Few prime-time TV characters are more American than Betty Suarez. On ABC's hit comedy-soap Ugly Betty, she's a fashion-magazine assistant who is distinctly unfashionable--chunky sweaters, frizzy hair, bear-trap braces--but succeeds through good old Yankee values like perseverance, optimism and hard work. Smart and sweet-hearted, she embodies the Puritan-Shaker-Quaker principle of valuing inner good over outer appearance. She's as Norman Rockwell as a chestnut-stuffed turkey. The actress who plays her is even named America Ferrera.
And yet--if you listen to some politicians and pundits--she should have been booted out of the country years ago. Betty's father is an illegal immigrant from Mexico. To hear Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan tell it, our fellow citizens are boiling with resentment against people like Betty. Taking our kids' spots in college! Helping themselves to our orthodontia! Stealing low-paid magazine jobs that rightfully belong to American trust-fund babies!
So why do some 14 million people a week watch and root for her? Because it's easier to hate a straw man--or a straw Mexican--than a person, even a fictional one. And because, as our pop culture shows, Americans' attitude toward foreigners is more complex than the build-a-fencers would make it.
On its face, the political debate is about illegal immigration--law, security and fairness. But this immigration panic, like past ones, taps into fears not limited to illegals. Who gets to say what American culture is? Is there enough room--and prosperity--to go around? Ugly Betty's overarching story is metaphorically about the same battle. Betty is an outsider at Mode magazine not just because she dresses badly but also because of things that have to do directly with her ethnicity. She grosses out her skinny, preening, (mostly) Anglo co-workers by bringing empanadas for lunch. Her features are broad and unmistakably Mesoamerican. (Ferrera is strikingly pretty in real life.) On her first day at work, she wears a hideous poncho with GUADALAJARA emblazoned on it.
Betty's scheming co-workers resent her in the same way immigration demagogues do: she's an interloper. Yet she succeeds--and even wins over some of her Mode enemies--for exactly that reason. Like generations of immigrants, legal or not, she brings fresh eyes, a tireless work ethic and a different perspective to revitalize a tired institution. (Like Borat, she's in the tradition of the outsider who helps America see itself.) Ironic, amid the effete fashionistas, that she's the one the audience identifies with as an everyday American.
It's no coincidence that Ugly Betty the series is itself an immigrant, a remake of a worldwide-sensation telenovela franchise. That's what makes our pop culture so vital: from TV to music to fashion, it is constantly transfused by foreigners who are able to out-American Americans.