Murals and Malta: Storytelling in Jamaica Plain
Written By: Emma LeBlanc Pérez
In Paloma Valenzuela’s web series The Pineapple Diaries, Jamaica Plain is a vibrant neighborhood full of color and warmth. This seems a world away from the leaf-littered sidewalk Valenzuela stands on, in front of a brick wall with a worn historical plaque. She has a flatbrimmed hat with a mane of thick, dark curls that are buffeted by occasional gusts of wind. As she explains her time as a theater and English teacher in the Dominican Republic, she glances over at a group of children shouting and laughing.
In a clear voice with a faint accent, the Boston native explains how, after graduating from Emerson College in 2009 with a degree in Writing for Film and Television, she decided to move to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. There she taught theater and English for three years while also working in the television industry. When she returned to Boston, she immediately began searching for a project she could work on.
“I had the idea for a while to do a web series,” Valenzuela says, “and I knew I wanted it to encapsulate all of the things I wanted to express, like what it felt like veering towards your thirties, what the experience [is like] of being a Dominican American, of being a woman.”
From this came the idea for The Pineapple Diaries, a comedy series on YouTube that follows several characters from Jamaica Plain, the neighborhood Valenzuela grew up in. Unique to the show are interludes featuring monologues illustrating, in a “pause from all the silliness,” the reality of the struggles the characters face (such as sexism, racism and cultural expectations). The show, which Valenzuela writes, directs, edits and acts in, tells the stories of people who aren’t seen on TV very often—which is part of the reason why she wanted to make it.
“I wanted to talk about universal stories that I think […] anybody, man or woman, can relate to. But the faces that are telling the stories are Afro-Latina, are Dominican American […] I wanted them to be a Latina that I feel TV doesn’t really represent,” she says.
Her characters—including a cheerful barber, a struggling YouTuber, a snarky author and so on—are unique, yet grounded in reality. Valenzuela didn’t have to look far to find actors who fit these roles. Having gone to the Boston Arts Academy for high school and been a part of the theater program she knew many former classmates who would be interested in volunteering their time and talent for her project (seeing as the cast and crew do not get paid).
“When I came back to Boston, who else would I know other than my old friends from high school? Since after high school and college I booked it,” she says with a laugh, her gloved hand slicing through the air. “It was very serendipitous […] We were all in the same place where we had left and come back to Boston not knowing what was going to come of it.”
For the first season, which began in August of 2015 and currently has over 11,000 views, she brought her high school friends on board for cast and crew roles. For the second season (which began on October 6 of 2016, with new episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays) word had spread to the point where local actors were auditioning for roles. This was due in part to the support from the community the series was set and filmed in.
Valenzuela knew that as well as having realistic and non-stereotypical characters, having the show be set in Jamaica Plain was important. Besides being home to a large Dominican community, the neighborhood offers a side of Boston that movies and TV shows don’t usually show. Many depict Boston in grim, washed-out tones, whereas The Pineapple Diaries has a very intentional tropical feel to it, with the colorful murals Jamaica Plain is known for as the backdrop for many scenes. Instead of thick Boston accents the characters often have Dominican accents and switch back and forth between English and Spanish. While Dunkin’ Donuts does show up (it’s Boston, after all), Malta and platanitos are among the vast variety of Spanish food that get plenty of love — in fact, several scenes are set in Jamaica Plain restaurants, a sign of the community support behind the series.
“[There’s been] a lot of support from people who just think it’s cool that we are celebrating the neighborhood in the show. I’m from JP and I’ve always loved JP. It’s such a special place and I think anyone who lives there feels the same way,” says Valenzuela.
As The Pineapple Diaries continues with its second season, Valenzuela has no fixed plans for the future. The series, while a fun project and something she holds dear, takes a lot of time and energy and takes time away from other work (such as translating and editing scripts and working on other film projects). On top of all her other roles, she spends her weekends editing episodes of The Pineapple Diaries, writing up Spanish subtitles for each episode, preparing for twice-weekly releases and keeping the various social media active and updated.
“Editing is taking up so much of my time that I have to say ‘no’ to gigs that are coming my way. If I can find the support that I need to sustain this again for season three I’ll do it,” says Valenzuela.
She has no set plans for a third season of the web series, but there’s plenty in store for her. She says, “I feel like I don’t want to give up unless there’s really nothing left and there’s so much left that I want to do, so much stuff that I want to say, so many ideas that I have—I feel like I shouldn’t stop.”
In The Pineapple Diaries, Valenzuela succeeds in depicting grounded and heartfelt characters with unique backgrounds as well as the neighborhood that fosters both a sense of individuality and one of community. With films and TV shows focusing on an over simplified version of Boston, Valenzuela uses humor and sincerity in her web series to bring the city to life. The Pineapple Diaries is a breath of fresh air and, more than anything, a celebration of the complexities of one’s identity.
Emma LeBlanc Pérez is a Writing, Literature & Publishing major at Emerson College. She has written several short stories and screenplays. She lives in Boston with her two boxers, Daisy and Stoney.