The first time #Juliantina showed up in my social media feeds I found myself hesitant to fully commit to watching Amar a Muerte. Despite there being a decent amount of good queer representation on television in recent years, my instinctual reaction to new shows with queer content is still one of wariness. How many times have I followed that gif-filled bread crumb trail for the promise of satisfying queer representation only to be left out in the cold, and searching the dark woods of fandom for another trail to follow? Enough times to be cautious of a show that literally translates to Love to Death and is based on the premise of people dying and having their souls transmigrated into another person’s body. It brought back memories of 2016, when The 100, Person of Interest, and Black Mirror aired episodes depicting queer female characters that only found true peace after transcending to a higher plane of existence after passing away. While I absolutely loved San Junipero, I still prefer my queer storylines without a side of death these days, so I approached Amar a Muerte with cautious optimism and hoped for the best. It turned out to be a great decision.
The story begins on the day of a mysterious solar eclipse when Leon Carvajal, a wealthy media mogul and father of Valentina Carvajal, is assassinated at his wedding reception. His soul is transmigrated into the body of a recently executed hitman in San Antonio, Texas named, El Chino Valdez, the father of Juliana Valdez. Leon, left to navigate the world in the body of El Chino, sets off on a journey back to Mexico City to reunite with his family and ends up having to escape the United States with Juliana and her mother Lupita. This, of course, is not an easy task since El Chino was an abusive father and husband and his estranged daughter and wife have good reason not to trust him. Eventually, Leon decides to part ways with Juliana and Lupita to make the journey alone. El Chino’s soul ends up in the body of Beltran, an anthropology professor in Mexico City and he must now deal with the fact that he is in the body of a man who has a wife, a young son, and respectable career. Inevitably, all of their paths end up crossing in Mexico City.
Although they are not the primary protagonists of the show I was immediately captivated by the performances of Barbara Lopez as the adorably stubborn, Juliana Valdez, and Macarena Achaga, as the charismatic, Valentina Carvajal. Seeing their stories develop independently of each other and be just as strong individually as any of the other characters was nice to see and made their meet-cute moment even more rewarding. The meeting doesn’t happen right away but it was clear from that moment on there was something special unfolding that was equally as important as the cultural impact of including a love story between two women on primetime in a telenovela. By telling the story of #Juliantina, Amar a Muerte also managed to create a plotline that subverted many common tropes normally present in the development of romantic narratives, and not just the ones commonly used in developing LGBTQ love stories.
I saw a few people online comparing Juliana and Valentina’s storyline to that of Romeo and Juliet, but I didn’t see it that way. Although they are certainly in the eye of the storms around them, the development of their romance is anything but Shakespearean. For me, seeing Juliana and Valentina fall in love was like watching the tale of Cinderella playout from the point of view of Prince Charming. There is a point in the story where Valentina reminisces about the fact that Juliana could have been her prince in another life, but it is very much Valentina who is the prince in their current one.
Many times, in romantic dramas or comedies we see someone down on their luck or ostracized from society who is infatuated by someone they perceive to be unattainable due to social status or an assumption of unrequited attraction. In the case of #Juliantina, this idea is turned on its head because Valentina is clearly falling hard for Juliana before it’s revealed Juliana feels the same way. It is built up subtlety and amplified by the nuances of Barbara Lopez and Macarena Achaga’s performances early in the series.
They bond over the deaths of their fathers and continuously outdo each other in the grand gesture department. Juliana makes Valentina clothes and Valentina is constantly trying to help Juliana pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer all the while resisting the urge to buy an entire fashion school outright and name it after her new “friend.” It was sweet to watch how natural the progression of the story was, allowing both characters to be fully realized within the narrative before their romantic relationship really begins to be explored.
The most common approach to telling these kinds of love stories is usually more one-sided with a single character in the spotlight, leaving the audience in the dark about how the other person feels until it’s revealed that they have felt the same way the entire time. With #Juliantina, little love cues are sprinkled around their story as it develops, carefully placed to build the tension for the audience. There are several great moments, but my personal favorite was the day Valentina invited Juliana over for her brother’s birthday party. We can see how enraptured Valentina is as she watches Juliana try on different dresses for the party, and again when she sees Juliana finally pull up to the party with her hair and makeup done.
As the night winds down Valentina does her best to try and convince Juliana to stay the night and decides to play what I can only describe as a more G rated version of the too hot challenge Shane and Carmen played on the L Word, minus the kissing of course. The great thing about this moment was how well-hidden Valentina and Juliana’s motivations are from each other. Valentina is too cross-faded to notice the way that Juliana stares at her the entire time and Juliana does her best to keep it all together but can’t resist tracing a finger along Valentina’s neck when she asks for help unzipping her top so she can change. Both of them having visibly strong reactions to that moment of brief fleeting intimacy but it is downplayed because neither of them notices the others reaction. The foundation of #Juliantina is built upon small moments like these, that delivers a huge amount of substance.
Censorship certainly played a role in the fact that Juliana and Valentina have less on-screen kisses or love scenes than any other couple overall. The longest love scenes between the two women were released online instead of the initial broadcasts of the episodes they were from. Lucky for us #Juliantinas, you can’t censor on-screen chemistry and Barbara Lopez and Macarena Achaga have plenty of that. Juliana and Valentina also have plenty of fight in them, especially when their relationship is found out by people close to them and their romance is put to the test. Even though Juliana pushes Valentina away at one point neither one of them ever backs down when someone challenges them on how they feel about one another. This is something I am very grateful for.
There have been many stories I’ve seen in the past where one half of a queer relationship falters under scrutiny and either doesn’t speak up for how they feel or expresses shame for it. Juliana and Valentina standing up for themselves in situations where people are trying to directly diminish the love they have for each other sends an important message to the audience of the show and any young queer viewers who may be watching. No matter how bad life gets you should always stand up for yourself and the people you love.
Although, Juliana does spiral a bit and end up sleeping with Sergio, a childhood friend of Valentina’s, it has nothing to do with her loving Val any less and everything to do with the pressure put upon her by her mother, the constant danger present in her life, and threats from Eva, Valentina’s sister. I wasn’t a huge fan of that story arc but having rewatched it I can understand the goal of that plot point. Seeing the way, the guilt effects Juliana emotionally sends the message that sleeping with someone of the opposite sex won’t cure you of your homosexuality. An important point to make, but I don’t necessarily think you need to show characters literally sleeping with someone they are clearly not attracted to in order to prove this point, but it happened, Barbra Lopez was devastatingly good at playing through it and here we are. Hopefully, fans of the show who might be experiencing these kinds of situations or have family members who share that ideology can see what Juliana went through and learn from it.
Outside of the show, Macarena and Barbara are continuing to do a phenomenal job steering the #Juliantina ship. Having a strong social media presence helped a lot when the murkier parts of the story began to air and fans were clearly grateful for that. When they do interviews talking about playing their characters and describe how they wanted to portray the love story the same as any other love story, it reminds me of actors on modern American TV shows who talk openly about portraying queer characters like Virginia Gardner and Lyrica Okano from Runaways or Isabella Gomez and Sheridan Pierce on One Day at A Time. It is invaluable when actors become allies off-screen and engage with their fans, especially if a show touches on tough issues.
What Amar a Muerte was able to accomplish in one season of television with #Juliantina is something remarkable. It’s very rare to get a queer romantic storyline between two characters on a show that isn’t relegated to a short-term subplot and given a non-committal conclusion. Juliana and Valentina’s love story is strengthened by the fact that both characters are important to the over-arching plot of the show and arguably the reason the premise exists at all. What is Lady Death on Amar a Muerte, if she isn’t simply the biggest #Juliantina shipper of them all?
It also would be worth mentioning that in a crazy coincidence, the finale that solidified #Juliantina’s story as an epic romance aired on March 3rd, 2019, something I saw many fans worldwide taking note of on social media when it happened. Three years to the day Lexa was killed off on The 100, Juliana Valdes and Valentina Carvajal got a storybook ending that could likely spinoff into something more. Perhaps we were as fated to meet them as they were to meet each other.