Considering that the show constantly challenges the ways female sexuality, power structures and family values are portrayed on television, it is surprising that we have had to wait until Season 3 of Orange Is The New Black to see motherhood take a front seat. But, thankfully, it’s now clear that the “Mom Behind Bars Angle” is finally being tackled, and the best person to talk about it is Selenis Leyva, who plays Gloria Mendoza.
Whether she’s running the kitchen or laying down the law to her son during visitation, Gloria is probably the most terrifying and caring mother you’ve ever seen, illustrating the struggle of caring for your children from behind bars. And as Leyva tells Cinefilles, Gloria’s story of motherhood, tough as it might be at times, is one that needs to be told.
I was happy to read the scripts and see the attention being given to the characters as mothers. I think it’s being dealt with in an incredible and heartbreaking way.
“For a show dealing with women who are incarcerated, motherhood is something that hadn’t really been touched on yet, and to leave it unacknowledged would be an injustice,” Leyva says, speaking to Cinefilles on a recent conference call. “I was happy to read the scripts and see the attention being given to the characters as mothers. I think it’s being dealt with in an incredible and heartbreaking way.”
Season 3 sees a shift in Gloria’s priorities as she steps down from the kitchen and distances herself from her fellow Latina prisoners after realizing what her absence might mean for her children. This shift can be definitely felt by viewers, but was particularly felt by Leyva on set. “The scenes I did touched me to my core,” she explains. “I can’t imagine not having access to my children on a daily basis. You see Gloria trying so hard, struggling to understand what her son needs, and she can’t help him. It’s frustrating to delve into that.”
Would Gloria have acted the same way, with the same passion if it had been her daughter she was attempting to parent from far away? According to Leyva, yes. And then some.
“I think she would have been just as tough, maybe even tougher!” she tells Cinefilles. “I grew up with all boys in the house, and my mother had a soft spot for them. She was always tougher on me. The mother-son dynamic is very different from mother-daughter. Maybe in the future we’ll get a chance to see how Gloria’s relationship with her daughter plays out.”
From the sounds of it, Leyva’s relationship with her own mother played out rather well.
“My mother is such a strong role model in my life,” she says, speaking to another reporter on the call. “She’s a tiny little thing, soft spoken, but she has so much power and wisdom. She instilled in me the notion of being a proud mother and a proud woman.”
Both strength and pride come into play for Gloria as she attempts to balance her relationships with the women at Litchfield with her desire to have a larger role in her son’s life. When asked about the tension (spoiler alert!) between Gloria and Sophia (Laverne Cox), two mothers who must deal with very different struggles at the prison and with their families, Leyva emphasizes the importance of going to such a dark place with her character.
To say words I don’t agree with to Laverne, who[m] I love and respect so much, brought up a lot of pain, but it was a necessary place for us to go.
“I have a transgender sister, and when people started talking about Laverne [Cox’s] storyline on the show, it was a beautiful moment—people like my sister could see their community represented on television,” she explains. “Gloria went to a dark place and said things that I fight on a daily basis to shield my sister from. To say words I don’t agree with to Laverne, who[m] I love and respect so much, brought up a lot of pain, but it was a necessary place for us to go.”
She continues, “To explore the dark side of that story was something important because it reminds us that life is not perfect, it’s very flawed.”
Viewers have seen many different sides of Gloria from season to season, but motherhood certainly sheds a new light on the character. And yet, even with these struggles, when asked what she hopes audiences will take away from Gloria’s struggles, as a mother and inmate, Leyva emphasizes the character’s strength.
“Gloria is a powerful women. Yes, she barks a lot, but her strength is something to be admired. She’s a survivor, a hard worker.”
Oh, and a mom.
Orange is the New Black Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix and Netflix Canada.