It’s that time of year again: National Hispanic Heritage Month in the USA begins today, lasting until October 15. As the current token Hispanic contributing author for this blog, I would like to share a few thoughts about the Hispanic/Latin@ presence in pop culture and what it looks like. First off, Hispanic or Latin@? (Spelling note: Spanish is a gendered language, -o generally denoting masculine and -a generally denoting feminine, so -@ is often used online in an attempt to cover both and everything in between.) Like most complicated subjects, all can be completely clarified and resolved with just a few panels of an online cartoon. Just kidding, it’s not that simple. In a nutshell, “Latin@” emphasizes geography (are you from Latin America?), “Hispanic” emphasizes language (does your country speak Spanish?). But do we include Spaniards in our definitions of Hispanic? How far do we geographically extend the idea of “Latin America”? Endless questions, with no definitive answers. Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
So what does this representation look like? Well, it doesn’t look like me. I’m half-Ecuadorian. Raise your hand if Ecuador has ever crossed your mind until I mentioned it just now. Little from this tiny country of my mother’s family has become part of the American pop culture imagination of what “Latin@” means or looks like. We have empanadas and llapingachos, not tacos and burritos. You’ve surely heard more about Colombia’s cocaine than Ecuador’s plantains. (But check your nearest canned tuna—it’s probably a product of Ecuador!) The representation also doesn’t look like me because I’m white. Why bother creating a character who is Hispanic if they don’t “look” like it? Now, I’m not going to cry White Hispanic tears over this, because this “invisibility” as a White Hispanic has another name: white privilege. Nearly everyone in media looks like me, whether or not they reflect my heritage. Why it does matter is that pop culture often thinks it can define who is or is not Latin@ by the way someone looks?
What does a Hispanic/Latin@ look like? When we ask that question of pop culture media, maybe we are really asking: what do we want them to look like? By that I mean, our judging of representation in media is heavily pre-defined by our expectations. I think perhaps what people really mean is some level of Brown—we want and need more people of color in our media, and Latin@s are expected to be people of color, but only certain hues. The mixture of European ancestry and that of the indigenous peoples of the Americas that is often termed “mestizo” is what gives what the general imagination of the physical characteristics termed as “Hispanic/Latin@”. We believe some Latin@s may be or look white, but everyone knows they don’t look Black, much less Asian. Wrong. In addition to what Hispanics/Latin@s look like, there’s the related question of what do they sound like? The Spanish language is of course the element emphasized by the “Hispanic” label, one which excludes Brazil, despite it being the largest Latin American country. Language can mean everything here from ability/proficiency to speak Spanish, Spanish names, or an accent considered “Hispanic/Latin@”. A Dutch-speaking Black man from Suriname, for example, ruins everything we expect from the label of “Latin American” from appearance to language and everything in between, yet he would absolutely be South American, and potentially “Latino” if geography is our sole qualifier.
Since there are so many examples of Hispanic/Latin@ representation in American pop culture to choose from (i.e. almost none), I will look to the trio of Lito, Daniela, and Hernando from new Netflix show Sense8 to give faces to some of these points. Of these, Lito is the most central, one of the eight linked minds of the titular sensates. There has been some criticism that a Mexican character (all three characters are Mexican, in fact) is portrayed by an actor from Spain (Miguel Ángel Silvestre). To be fair, it was mentioned that Lito’s father is from Barcelona, bringing the character’s heritage closer to the actor’s. However, this begs the question: is a second-generation Mexican more Latino if his parents were from Spain rather than Germany (or China, for that matter)? This shows the problematic nature of the geographic base of “Latino” as a label—to what extent does parental heritage qualify or negate this?
The other concern of course is the conceptualization that Spaniards are European and therefore white and that this is white-washing casting. To that, I respond with the following: the categorization of people and the ensuing negative attitudes/discriminatory behavior happens from surface judgments. Someone like Miguel Ángel Silvestre, with his complexion and features and Hispanic name and heavy Spanish accent, would absolutely be read as “Latino” in everyday interactions in America. Would perceptions, attitudes, and behavior change if the observer learned later in the interaction that he was in fact European? Certainly, but this does not change the initial reaction and treatment he received. As I mentioned, I am incontestably white, but my brother is definitively Brown, darker even than our mother. He has been perceived as everything from Syrian to Pakistani by outsiders. Once he can show or explain he was born in this country and has unaccented (or rather, generic American accented) English speech, an English name and a white father, I’m sure people perceive and treat him differently than they would without that information to challenge their preconceptions, though again the initial judgment and potential discrimination has already taken place. People most often don’t get to show their passports or fully explain the migratory history of their ancestors before judgment is passed and labels and categories and prejudices are thrust on them.
Daniela brings up my point about language. When Daniela first spoke, my first thought was “why didn’t they get an actual Latina actress for this role?” until I recognized her as Mariana, everyone’s favorite lesbian best friend on the Mexican telenovela I’ve been watching on Netflix, Las Aparicio. Eréndira Ibarra is a born and raised Mexican, yet her unaccented English can easily lead people to not perceive or categorize her as Latina. She, however, gets bonus points for having such an “exotic” name as “Eréndira”. Here language, written in this case, would help solidify a Hispanic/Latina categorization from outsiders. Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) “wins” on all points—he looks and sounds like what we think a Latino should look and sound and has a Spanish name. Admittedly, there are some color politics going on: all three are on the lighter and whiter side; we could have had actors with darker skin and less European features. This is unfortunately a trend one also sees in media made and produced by and for Latin American markets, but that’s a little behind my scope as I’m looking at media in the good ol’ US of A for National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Hollywood spends so much time on the visual cues to make sure its Latin@ characters are read as such that it rarely takes time to engage in culture. Lito and co. are firmly rooted in Mexico (albeit the upper echelons and niceties available only to the wealthy such as actors), and the show does engage a little with culture, such as an interesting scene with Hernando passionately describing his symbolic interpretation of Mexican wrestling. Of course for Hispanic Americans, part of the experience is practicing our culture in diaspora, balancing our home culture with “normative” (i.e. white) American culture. Often this is most apparent in the home, where cultural aspects like food, language, and religious traditions can play out no matter how Anglocized public life may or may not be. Some Latin@s live in very Latin@ communities where Hispanic culture is lived out 24/7, some live in communities with other ethnic majorities and little or no other Latin@s and have less access to cultural outlets, and many others live in more blended communities somewhere in between. We get a few glimpses of this sort dual life in pop culture, like Salma Hayek’s Elisa on 30 Rock, whose day-to-day professional life as a home health nurse isn’t necessarily informed by the character’s Puerto Rican heritage, but on her off-time she gets to go to the quinceñera of a family member and attend a church with a heavily Latin@ population and speak Spanish with her family and at church. Switched at Birth even gives us a trilingual home for the Vasquez family, with English, Spanish, and ASL.
So what do I want from Hispanic/Latin@ representation in media? Just more would be a nice start. How did Buffy and Charmed take place in California without a single long-term Latino@/Hispanic character of note?! I have yet to watch Jane the Virgin, but it’s nice to see an American show rooted in a Hispanic culture with many Latin@ characters. But the answer isn’t just more, especially if more just gets us a token minority character. How do we do better? I want to see the diversity of Latin@s, and I want to see specifics. Heritage is specific to countries and specific regions and sub-populations in each country. My mother and our family aren’t just ecuatorianos, we’re serranos, from the mountains, a totally different world from the costeños of Ecuador’s coast. I want to see an Ecuadorian on TV, maybe two—a serrano and a costeño and their rivalries and conflicts. I want to see Latin@s of all kinds, a Lebanese-Columbian and an Italian Jewish Argentine. I want to see people from countries we never hear about, like Uruguay and Paraguay. Show me a boliviana of indigenous descent, a peruana of Japanese parentage. Show me people who speak not just Spanish, but Quechua and Guarani and Aymara and Nahuatl and Mayan dialects also, the languages of their parents and ancestors. Show me Mexicans of Irish descent and boricuas of African descent, show me a chileno who’s half-French and half-venezolano, show me someone half-guatemalteco and half-nicaragüense. I want to see creators and writers put in the time and effort to create and write characters who have actual heritage they could celebrate this month.