Camila Mendes on Why We Need More Latine Representation in Rom-Coms

Camila Mendes Is a Rom-Com Sensation/Photo Illustration be Keila Gonzalez
Camila Mendes Is a Rom-Com Sensation/Photo Illustration be Keila Gonzalez

A simple Google search of "the best rom-coms of all time" will take you down a nostalgic hole of '90s and early-'00s movies like "10 Things I Hate About You," "While You Were Sleeping," and "P.S. I Love You." These classics, among many others, have shaped how we view love on screen. But through these films, we've learned what love looks like through white protagonists; many BIPOC communities have failed to see themselves reflected. While we saw Latine actresses like Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, and Christina Milian make their mark early on in romantic comedy movies (and through the years we've seen other Latinas sporadically take the lead, like Gina Rodriguez in "Someone Great"), for years the entertainment industry has undervalued and underrepresented Latine communities on screen and behind the camera.

Camila Mendes is shifting that narrative. You likely recognize her from rom-coms like "Palm Springs," "The Perfect Date," and "The New Romantic" — and she's starring in and serving as an an executive producer for the new rom-com film "Música," which also stars and is directed by her boyfriend, Rudy Mancuso.

"As much as we love rom-coms from the '90s and early 2000s, things have changed, and that doesn't mean that you have to like overtly make like a woke rom-com, but I think it's more about just finding ways to make them more interesting and grounded to the experience of finding love today," she says.

Indeed, "Música" broadens what it means to be Latine on screen — with a much-needed depiction of the Brazilian American experience specifically. The film follows Mancuso's character, also named Rudy, as he navigates the trials and tribulations of family life, romance, and career decisions — all while living with rhythmic synesthesia. This rare neurological condition causes one to experience more than one sense simultaneously.

The film is based on Mancuso's reality, where he turns to music as the solution to everything. It charts his own upbringing, and uses the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, NJ, which is home to many Brazilians, as a backdrop.

Mendes stars as Isabella, Rudy's love interest. What makes her role in "Música" so special is the authenticity of her own cultural background as a Brazilian American. It's also her first time taking on a role that allowed her to draw on her own heritage directly, and she even gets to speak Portuguese, in which she's fluent.

"It was an opportunity I had been waiting for my entire career, and I honestly wasn't sure if I ever was going to get that opportunity," Mendes says. "I thought I was going to have to create it myself. I had plans to [create something myself], but this project was ahead of the curve, and I was like, 'What a dream come true to finally, you know, play my authentic culture instead of having to pretend to be a different [ethnicity other than my own].'"

Mendes emphasizes the need to open up the way Latines are represented in these films, as well as the importance of centering Latines of all different backgrounds.

"We've seen so many rom-coms and we've seen a lot of played-out scenarios, and I think it's just nice to get a fresh take and bring in a cultural element that normally you don't see in those rom-coms," she says.

"We've seen so many rom-coms and we've seen a lot of played-out scenarios, and I think it's just nice to get a fresh take and bring in a cultural element that normally you don't see in those rom-coms."

It's clear that Hollywood continues to miss out on culturally specific elements when telling our stories. But true representation is more than just having us in these rooms; it's about making sure the characters and scripts that are green-lit capture the nuances that truly make our communities what they are.

"I just know that I have a responsibility to my culture that I gladly take, and I put it on myself because there aren't many of us in Hollywood to tell that story that have the ability to get projects made," Mendes says of her responsibility to amplify broader narratives of Brazilian culture on screen. "I'm going to use my power to that advantage and help get the industry to a place where this can be a more regular occurrence."

As she solidifies her place as a Brazilian American rom-com sensation, Mendes acknowledges there is still room for evolution when it comes to these films. And she wants to see Hollywood subvert the genre in new ways that are compelling.

Still, Mendes can appreciate the legacy of rom-com classics. She can narrow her favorites down to two: "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and "Along Came Polly." She feels the latter doesn't get the credit it deserves. As for her all-time go-to Jennifer Lopez rom-com, the Latina OG of the films, she goes with 2001's iconic "The Wedding Planner."

Coming off the heels of the release of "Música," Mendes hasn't found time yet to slow down. But running around with a packed schedule is what keeps her motivated.

"Sometimes it's a good thing, you know, when you're staying busy through something like this, it keeps you in the moment. I think it's easy to get carried away focusing on what people are saying and how they're responding," she says. "Even though, luckily for us, it's all very positive — but there's something really nice about just pushing through and carrying on with your life because there's still more to do."

There is always something to do for Mendes; her latest work has included a partnership with the Italian Aperitivo Aperol at Coachella. She says it was very special to bring to life.

"Aperol spritz is a drink that my best friend and I always drank together. When [she and I] were roommates, we had a summer ritual where I would go grab an orange from the orange tree [in my backyard] and she would make us some Aperol spritzes," she shares. "I associate the drink with that experience of spending quality time with my best friend."

Even though her best friend couldn't attend Coachella with her this year, Mendes says she was there in spirit. Mendes, for her part, does plan to take a moment to slow down and take the success of "Música" in. And as the Latine community's new rom-com queen, it seems fitting that she's also able to celebrate the film's success with her onscreen and real-life love interest, Mancuso.

Brenda Barrientos is a Peruvian American journalist and social strategist with more than seven years of experience. In addition to her work in social media, Brenda writes about music and culture, with a particular focus on Latine creators. In addition to PS, her writing has been published by Billboard, Byrdie, People en Español, Refinery29, Rolling Stone, and more.