantic comedy novel You Had Me at Hola (2020). On my one bookstore trip since the pandemic began, I purchased the novel and saved it for a time when I really needed a pick-me-up, which was early October.
Daria’s novel brilliantly plays with romance, soap opera, and telenovela narrative elements, both through the main story of actors Jasmine Lin Rodriguez and Ashton Suárez and the embedded story of their characters for the new streaming series Carmen in Charge. All three genres focus on heightened emotions and often blend fantasy and reality to allow readers and viewers to reflect on deeper issues.
Most significantly, You Had Me at Hola uses the secret baby trope that’s central to all three genres. In this trope, someone—usually a woman—hides a child from others for deep reasons. Daria flips the script; Ashton, who has sole responsibility for his son Yadiel, has successfully hidden him for eight years in order to keep him safe from the prying eyes of the public—and the paparazzi. Keeping this secret also means that Ashton distances himself from his coworkers on set, refusing most offers of socialization outside of working hours, and frequently making trips back to Puerto Rico to visit his family.
That all changes when he meets Jasmine on the set of Carmen in Charge. Their “meet cute” moment highlights Jasmine’s tenacity and ability to rise to every occasion, showing up to hone her craft as an actress and stay true to her “Leading Lady Plan.” Both Ashton and Jasmine view Carmen in Charge as a career-defining moment, expanding their range from telenovela and soap opera, respectively, to a high-profile original series on a streaming service. The stakes are high for both of them to succeed in this series, and they become allies, helping each other master the genre.
Daria creates two love stories—Ashton and Jasmine, and Victor and Carmen, their characters in the series. On set, the two work with Vera, an intimacy coordinator, to ensure that the filming of intimate scenes is consensual and safe for all involved; this framework of consent, rather than stifling passion, creates a deep understanding of who the characters are and why they are being intimate. Daria suggests that doing the interpersonal work before being intimate and continually affirming consent leads to more meaningful encounters. This work from the set carries over into the unscripted intimacy between Ashton and Jasmine as they can no longer fight their attraction. This twinning of the two love stories points to two additional popular tropes: forced proximity, where the lovers are thrown together in an inescapable situation, and a version of “just for tonight,” when there is a built in expiration date of the romance. The confines of Carmen in Charge provide this framework that allows Ashton and Jasmine to explore their attraction without compromising their long term goals—keeping Yadiel safe, and building a successful career without being bound by family obligations. At the same time, the success of Carmen in Charge and the call for a second season provide a way for this relationship to continue.Carmen in Charge also models what a truly inclusive production looks like, from the cast to the production team for this Latinx series. Daria shows the ways that stars like Ashton and Jasmine must navigate fame through their identities and fight to tell their own stories, amidst entertainment media and paparazzi that shape their stories to fit the bottom line of the media industry. And in this way, You Had Me at Hola comments on similar issues within Romancelandia—how can authors of color shape their own narratives and find their rightful place on the bookshelves and book reviews in an industry that has been dominated by White authors, stories, and gatekeepers? How can we collectively challenge the industry and push for inclusion? Readers can demand diverse books, support these authors, and show the industry their value by purchasing, reading, sharing, and reviewing their novels.
By Dr. Jessica Lyn Van Slooten
Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of English, Writing, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, romance writing, and more. Jessica has published numerous articles on teaching and assessing gender studies courses, and popular romance fiction and film. She is currently drafting a romance novel set in a small midwestern town.