'13 Reasons Why' Made Tony a Gay, Latinx, Catholic Teen — Here's Why That Matters
When we first meet Tony Padilla (played by Christian Navarro) in Netflix’s gripping new series 13 Reasons Why, he’s pulling up in his Mustang, wearing a leather jacket and his hair slicked back. He offers Clay a ride, and, wow, does he take Clay on a ride.
It’s clear from the beginning of the story about a school coping from the loss of a student who dies by suicide that Tony is the all-knowing sage. (At one point, Clay refers to him as an “unhelpful Yoda,” an extremely appropriate title.) He’s the keeper of Hannah Baker’s tapes, and of her secrets. At first, he is more of a force than a person, bailing Clay out of trouble at exactly the right moment, guiding him through his struggles, and nudging him back on the right track when he goes astray. He is advocate number one for “Team Listen to the Tapes Already,” which I loved him for. Seriously. Sit down and listen to the tapes, Clay.
But while this does make Tony seem wise and mysterious, it also made me nervous when I started watching. Too often, characters of color only exist to fulfill the wishes or solve the problems of white characters. Tony, who is Latinx and (as we find out later) gay, was at high risk of being pigeonholed into the role of the diversity friend, a plot device.
To be honest, that’s where I thought Tony would end up. The burden Hannah placed on him in distributing the tapes is immense, but Tony didn’t show any signs of being distressed. He executed Hannah’s wishes faithfully and without complaint. “Doesn’t this affect you at all?” Clay asks Tony in “Tape 1, Side B,” apparently as surprised as I was that Tony could be so cool and collected.
Tony quotes Clay’s own words back to him, something Clay told Tony in the seventh grade after a bully gave him a swirly: “Sometimes a guy’s gotta get through things on his own. This is one of those things.”
Right there, I saw a glimmer of hope for Tony’s character, because it illustrated beautifully a struggle I immediately recognized in Latinx communities: Machismo.
In many Latinx cultures, there is an expectation on men to behave a certain way, a code. In that code, men are conditioned to be stoic and tough. Masculinity is performed through courtship with women, displays of physical strength (Tony beating the crap out of someone comes to mind), and, this above all, keeping your feelings to yourself. This code is called machismo. When we briefly meet Tony’s dad, we get insight into the machismo he was raised with. They are working on a car together when Clay rolls up on his bike. Hannah’s death is brought up, and Tony’s dad says something revealing.
“If you ever do something like that to your mother,” he says, “I’ll kill you.” Any Latinx kid watching the show might laugh at the irony — and familiarity — of that warning.
That’s not how death works, of course. But it’s the perfect encapsulation of machismo. If Tony is going through something, he’s supposed to keep that to himself and be strong for his mother.
It gives necessary context to Tony’s stoicism. It’s not that he’s a dehumanized character who only cares about Hannah’s wishes and with no feelings of his own, it’s that he’s been conditioned to not express those feelings for fear of seeming weak.
All I needed from the show after that was a moment of vulnerability from Tony, something that told me he was indeed experiencing some internal conflict from having to conceal his emotions.
I got that moment in “Tape 6, Side B” when he’s having a conversation with his boyfriend, Brad, who is upset that Tony keeps calling him his “friend.”
“I’m not going to judge you, but you have to tell me what’s going on,” Brad says.
“I had a friend,” Tony says. “She killed herself. She left a job for me.”
Tony’s voice cracks as he goes on, and for the first time, we see the emotional toll Hannah’s task is taking on him. Brad puts his arms around Tony, and at last, someone is guiding Tony instead of the other way around.
There is a lot of fair criticism of 13 Reasons Why. But the show does boast LGBTQ characters and characters of color. Tony, who is both, is a character that represents an important part of the Latinx community, a facet I completely recognized as a gay Latinx myself.
In Tony, I saw a familiar struggle to reconcile gayness, machismo, and the Catholicism that is so prevalent in our culture. When Tony also self-identified as Catholic (shortly after calling Skye una bruja, which I loved), it acknowledged the intersectionality of his identity. His ethnicity, sexual identity, and religion all matter; and one does not diminish or qualify the other.
What’s more, the scene reminded me of growing up in the Church and worrying about how I was going to hide my whole life. I felt a deep sense of obligation to hide, and that obligation dominates much of our culture. Some might call it Catholic guilt. Others might say it’s our “family values.” But whatever it’s called, it remains true that it is considered virtuous in many Latinx cultures to put yourself second, even at a great personal cost. That means “manning up,” or it means not “complaining,” or it means dealing with (and even bottling up) things on your own.
Tony completely embodies that struggle. When he found it difficult to outright call Brad his boyfriend instead of just his friend, I saw all those familiar forces pulling Tony in different directions. He wasn’t just afraid of acknowledging his gayness. He was afraid of being vulnerable. He was afraid of emoting.
A huge theme of the show is how crucial it is to not keep emotions bottled up and to reach out to people when necessary. Toxic masculinity, across various cultures, so often conditions men to keep their feelings to themselves. And few manifestations of toxic masculinity are as singularly coded as machismo, a trope that Hollywood is fascinated with in nearly every movie that features Latinx people, but rarely seems to want to address in a deeper way. 13 Reasons Why challenges, that, and dares to unpack the nuances of what Latinx characters struggle with it in ways that Latinx viewers can identify with.
Tony may not be a perfect character, but in him I did see a great depiction of machismo that did not go unexamined in the show. When his voice cracked, and when he finally let his guard down, he was not met with ridicule, but with open arms.
Seeing a brown gay kid receive that kind of support at a moment of vulnerability made me want to stand up and clap, because I knew how much I needed to see that when I was younger. It might seem like a small thing, but if it’s one thing 13 Reasons Why has to say, it’s that the small things matter.