Roswell, New Mexico creator talks reversing the white-washing from the original series

Ahead of Tuesday night’s game-changing episode of The CW drama, Roswell, New Mexico creator Carina Adly Mackenzie takes us inside the personal experiences that shaped her perspective and therefore the show’s.

When I was initially approached to develop a Roswell update for The CW, I was hesitant to adapt work that maintains a devoted following to this day. But when I learned that Liz was Latina in the Roswell High books but had been white-washed for the 1999 television show, I was intrigued by the opportunity to reverse that.

I knew immediately who I wanted Liz to be. There was a line I wrote for the audition sides, in which a police officer accuses Liz of being combative, and she replies, “I’m a Mexican-American woman in 2018. I engage in combat by getting out of bed in the morning.” In order to tell Liz’s story with authenticity, I filled the writer’s room, crew, and cast with diverse voices who could speak to her experience. We reached out to Define American, an organization founded to help writers tell stories that further progress and improve the conversation about immigration. When we cast Jeanine Mason, we listened closely to her stories of not only the struggles of being Latina, but also the joys.

I don’t believe in color-blind casting. I want characters’ experiences to reflect their ethnicity. Roswell, New Mexico” doesn’t attempt to portray a world in which racism and xenophobia do not exist, so we can’t arbitrarily fill roles. I wanted Maria to be black, I wanted Kyle to be Mexican, and I wanted Alex to have Native American heritage, just like in the books. Those stories mattered. But I wrote the executives at the studio and the network a letter to explain why the aliens — Max, Michael, and Isobel, would be played by white actors.

Ursula Coyote/The CW; Inset: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Roswell, New Mexico is my show, but Liz’s story is not my story. That said, alienation and otherness are universal themes, and I do have my own history to write about — through the aliens.

As a straight cis white kid in Connecticut, I had no understanding of true hatred — the kind of hatred so insidious and dangerous that our own language softens it into something more palatable: fear. We assign a -phobia suffix as if to excuse it. Homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia.

My mother, Shereen Abdel-Meguid, is a proud Egyptian-American Muslim woman. Most of my friends at school had no idea that my family was Muslim, but that was because we were taught that religion is very personal, not because we were ashamed of it.

I was fourteen years old on Sept. 11, 2001. I was grappling with the toll 9/11 took on my family as my father, who was at Ground Zero and survived, processed his trauma. Meanwhile, Islam was denounced as violent and malevolent by the president, the media, even by teachers at my high school. I didn’t “look” Muslim. I was a blue-eyed, dirty blonde bookworm. I didn’t look like the bad guy. I looked like safe, boring, Dubya-approved America. I had always been so proud of my family, but suddenly, I felt like I had some kind of dirty secret.

So for a long time, I was quiet while kids around me equated Muslims with violence. They saw no difference between my mom, who gave them rides home from the bus stop when it was too cold to walk, and the fanatic zealots who had, in my mind, stolen a religion and weaponized it. People expressed hatred freely around me, because they had no way of knowing that they were talking about me. And why would they? To them, Muslims all looked like machine-gun touting caricatures.

In the Roswell pilot, Max explains to Liz why it’s so important to him to keep the secret that he’s an alien. He already knows he’s hated. “We grew up watching movies where aliens abduct people, violate them — blow up the White House,” he says. “I’m a son. I’m a brother, a cop. My life is ordinary… I’m just a guy from Roswell. That’s it.” It’s a pretty on-the-nose statement about the importance of representation, an issue that is so important to Muslim-Americans.

In 2001, I sat in a classroom while an adult — I can’t remember if it was a teacher, a counsellor, or an expert brought in to help us sort through our collective trauma — told us that the Qur’an says that suicide bombers go to heaven, where they are promptly presented with 40 virgins to use as they wish. A room full of scared high school sophomores, and a grown-up, casually contributing to the rhetoric that turns fear into hatred. I had been quiet for a long time, but something compelled me that day to push back. To raise my hand and say that I was Muslim, and that the terrorists didn’t reflect the religion as I had been taught it.

Things changed at school for me after that. Someone filled my gym locker with sand. Someone wrote “towelhead” in my yearbook in thick marker. I threw the whole yearbook away. A guy I’d been friends with most of my life casually called me a “sand n—,“ and I was the one ousted from the lunch table, because the rest of my friends didn’t think it was a big deal. But I didn’t regret speaking up.

Today, I’m not a practicing Muslim, but I feel deeply connected to the religion, heritage, and culture. All these years after 9/11, people still make Islamophobic comments around me because I don’t look Arab. They make “jokes.” They shrug at the idea of the president’s Muslim ban, not realizing that every time my grandfather, who holds a green card, travels here to the U.S., I’m terrified he’s going to get put in a holding cell, alone, without access to insulin.

This is the experience that I bring to Roswell, New Mexico. When we meet Max, he has thus far enjoyed the privilege of appearing to be a straight cis white man — a guy who personifies the good ol’ boy swagger that so many seem to view as the American ideal. Things are about to change for him. The idea of “passing,” of impostor syndrome, and ultimately of choosing to raise your voice and exit the sanctuary of your own privilege in order to stand up for those who don’t have that privilege — that’s intrinsic to the show, to who Max is now, and who he will, hopefully, become. It’s his journey, and it is mine. We’re working on it together.

Roswell airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.

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