cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (dolores del rio)
Like any other group, Latin@s speak differently and about different things depending on whether we are conversing with an ingroup or an outgroup.

I refer to an rather than the ingroup/outgroup, because most of us belong to multiple groups of varying degrees of intimacy. It's not always race or ethnicity that determines our level of comfort when discussing certain topics. For example, I am much more comfortable discussing the George Zimmerman case with my white friends, who share my outrage at Trayvon Martin's murder, than with my Latino relatives, who are inclined to rationalize Zimmerman's actions.

The difference between ingroup and outgroup conversations is closely linked to the practice of code-switching, which is adapting speech patterns and language use depending on context (the term has another, more technical meaning in linguistics). For instance, one tends to speak differently to one's boss or school principal than one speaks to friends or relatives. There are many reasons for code-switching. I'll discuss those reasons and provide examples in a future installment.

Developing an awareness of what your Latin@ characters feel comfortable discussing with whom can strengthen characterization and make your world more believable. In this post, I discuss the kind of topics that I, as a Latina, am uncomfortable discussing with an outgroup. This is a YMMV kind of thing. Different folks have different boundaries.

Acknowledging the disparity between ingroup and outgroup conversations can also provide tension for your story. That disparity shouldn't be the sole basis for the tension, but it can contribute. People may withhold information that, if shared, would help resolve plot problems. A character who believes herself to be in the protagonist's ingroup may be hurt and angry when she is not privy to sensitive info. New or ineffective code-switchers can make mistakes that lead to bigger problems down the road. Spies can infiltrate groups if they are savvy code-switchers, and traitors can take what they've learned from their ingroup and share it with an outgroup.

Individual Experiences of Racism

It's not happy fun-times to remember, let alone discuss, that time you were mistaken for the gardener when mowing your own lawn or the time you stopped for directions and everyone assumed you were an ignoramus who'd spelled the street name wrong, when it was actually a "cutesy" street name that appeared on the maps. Who wants to reminisce about the time their white landlord swindled them out of a deposit, knowing they couldn't afford a lawyer to argue their case, or about being arrested for beating up their sister's rapist while the rapist was allowed to go free? Who wants to recount all the injustices, all the injuries, all the deaths?

And yet, in discussions of racism, apologists and obfuscators insist that minorities provide examples of lived experiences of racism. Usually so they can whitesplain how we've misinterpreted events or misperceived reality. You see this in discussions of sexual harassment and assault, too: Someone (usually a man) insists harassment isn't a problem because they have never personally witnessed it. When given a concrete example, that person then seeks to invalidate the proof.

A similar retconning of racism happens even among well-meaning white friends and allies: "But that guy's a jerk to everyone, it wasn't personal" or "I don't think they meant it that way." Which kind of makes sense, because no one wants to think their friends were mistreated or are moving through a world that is determined to destroy them using everything from micro to macro aggressions. I know I've been guilty of such retconning myself, when a friend shared her experiences of sexism and I tried to explain them away. Now, I could kick myself. (Amazingly, she's still my friend. I guess I'm doing some things right.)

Having our experiences diminished or our perception invalidated makes Latin@s leery of even broaching the topic of racism. We are very careful about who we have that conversation with, and where and when. We avoid it privately, with certain friends, because we don't want to get into an argument or be disappointed, hurt or be hurt. We avoid it publicly because we don't want to put our pain on display or entertain the inevitable rebuttals.

So when I attended a panel where a white author declared that racism is much less worse than it used to be and is on the way out, that we in fact live in a post-racial society, I shook my head, but I did not engage him. I refused to be dragged into an outgroup conversation with someone who had no clue. I would've tagged the White People Collection Agency if possible, rather than let that dude ruin my entire convention. To him, it's a debate. To me, it's a trigger.

I've seen other Latin@s do the same split-second cost-benefit analysis when dealing with outgroup members. Latino expresses skepticism that he'd get a fair shake in some situation, because of racism: "I don't know about applying for that job, I wouldn't exactly fit in." Outgroup person challenges him: "Why not? The ad says they're an equal opportunity employer. I know the boss, he's married to a Chicana." Latino squints at the person, taking stock, and evades: "Right. Any other leads?"

I've noticed that, personally, I'm more willing to talk about anti-black racism. Partly because black women have been my teachers, partly because there's some distance from my own experiences, partly because I'm willing to go to bat for others when I wouldn't for myself.

Criticism of Fellow Latin@s

Something I've discussed before but will reiterate here is that I try very hard not to criticize Latin@s in front of non-Latin@s. (I think I'm especially protective of Latino men.) I might think a Latin@ celebrity is an awful performer or chooses terrible roles, but I rarely talk about it with non-Latin@s. For one thing, I know all too well that there are limited opportunities for Latin@s in the performing arts. If an actor takes on a stereotypical role, well, a person's got to earn a living, right? I'll assume the person finds value, monetary or otherwise, in taking on that role. That doesn't mean I have to watch or enjoy their work.

I'm less forgiving of Latin@ politicians, given my general attitude toward politics. Even so, I rarely feel it necessary to call out a particular individual. Calling out a party, a system, or a specific policy stance is sufficient. Unless it's Ted Cruz. Fuck Ted Cruz.

The reality is, a lot of criticism of Latin@ public figures is veiled racism. Latin@s will be criticized more often and more severely for doing the same things that white folks, especially white men, are allowed to do without comment. (As Chris Rock has said, "True equality is the equality to suck like the white man."*) I don't criticize Latin@s in mixed company because I don't want to open the door for that double-standard bullshit.

Perhaps the flip side of the coin: I am mortified whenever real-world villains are Latin@. If somebody makes national news by shooting up a mall or kidnapping women and that person's Latin@, part of my heart shrivels up and dies. With my family, I can commiserate about those assholes making us all look bad. My husband and I often share an exasperated, "Ay, mi gente." It's worse for Muslims and blacks, who are more likely to be targeted for retribution.

But focusing on evil Latin@s when I'm talking with an outgroup might reinforce racist stereotypes, or give people a chance to vent racist hate under the guise of righteous fury. I worry that these conversations will lead to comments about the "inherently" misogynist or violent Latin@ culture. So it wasn't until the past year or so that I felt comfortable admitting my sense of shame, or guilt by association, to my dearest friends, who are white. As much as I trust my friends, that kind of discretion is a hard habit to break.

Now, that's all criticism of famous (or infamous) Latin@s. I'll complain about my own family, because who doesn't complain about family? But I'm guarded about commenting on mis compadres. As Zora Neale Hurston said, skinfolk ain't always kinfolk (Ted Cruz, I'm looking at you). But a little solidarity ain't a bad place to start.

Sensitive Topics

We spend so much time refuting *perceived* problems—Latinos are lazy, they're all "illegals", they're superstitious, they treat their women badly--it's understandable that we're reluctant to admit real problems to an outgroup. Internalized anti-Latin@ attitudes further complicate matters. If we have a secret fear that the racist stereotypes are right, that deep down we ARE all dirty, bad, ugly, wrong, then we might go out of our way to avoid publicly addressing problems, such as domestic violence, mental illness, or sexual abuse in the Latin@ community.

Growing up, I didn't know about rape culture. I *was* wary of male relatives in the extended family—with good reason; as a teen I discovered some of them had systematically raped another girl in the family for years. My daughter will never be alone with certain family members, because I know what they did to their own kids. Only as an adult did I "confess" to a white friend that rape and sexual assault by family and "friends" were an omnipresent threat when growing up Latin@. My friend gently told me, "No, hon. It's everywhere, all races, all families." I'd heard that truism before, but never really believed it until she said it. Bad education and garbage stereotypes had convinced me that MY culture was rape culture. And I was ashamed.

Then there's the danger that if we talk openly about difficult subjects, our tragedies will become the enemies' ammunition. To paraphrase ZZ Packer, all Latinos' failures are the norm, all our successes are the exception. Admitting our community has a problem means opening ourselves up to charges that the problem is uniquely Latino and we need to be "fixed"—through eradication, isolation, imprisonment, assimilation, purges—all interventions by white saviors.

As a result, the ingroup might prefer to discuss a troublesome situation behind "closed doors." Just because you don't hear the conversation doesn't mean it's not happening. If you DO see/hear an ingroup convo, on Twitter for example, don't assume the convo is open to outgroup participants.

One Current Ingroup Conversation

A conversation I'm hearing in a lot of places right now is about racism among Latin@s. Minorities can be just as awful to one another as the dominant paradigm is to minorities as a whole. I consider this a topic for ingroup conversations because it's soooo sensitive.

As Latin@s, we need to call each other out when we adopt the prejudices of our oppressors. Fellow Latin@s are uniquely situated to make these points in ways our ingroup will understand and to refute the defensive objections, especially "I can't be a racist! I've been discriminated against, too!"

We also need to call each other in. We need to have gentle, patient conversations with one another. We need to be supportive as we each learn at our own pace and given our individual obstacles. We need to address the self-hatred inherent in our diminishment or dehumanization of the Other.

This isn't to say we can't dialogue about our racism with other groups, or that only Latin@s can point out our mistakes. But I can't imagine much progress on this front until and unless the Latin@ community digs deep with some serious ingroup reflection and rehabilitation.

*The whole video is worth watching, despite the cheesy background music, but the basis for that particular quote starts at ~4:36, when Rock talks about Jackie Robinson and equality in baseball. This tumblr entry helped me track down the Rock quote and provided the ZZ Packer quote and link:
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (morena baccarin)
Last week I wrote about stereotypes regarding Latinas. This time I'm thinking about the men. It occurs to me that the stereotypes about women revolve around sex and those about men concern work. There's some overlap, of course (the Mexican maid, the Latin lover), but I wonder if the tendency to lump into those two groups reflects USian obsessions or my own observation biases.

By far the most prevalent Latino stereotype I see in fiction and movies is the gangbanger. I don't even know what to do with that. Can we just call a moratorium on writing Latino gang members?

If you write crime fic, if you've researched real gangs and their methods of operation, if you portray a range of Latin@ characters—individuals versus groups, I might give you a pass. Under those circumstances, you're less likely to mistake fashion (or camouflage) for a uniform, or confuse safety-in-numbers for gangs. For example, in INK by Sabrina Vourvoulias, anti-immigrant legislation has essentially criminalized the existence of most non-whites in the near-future US. Vourvoulias portrays a range of covert communities, including Latino gangs. Although not POV characters, the gang leaders Toño and Neto are portrayed sympathetically and distinctly.

Richard Kadrey veers from the gangbanger stereotype in Sandman Slim with his portrayal of Carlos, the owner of the Bamboo House of Dolls, "LA's greatest and only punk-tiki bar." Carlos has a physique that suggests ex-football player or boxer, but he has an aversion to guns. Carlos admits he did time for boosting cars as a kid, but he seems to have been on the straight and narrow since. He asks the main character to deal with the skinheads demanding protection money from him. It's refreshing that he doesn't have recourse to friends or relatives who are gang members.

When writing about different eras, take care not to fall into the gang member stereotype under another guise. For example, if your story is set in 1940s California, think twice about making your sole Latino character a gangster in a zoot suit. Likewise, don't assume futuristic drug cartels will use the same distribution pathways used now, or that a drug kingpin must always be brown.

The flipside of the Latino gang member is the Latino cop or military guy. With a backstory of struggling against the evil influences of drugs and gangs, the Latino cop or soldier represents the "good" minority who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and seeks to help his community. Grimm just featured one of these guys in its "El Cucuy" episode. Most representations of these "good guy" Latinos, especially the military types, ignore the social realities that guide Latinos into those careers, nor do they question the morality of police or military work.

"Jorge Mariscal, Ph.D., director of Chicano/a studies and professor of literature at University of California San Diego, has researched Latinos in the military and says that there are three basic reasons Latinos join–the lack of opportunities to pursue other careers since education is being priced out for many working class people, a tradition of military service in many families, and the appealing masculinity attached to serving. He points out that the highest percentage of Latinos is in the Marine Corps, which is often considered 'the baddest gang in the world.'" [emphasis mine; source]

From the same source: "the army intentionally uses Latino recruiters in Latino areas, and…to get families on board, recruiters often make home visits, which is very rare in the recruitment of other nationalities."

Agent Carlos Delacruz in Daniel Jose Older's Salsa Nocturna is a welcome departure from typical Latino cops. In fact, when reading Carlos's stories, one realizes how rare it is to hear a Latino tell his own story, cop or otherwise.  Although definitely one of the good guys, Carlos is matter-of-fact about his bosses not being awesome. We get an insider's view of the racism and power politics involved in the supernatural equivalent of the NYPD.

Private First Class Vasquez in ALIENS is memorable largely because she's a genderswap of the stereotypically macho Marine. But the critique of military force in ALIENS is important, too. And though Vasquez falls on the wrong side of that critique, she is shown dealing with sexism and mourning the death of one of her comrades. So she rises above the usual Latin@ (and action-hero) caricatures.

Latinos are often portrayed as lazy. This folds into the gangbanger stereotype, as the typical gang member is shown holding up a wall until called upon to fight or commit some crime. Ironically, in the double-think common to prejudice, alongside the cartoon Mexican who sleeps under a sombrero against a cactus (because I guess we don't feel pain like white folks?), we often have the martyred migrant farmworker. Cowardly, powerless, and/or ignorant, the downtrodden farmworkers need a charismatic savior to advocate for and organize them. (Mulder and Scully showed up to investigate once, because chupacabras, but the agents did nothing for the workers' living conditions.)

Cesar Chavez notwithstanding (incidentally, did you know he served in the Navy?), the charismatic labor leader story is a version of the "Great Man" theory of history. As such, it ignores the fact that Latin@s, Mexicans especially, have a long history of union and anarchist organization. Por ejemplo. It would be exciting to see stories that convey an understanding of Latin@ union history, or that portray Latin@ farm owners and their employees, whether those farms operate in the US or elsewhere, past present or future.

Terraforming is common in space opera, yet we don't often see Latin@ characters engaged in that work. Agriculture will be crucial to human survival on other planets, but too often, once ag work achieves that level of sophistication or becomes high-stakes, writers whitewash the workers.

On a slightly different note, the tv show Revolution caught my eye when it introduced Mexican day laborers, with a twist. In Revolution's post-techno-apocalypse, Americans clamor for the opportunity to do physical labor in Mexico. The white protags, who are searching for a family member in Mexico, pose as day laborers to get across the border. Unfortunately, we never see the labor reversal truly developed. Once chosen for farm work and smuggled across the border, the white protags hijack the wagon and head off in a different direction, quickly running afoul of—wait for it!--a Mexican gang.

I said I wasn't going to focus on the negative, but I'll harp on Revolution's misstep a bit longer, because I think it's emblematic of spec fic's failures. For this storyline, the writers had already broken with status quo by reversing the day-laborer scenario. They'd already done some world-building regarding US-Mexican relations. But the show failed to commit to its own innovation. Revolution needed conflict between the American and Mexican characters, and it resorted to an old standby, rather than using something that likely already existed in its nascent world-building.

If we truly want more diversity in spec fic, we need to go beyond the gesture or flourish. We need to commit.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (salma hayek)
The purpose of this series is explained here.

One of the reasons I've hammered so hard on knowing the specifics about your Latin@ characters (where their families come from, what they look like, how they speak) is because doing that homework helps you avoid drifting into stereotypes. These depictions saturate our media, and if their popularity is anything to judge by, people respond well to them. After all, most of us like to think we know more than we do, and stereotypes bolster our confidence. A character on Sons of Anarchy or The Walking Dead says "ese" at the end of a sentence, and folks perk up in recognition: "Hey, I know what that means! I know who that person is!"

Bad writing relies on stereotypes to provide the illusion of diversity. These depictions are all-too-easy to reach for when we're more interested in the story idea than the characters. Thus we as writers need to be wary when characters come a little too easily. Do they come easily because we're spinning them from our lived experience, or from years of observation of family and friends? Do they come easily because we've done our homework, done actual research and reflection? Or are they pernicious memes, shorthand we indulge in without really critiquing?

I don't want to spend time calling out stereotypes in stories because: A) There are too many; B) Even good writers make mistakes; and C) It's just going to make me feel bad. What I'll do instead is sketch the stereotype and imagine or note counterexamples. And this round, I'll focus on the stereotypes about women.

Personally, the Latin@ stereotype I'd be happy never to see again is the Mexican maid. She's evolved over the years: she's not necessarily Mexican all the time; people have gotten an eensy bit better about acknowledging the range of Latin@ identities. And she's not always a maid; she might be the nanny or work in some other subservient service capacity. A lot of the time, there's a subversive "twist" that shows the maid is somehow superior to her employers: she speaks more English than she lets on, she's scamming the clueless boors she works for, or she gets them to do the right thing through harangue or subterfuge.

I have so little patience for this character that I can't remember a good counterexample. I think the only way I could stomach another Mexican maid is if her identity were disconnected from her job. You know, if she were presented as a person rather than an economic corollary to the white mainstream. Say, if she's a double PhD in her home country but cannot find suitable work in the States because of her immigration status. Maybe she's working for a sympathetic friend or relative, and they're negotiating the uncomfortable change in their power dynamic, in addition to dealing with whatever SF element underpins the story. Maybe the maid is…MALE. That right there could be a game-changer. Only don't do the Mr Mom crap. He can angst over his masculinity, but at least let him be competent. Even better if he can whip up a killer soufflé or mend someone's torn prom dress like a boss.

The other Latin@ stereotype that's always slapping me in the face is the "fiery Latina." Or, as I tend to think of it, a Latina showing backbone. Because that's really all a Latina has to do to get labeled "fiery." Often the character is shaped to the envy of hourglasses everywhere, like Sofia Vergara or Salma Hayek. (This is actually a conflation of two stereotypes: a hot-tempered Latina in a hot body.) But the fiery Latina can also be small and strong, like Michelle Rodriguez or Rosie Perez. She can be older and wiser, like Sônia Braga or Rita Moreno. Hell, she can be a lil old granny, but if she shows the slightest impatience or anger, suddenly her eyes are "flashing", she's "wildly gesticulating," screeching, and flying into a rage. Basically, she devolves into a caricature that can be dismissed with a tsk about those feisty women and their tempers. (cf. "the angry black woman")

For writers who want to create strong female characters, it can be tricky to establish power and passion without evoking the "fiery" stereotype. One might be tempted to go the opposite route and depict a Latina of cold calculation or ruthless objectivity. The danger there is that polar characters usually don't feel realistic to readers.

A more effective approach might be to choose characteristics that actively rebut other stereotypes. As fellow writer Sabrina Vourvoulias points out, Latinas are often considered "intellectual lightweights." In the movie Desperado, Salma Hayek's character, Carolina, is in many respects your typical fiery Latina. The first time she appears onscreen, she causes a car crash just walking down the street, swinging her hips. What elevates Carolina from stereotype (imo, ymmv) is her beloved bookstore. Carolina is a reader, a dreamer maybe. It is her aspiration, her desire to own her own bookstore—not her fiery temper--that makes her vulnerable to the movie's villain. The puzzle piece that doesn't fit the stereotype gives the viewer room to maneuver, to question the bigger picture, and that might be all that's needed in a bloody action movie.

Now, because folks love their false dichotomies, we have the sainted mother stereotype to offset the fiery Latina one. This soft-spoken, martyred mother will beseech her daughters not to dress like streetwalkers (when those daughters are usually just dressing in current fashions) and beg her sons to "be good boys" and attend church. She cooks and cleans and keeps a shrine in her home. Usually she has reverted to virginal status and her husband is cheating on her. For some reason, this stereotype doesn't bother me that much. Maybe because it's emblematic of a larger -ism? The Madonna-whore complex applied across many races and cultures? Or maybe because it's so obviously false I can't get worked up about it?

If a Latina mom isn't the long-suffering (if only she were silent) type, then she's portrayed as a merciless shrew. This is the mom stereotype that pisses me off. She is the fiery Latina you can't ignore or escape, the one who isn't cute enough to get a pass, the one who doesn't harp on injustice but on her children's flaws, her husband's ineptitude, her cohorts' shortcomings. I guess she makes me so mad because few writers stop to consider why she is the way she is.

Junot Diaz works the stereotype to heart-breaking effect in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Oscar's mother, Belicia, is a horrible mom, especially to her daughter, Lola. But Diaz shows that, even when she was young and strong and fit the sexy Latina stereotype—sometimes because she fit the stereotype—nothing was ever easy for Beli. Which is not to say that Diaz makes her sympathetic, either. That'd be taking the easy way out, playing upon a different kind of stereotype. Instead, because strife amplifies our strengths and weaknesses, often making them indistinguishable, Belicia becomes the kind of mother who—well, forget chanclasos, this lady goes for the throat. I hated her even as I pitied her. I wished she'd be another way, but I knew she wouldn't have survived if she were any different.

Some readers might still find Belicia too stereotypically shrewish, or the younger version of her just another character from the spicy Latina mold. But Diaz is thoughtful in his deployment of the stereotype. That kind of awareness goes a long way to earn the reader's trust, and being informed and trustworthy are things all writers should aspire to.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (coffee wtf)
The winter holidays strike me as the perfect time to talk about food and its connections to culture. Food is an excellent way to learn about or establish characters. Here I'll talk about the Tex-Mex food I'm familiar with, but different regions have different recipes and traditions. Coastal regions will enjoy more seafood, for instance.

Skimming cookbooks, visiting new-to-you grocers, and sampling cuisines can be fun forms of research. Just remember to be respectful when entering someone else's space. Feel free to ask questions, but don't expect people to disregard regular customers or business to indulge your curiosity or hold your hand. For all they know, you're a one-time gawker.

The Mexican food I associate with winter, and Christmas more specifically, is tamales. I vividly remember the one Christmas our family made tamales from scratch. It was women's work and there was much laughter and gossip and excitement at passing down the tradition. There was also a lot of muscle power involved, as my rail-thin great-aunt cranked the meat grinder to make the filling. I suspect one reason tamales are a holiday food is precisely because it can take a village. There's so much work, it's more fun as an assembly line. Also, with all the people in the kitchen and the steaming going on, it gets really warm, even in a poorly insulated house in the middle of winter. Tamales can be sweet or savory, but I never had sweet until I moved away from home. It just wasn't something we did, and I don't know if that was cultural or family-specific. I like this recipe/historiography about tamales.

My husband reminisces about Las Posadas at his aunt's house. In her community, folks would recreate the procession of Mary and Joseph in search of shelter for the night. At each home, the occupants would turn "Mary and Joseph" away, then join the procession until the entire neighborhood showed up at the aunt's house, where they were all welcomed and a celebration ensued. Obviously, the event took days of preparation, and part of that preparation was the slaughtering of a pig. My husband says that this was also very gender-divided work, with the boys and men expected to stay outside and do (or watch) the killing and the females inside doing the cooking. My husband hated that tradition.

The gendered roles in traditional cooking can be quite problematic, with their normative assumptions about what a man or woman should do/like/be. Alberto Yáñez's short story "Recognizing Gabe" acknowledges how difficult such divisions can be for transgender people, in particular.

Something my husband and I can hate in common is menudo. Since it's a hot soup, it's generally a winter time food. I remember families going home from high-school football games (VERY big in South Texas) and delighting in the prospect of warming up with the menudo waiting for them at home. J and I are not fans of eating organs in general, and there's a distinct smell to tripe that neither of us can get past.

Something that's much easier to love is Mexican hot chocolate, which has more spice (cinnamon) to it than regular hot cocoa. We grew up with the Abuelita brand.

Even if your story does not involve a holiday, food details can enrich the characters and setting. For example, our household eats a lot of Mexican food. It's our comfort food. When I'm feeling sad, I often want beans and rice and enchiladas. (If we go out to eat and I'm feeling fragile, chances are I'll choose the neighborhood Mexican place, because no one will look at me "that way.") Our family's too-tired-to-think go-to meals are Mexican or Mexican-inspired: chilaquiles, burritos, tacos, nachos, quesadillas, black bean and tofu scramble. Our special treats include black bean soup, maranitos, sweet empanadas, botanas, and tamales. And meals that wouldn't ordinarily be considered Mexican become so in our household, because we use cumin, garlic, onion, and chili powder the way other families use oregano and basil or fennel and marjoram.

Contrary to most fast-food versions of Mexican food, our homemade food is not smothered in cheese or sour cream. Using ALL THE CHEESE is not authentic. Besides, my daughter and I are lactose sensitive (as is most of my side of the family). It's unclear how prevalent lactose intolerance is among Latin@s. At least 10% of Latin@s self-report as lactose intolerant, whereas some studies predict 50-80% are lactose intolerant. In any case, I make our cocoa with soy milk.

Of course, my extended family might argue that some of my food doesn't "count" as Mexican. When my aunt found out we intended to raise our daughter vegetarian (we didn't, but that's another story), supposedly she said, "But then she'll never taste fajitas!" Apparently mushroom and veggie fajitas don't count? Likewise, TVP burritos, soy-rizo, and Quorn tacos would be oh-so-wrong. This kind of conflict can be useful for storytelling. Cooking disputes can reflect conflicting values, or generational differences. Your Latin@ character might roll their eyes at someone else's food choices, or they might welcome the variety at a potluck or family function.

You can convey a lot about a character by showing how they react to new foods. For example, I became much more interested in trying different cuisines when I realized most cultures have a tortilla correlate or proxy. There's fry bread and pita and na'an and the pancakes in mu shu pancakes and crepes. However similar to or different from those foods tortillas actually are, that's what I compare them to, because that's what I know. Likewise, when I encounter a pupusa, I think it's like a gordita, whereas someone else might think, oh a pasty! So get inside your Latin@ character's head and figure out what their foods are and what they're going to be comparing everything else to.

On the other hand, just as some people are "meat and potato" folks, with no interest in experimenting, some people are "rice and beans" folks and anything outside their traditional meals is viewed with suspicion or dread. And, of course, just because your character is Latin@ doesn't mean they can or want to cook (or eat) traditional foods—they might be into South Indian cuisine or really love sushi or crave wasabi peas. If they hate okra, they probably hate nopales, too, because both can get slimy if not prepared properly.

Other matters to consider regarding your Latin@ character and their relationship to food.

Latin@s are not immune to eating disorders. (see also) Research has shown that Latinas have higher rates of binge eating than other groups. Adolescent Latinas, in particular, may have the highest rates of dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviors. (The trend seems to be that the more assimilated one gets, the greater the likelihood of having an eating disorder.) And yet, I can't think of one story I've read in which the person with an eating disorder was Latina.

If allergies and sensitivities are underdiagnosed among the general population, they are usually even more so among minority populations, who are understudied and for whom traditional diagnostic rubrics may not work. I already mentioned the uncertainty regarding lactose sensitivity in Latin@ populations. The incidence of celiac disease among black, Latin@, and Asian Americans is estimated to be 1 in 236. But there doesn't seem to be enough research among the individual minority groups, so take that stat with a salt lick.

About 12% of Latin@s have diabetes, which is a rate 66% higher than the non-Hispanic white population. Among the Latin@ population, the incidence rates seem to be highest for Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Adjusting to a new diet is hard even when you have plenty of resources and support, but imagine what it's like for recent immigrants, who may not be able to find or afford products that are both healthy and nurturing in their familiarity.

Add these food realities to whatever SFnal premise your characters face, and those characters become more complicated, three-dimensional. A great example is Gordo, in Daniel José Older's "Salsa Nocturna", who takes his high-blood pressure medication every morning with a side of bacon or sausage, for balance. If I hadn't loved Gordo from paragraph one, then this admission of his in paragraph two would've completely won me over.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (salma hayek)
When I was a young child, my family moved several times for my father's work. We left Texas and lived in Louisiana for a while. My mother says she felt very isolated, welcomed neither by the white nor black communities. I don't remember my mother speaking Spanish at all, though I suspect she and my father used it when they didn't want me to understand what they were discussing. She certainly wasn't teaching me to speak or read Spanish.

I was in first grade when we moved back to the Valley. This was the 1980s. Everyone spoke Spanish but the schools fought a losing battle of "English-only!" In elementary school, children were shamed, scolded, and spanked for speaking Spanish. I was very invested in being a Good Student, so I quickly got with the program. I resisted my grandparents' efforts to teach me Spanish at home, because Spanish was for illiterate hooligans who'd never amount to anything.

This is what racism does: vilifies all things native, turns the child against her family, uses lateral violence to eradicate the culture. Schools are still trying to smash down native languages. Just last week I read about a principal in Hempstead, TX, who tried to make her middle school English-only. Fortunately, enough students and their families were outraged that the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund got involved. Last year in Wisconsin, a Menominee girl was suspended from her school's basketball team because she had been speaking Menominee in class.

If you're writing a Latin@ character, think about where and when they grew up, and how authority responded to their native language. Was Spanish encouraged, nurtured, privileged, or was it scorned and silenced, or was it fused with other languages, and if so, to what benefit and disadvantages of the character? Is your character a native speaker or a heritage speaker? Are they fluent or working with incomplete acquisition?

Immersed as I was in the language, I learned Spanish rather against my will. I am a heritage speaker with woefully incomplete acquisition. My elders spoke Spanish to me, and I'd reply in English. We mostly understood each other, but were sheepish enough about our respective accents not to push the convos into one language or the other. (To this day, my mother-in-law speaks to me in Spanish and I reply in English.) Oddly enough, I could read in Spanish, unlike many of my Spanish-speaking friends.

When I moved to Iowa, I seized the opportunity to take Spanish classes where no one could judge my atrocious accent. And I realized something:

There are many Spanishes, just as there are many Englishes. And each variant is legitimate and fruitful.

If you wish to write a convincing Latin@ character, you need to know what form of Spanish they speak. Textbook Spanish will only get you so far. For example, in Spanish there are five forms of "you" (intimate singular, formal singular, intimate plural, formal plural, etc). Not all Hispanics use all forms. For example, Mexicans do not use the vos/vosotros forms but the tú/usted/ustedes forms.

Then there are dialects. I grew up hearing the word rentar, meaning to rent/lease something, used all the time. In "proper" Spanish, the term is alquilar. My college teachers had no experience with Texican Spanglish, but fortunately they didn't try to "fix" what I'd inherited, only offered the textbook versions as a better way to communicate with my classmates.

Things get further complicated in translation. Pan dulce can be literally translated as "sweet bread", but "sweet breads" are something VERY different in English.

As in English, there are different registers for different degrees of formality. One speaks differently with one's childhood friends than with one's parents, and differently yet with one's boss or a state representative. This is code-switching.

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of code-switching is knowing how and when to use slang. My college instructors were sometimes horrified by my slang, which they found lowbrow and "rough." Native speakers are often inured to the literal meaning of words and underestimate their shock value. For example, English seems violent to me, with admonitions to "hit this key" or "kill the program" or "axe this section." Likewise, my casual "chinga this" and "chinga that" might startle folks who have to look up the term. If I were speaking to my child's teacher in Spanish, I'd definitely scale back the slang and avoid cursing.

Just as one finds different slang in different regions of the States, different Hispanic groups have distinct forms of slang. On tumblr, a reader reblogged a link to my first installment of this series and added, "If I read a book and you tell me the character is Puerto Rican, I’m gonna get excited cause fuck yea, Boriken baby! But if said character is clearly using Mexican words/slang, I’m done with you. Think of it as writing a British character but instead if using British slang, you use American cause you can’t bothered to learn the difference."

I do think there are times when an author can choose to mix things up—for example, when depicting mixed-heritage characters or communities. But such conflations must be conscious decisions, even in a speculative fiction context. When I was worldbuilding for my novels set in the fictional bordertown of Exile, I decided that my foul-mouthed but sympathetic Spanish-speaking characters would not rely on sexist or homophobic insults. This meant I had to depart from the standard cussing I heard in my childhood. After researching different regions' uses of profanity, I chose some creative turns of phrase more common to Spain than Mexico. I'm prepared for readers to question that choice.

Something harder for me to explain is how one's accent may change to suit register. There's a…sing-songy quality that I slip into when speaking with my Spanish-speaking family. Even if I'm speaking in English, the cadence of my speech will change to mimic the rhythms of our Spanish. This rhythm tends to be overdone on tv. Shows that don't normally feature Spanish-speakers caricaturize the accents—how many times have you heard that guttural "ese" to indicate Latinidad? I've heard the sing-iness badly done on The Walking Dead and X-Files and (sometimes) Sons of Anarchy. I've heard it well done on Grimm. I don't have any tips for reproducing the musicality of Latin@ accents to the page. I suspect if you're fluent, it comes naturally, and if you're not, you shouldn't try it.

If you don't speak Spanish and your characters do, you absolutely need a fluent Spanish speaker to beta read your story. What's more, you need a reader familiar with your character's particular dialect. If you don't have a real person who can do this for you, you are not equipped to write the story.

Yes, there are tools like Google translate. I use that one a lot. But I use it as a reverse look-up. As a heritage speaker, I already know more or less what I want and I'm merely checking the spelling or verifying conjugation. I recognize my characters' dialect, so I know which options to use. I also rely on my husband, who speaks better Spanish than I do, and we will ask our native speaker relatives when we're in doubt. Moreover, I mostly write contemporary characters who talk like I do or like people I heard when I was growing up.

If I were writing something historical, I'd rely more on book research (primary resources) to approximate the language of the time period. Geographical and class differences aside, Porfirio Diaz spoke different Spanish than Frida Kahlo, who spoke different Spanish than Enrique Peña Nieto, the current Mexican president. I'd want a native speaker to review my manuscript because, even if they weren't an expert in the time period I was writing about, they'd be better attuned to anachronisms than I am. If I were writing something futuristic, I'd want to discuss my ideas about language progression and fusion possibilities with native speakers.

As for rendering the words on the page, I tend not to use italics when my characters talk or think in Spanish. The general rule has been that we italicize foreign words. A word is no longer considered foreign if you can find it in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary.

But more important, Spanish is not a foreign language to me or my characters, so italics bring undue attention to everyday words. I end up emphasizing the words when they should be part of the flow. If it's an unusual word to me, or could be confused with an English word spelled the same way, then I'll make an exception and use italics. There's a good two-part exploration of this question at the Ploughshares blog.

Likewise, I don't translate the Spanish words I choose to use, especially not in dialog. We only use that sort of repetition when we're consciously trying to accommodate for language differences, as when we're teaching a child a new language. I am trying to depict, authentically, my characters. I'm not teaching Spanish. When I was growing up, I read plenty of books with French, Latin, and Greek sprinkled throughout the text, with the unwritten understanding that an educated person would know multiple languages or be able to figure it out.

Readers don't need to be spoonfed. If a non-Spanish-speaking reader can't cope with a little ambiguity, they can look up the unfamiliar phrase. It's easier than ever. Besides, it won't hurt them to have a fleeting awareness of what it's like to be on the outside, listening in.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (garcia)
Troublesome, this topic has been! I'm glad that I took the time to think deep.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing this installment has been deciding how much of my story I can tell without infringing on the stories of my family and loved ones. When I talked about passing with other folks, they often struggled to find the same fine line between telling enough and telling too much.

At first blush, it might seem odd. A person of color passing as, or being misconstrued as, white—is this not an individual issue? Not really. Because, imo, passing isn't about an individual gaining entry to some rarified sphere so much as an individual isolated from, even losing, their community.

One Drop and/versus Blood Quantum

I think about Ted Williams, the baseball player. His nephew has said Ted "was very friendly with our Mexican relatives on a private basis, but sometimes he shunned them in public because he didn't want it to be known. His mother led an Anglo life in San Diego." According to one of his biographers, "A lot of relatives felt he was told to turn his back on his background by Eddie Collins [the Red Sox general manager] and not acknowledge that part of his family."

Why would Ted have to hide his connection to his Mexican relatives? Because to have Mexican relatives is to be Mexican, and he would not have been treated the same way as the "white" version of Ted Williams. Ted said as much in his autobiography: "If I had my mother's name, there is no doubt that I would have run into problems in those days, the prejudices people had in Southern California."

This is the perverse logic of the one-drop rule. One drop of "other" blood, and you're no longer white, with all the rights and privileges that entails. So you must cover your tracks, hide your kin, cut your ties to your past. Imagine what that does to families. Even if a person who could pass chooses not to, they still enjoy advantages that their kith and kin of darker skin do not. That disparate treatment takes its toll, too.

The idea that one drop of "black blood" makes you black was always confusing to me, because one drop isn't sufficient to be considered Ojibwe. Relatives on my father's side of the family meticulously documented their genealogy in an effort to be formally recognized as Ojibwe. The particular tribe they trace their heritage to relies on direct descent for enrollment. Other tribes have relied on a blood quantum. You have to have a certain "amount" of the right blood.

The difference between these two ways of defining membership finally clicked for me when I read this excerpt from Andrea Lee Smith's essay, "Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy": 

Status differences between Blacks and Natives are informed by the different economic positions African Americans and American Indians have in US society. African Americans have been traditionally valued for their labor, hence it is in the interest of the dominant society to have as many people marked “Black,” as possible, thereby maintaining a cheap labor pool; by contrast, American Indians have been valued for the land base they occupy, so it is in the interest of dominant society to have as few people marked “Indian” as possible, facilitating access to Native lands. “Whiteness” operates differently under a logic of genocide than it does from logic of slavery.

Since reading that excerpt, I've learned that the blood quantum rule was pushed onto many Nations by the US government, as was the requirement that a person only identify with one Nation, whatever their true tribal ancestry. Rules determining tribal affiliation are in flux. For example, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota recently voted to eliminate their 25% blood quantum and instead base enrollments on family lineage.

Click to Read More... Pass-Fail or Multiple Choice? )

Edited to make LJ cut more obvious, 12/2/2013 5:05 pm CST

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (ivana baquero)
The next installment of this series (the premise explained here) should be about passing. I'm still formulating my thoughts on the topic. In the meantime, feel free to ask me questions, whether about previous installments or topics you'd like me to discuss in the future. Questions can be 101-level, advanced, specific, general, writing-related, lifestyle-related, whatever. Just put it in the comments and I'll see what I can do. :)

This is also a good time to share some reading recommendations. The four works below all deal with passing, but in different genres. So hopefully, there's something for everyone!

Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, ed. by Mattilda. Although many of the essays focus on passing in a QUILTBAG-specific context, there is discussion of racial dynamics as well. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this book was life-changing for me. It convinced me that all of us are trying to pass in some respect, and it demonstrated how false, untenable, and destructive the notion of passing is.

Zero Bar by Tom Greene. This SF short story about a Latina's experiences with passing really hits me in the heart and the gut. It all rings so true, perhaps because the author, like me, grew up in Texas.

Incognegro by Mat Johnson. A graphic novel mystery about a black reporter from the North who goes undercover, passing as a white man, to document lynchings in the South. The premise, based on true stories, just blows my mind. I can't begin to comprehend the courage of these investigators.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson. First published in 1912, this is the fictional memoir of a biracial man who passes for white. The narrator, who doesn't even realize he's biracial until he goes to school, is a gifted musician. It's interesting to see how his relationship with music changes, depending on the company he's in and which race he's presenting as.

If you know of some good books, fictional or otherwise, about experiences of passing, I'd appreciate recommendations in the comments! Thanks, folks.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (sonia manzano)
This is part 4 in a series, explained here.

If you've chosen to write a Latin@ character, what do they look like? And how do you write about what they look like?

There's a huge range of skin tones, eye and hair color, and facial features among Latin@s. I'll be using film stars and celebrities as examples, because they're easy to google.

Your character may be rubio/a (rubi@, blond), like Anita Page, Cameron Diaz, or David Gallagher.

Your character could be a pelliroj@ (redhead), like Joanna Garcia Swisher, Rita Hayworth, or Louis C.K.

Your character could be dark-haired (moren@), with skin fair enough to pass for white. Look at Alexis Bledel, Freddie Prinze Jr, Frankie Muniz, and Laura Harring.

Or your character could be moren@ and vaguely "ethnic" looking. If they were in a movie, they might be cast as a number of ethnicities, a la Morena Baccarin, Jordana Brewster, Charisma Carpenter, and Aubrey Plaza.

Your character could be "obviously" Latin@, like Penelope Cruz, Michelle Rodriguez, Benjamin Bratt, John Leguizamo, Antonio Banderas, Sofia Vergara, or Salma Hayek.

If your character is Afro-Latin@, they might resemble Celia Cruz, Zoe Saldana, Gina Torres, Tatyana Ali, J August Richards, or Tyson Beckford.

Vanessa Hudgens, Kelis, Bruno Mars, or Enrique Iglesias could provide the model for your Asian-Latin@ character.

Keep in mind that there are variations within all families. So your main character might be darker or lighter skinned than their parents, or inherit blue eyes whereas their siblings all got brown, or be stocky like their mother's side whereas Dad's people are willowy.

Don't assume these physical differences define their relationships, but don't pretend there aren't consequences, either. I dreaded being mistaken for my daughter's Mexican nanny, but apparently it could've been much worse. I was horrified but not surprised when blond Roma children were taken from their families in Ireland. And if lighter-skinned siblings are treated better than their darker-skinned siblings, whether by family or outsiders, imagine how fraught regular sibling rivalries can become.

As a reader, I want to see more diversity in the physical appearance of Latin@ characters, because (1) that would reflect reality, and (2) when writing brown characters, unskilled writers often slip into stereotypes. Maybe writing a blue-eyed Latino would help those writers resist the temptation to make that character a drug dealer or uneducated thug. (Don't get me wrong, I love thugs. But the ratio of Latin@ thugs to, say, Latin@ biology teachers is disturbing.)

On the other hand, I really need to see more characters who look like me—short, with brown skin, brown hair, brown eyes. It's not just white folks who want to erase darker Latin@s. This year's Little Miss Hispanic Delaware was dethroned first because she was "not the best representative of Latino beauty"—maybe because she's *gasp* black?—and then because she could not provide documentation to prove her Latinidad, which no one else ever had to provide before. The replacement Little Miss is blond.

Even Latin@ media whitewashes Latin@s. It's not my imagination that most covers of People en Espanol feature light-skinned Latin@s. Latina magazine is better but their covers still skew to the lighter shades. Turn on TeleMundo or Univision, look at their anchors. Earlier this year, a Mexican airline's ad agency sent out a typically racist but unusually blunt casting call that said "nadie moreno." Colorism is persistent and pernicious within our community.

So give me more dark-skinned Latin@s and Afro-Latin@s in fiction, and make more of them biology profs and pastry chefs and UN interpreters. Let's keep the thug ratio in check, shall we?

When writing physical descriptions of Latin@ characters, there's nothing wrong with saying outright that they have brown or black skin. I find that preferable to paint-chip precision or comparisons to consumables and natural resources. After all, there's a difference between noticing and fixating on (or fetishizing) skin color. Once you start deliberating over whether the character has café-au-lait skin or is more caramel—both clichés—you need to ask yourself why pinpointing the exact skin color matters so damn much, and if it matters to the story or to you.

Also note: I often refer to myself as a brown woman, but I am not a Brown woman. And frankly, when I say someone is brown, that's different from when a white person says it. Which is why I prefer to read that a person has brown skin. I don't want to have to do a background check before reading to determine whether the author is in-group or out, though it often becomes clear within a few pages.

"Color-blind" writing is a copout. (Do I even have to say this?) Reading protocols forced on us from childhood insist that white is the "natural, unmarked" state, so if an author declines to specify that a character is a PoC, we assume the character is white. That's not the reader's fault. You can't subvert the paradigm by hiding behind it. You can, however, mess with protocol by occasionally pointing out that the white characters are white. I like to do that. In my novel, the first time I describe my character Sweeney, I call him "a slightly grimy white guy." (He gets better defined over time, as the narrator gets to know him.)

Reversing the paradigm is instructive for us as writers, too. You'd probably feel silly lingering over a white man's "peaches n cream" complexion, or trying to decide if the heroine's skin is like skim milk or whole milk or soymilk, so why rely on those techniques for characters of color?

Start simply. You don't have to spell out a character's entire ancestry on the first pass, or the second, or ever. You don't do that for white characters. You will always know more about your character than can be conveyed on the page. The key is to pick the most valuable details to share with the reader, and there's oh-so-much more to a good physical description than skin color.

Use eye color or eyebrow shape. Refer to hair styles and fashion. Note stature, assistive devices, tics, just as you would with white characters. "Jordan was a preppy Latina with red hair." "Marcos painted his nails black and a strip of his black hair blue." "Over the years, Izzy's tattoos had spread and gone green, like generous patina on a bronze statue." "Standing in Abuela's immense shadow, holding her molcajete-calloused hand, made me feel safer."
Remember: Latinidad cannot be boiled down to physical appearance. That's why passing, which I'll discuss in the next installment, is vastly more complicated than how fair one's skin is. I recognize fellow Latin@s by accent, syntax, cadence, gestures, cultural references and a multitude of other markers. Use these same cues on the page and your character becomes someone the reader can believe in.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (coffee wtf)
After I posted the third installment of my "Writing Latin@ Characters Well" series, the lovely and astute Sofia Samatar mentioned on Twitter that she wished more Americans would think about US complicity in the very events that send immigrants fleeing to the US. In my latest dive into the research rabbit-hole, I found a book that tackles this very subject, at least as regards US interference in Latin American affairs: Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez. The book has also been made into a film. Two quotes from an interview with Gonzales:

In the story of Guatemala, it’s amazing that we had a time when in the United States we had one brother who was the head of the CIA and another brother who was a secretary of state and because they had received complaint from one company, the United Fruit Company, they decided that in order to help this company, they were going to take out a democratically elected government.

...the people of the third world started coming to the West, and they came precisely to those countries that had once been their colonial masters, so that, in France, they don’t know what to do about all the Algerians and the Tunisians and the Moroccans; in England, they don’t know what to do about all the Indians and the Pakistanis and the Jamaicans; in the United States, they don’t know what to do about all the Latin Americans. Those were precisely the former colonies of those empires.

That's a macro view of immigration struggles. [ profile] asakiyume provides a more personalized view, recapping an article about Australian fishing policies to highlight why ordinary people might turn to smuggling refugees into Australia. This is one time you should read the comments, especially the insights provided by [ profile] mnfaure about similar situations in Mayotte.

And, continuing the immigration/border theme, I've written about my formative experiences of the US-Mexico border for Sabrina Vourvoulias's series "Nuestras Voces, Our Voices: Emerging Latina writers talk about their work." Thanks to [ profile] skogkatt for connecting us!
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (dolores del rio)
This is the third installment in a series, explained here.

Sometimes white folks are insistent in their questioning, and if I say I've lived in Iowa for twenty years, or that I was born in Texas, their question morphs into "No, but really. Where are you from?" Like I'm hiding something, or being stubborn. After all, I know what they're getting at. They want to know my ethnicity, and because I look different, because I am brown, I must be—really, deep down—foreign. They just need to know HOW foreign. (Why? I don't know. So they can calculate how likely I am to go chola on their asses?)

I said I'd address immigration in this installment, and I will, but I really need to talk about how Latin@s and Hispanics have always been in the States, even before there WERE states. We have been erased from history, and from historical (speculative) fiction. Given this erasure, it's no wonder that even well-meaning whites tend to think of Latin@s as immigrants first and foremost, which leads to stereotypical Latin@ representations in fiction, if Latin@s are represented at all. And when stories deviate from the common "knowledge" of Latin@s in history, they are accused of being PC, unrealistic, or obsessed with race. (Although, to paraphrase comedian Hari Kondabolu, "saying I'm obsessed with discussing racism in America is like telling me I'm obsessed with swimming while I'm drowning.")

So, a reality check.

By 1763, Spain had claimed almost all the land west of the Mississippi. (Of course, that "claim" was spurious at best, since the land was already occupied by indigenous tribes.) It's fuzzy, but the terra cotta color in the map below indicates Spanish territory.

Non-Native_Nations_Claim_over_NA continent 1763

Few people seem to remember that half of the United States was once Spanish territory. Some of this ignorance is due to the notoriously short American attention span, but it's also a matter of racist erasure.

Hispanics fought in the American Revolutionary War. In the 1780s, Spaniards lived and worked in what would later be the state of Iowa.* Some Spaniards married Sioux women and lived with the Sioux. We have records of this. Do we have stories about it?

Most people, even Iowans, are baffled when I tell them about the Mines of Spain in Dubuque, Iowa. "Spain? What does Spain have to do with Iowa?" seems to be the general reaction. Well, in 1788, Julien Dubuque had to get permission from both the Fox tribe and the Spanish government to mine lead in this region, because it belonged to Spain. (for certain values of the term "belonged")

The Spanish ceded the Midwest to the French around 1800, and in 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase, the land became US territories. Around 1849, some 10,000 Mexican miners joined the California Gold Rush. In the 1850s railroads were built in Iowa, and Mexican workers helped make that happen. Has anyone written stories about these immigrants who built our railroads and factories, who worked the mines and the fields?

Hispanics and Latin@s, that includes women, fought in the American Civil War. Do we have stories about them?

Beginning in 1910, the Mexican Revolution pushed a wave of immigrants across the always permeable US-Mexico border. Contrary to one of the great immigration myths (Everybody wants to be American because America is Awesome!), most of these Mexicans had no desire to convert. They were just trying to get out of a war zone. One of my great-grandfathers fits this profile. He renewed his work visa as required, and his children grew up American citizens, but he had no desire to become an American citizen himself.

As the Revolution dragged on and the Mexican economy suffered, however, some immigrants ended up building lives on the American side—until the Great Depression. Then the panicky US government initiated "Mexican Repatriation." We sure as shit don't hear enough about this mass deportation of nearly two million Latin@s, more than half of whom were US citizens, who were shipped off to Mexico without due process from 1928 to 1939. Latin@s who remained in the States felt pressured to "pass" as white or otherwise hide their family history, which means gaps in the public record that make it easier for Americans to overlook Latin@ influences.

Nor do we hear or read much about "Operation Wetback"—yes, that was the official name of this INS program—which deported another million or so Latin@s from 1954 to 1964. (This after the US was so desperate for Mexican labor, it passed the Emergency Farm Labor Agreement in 1942.) INS ditched these people in cities they didn't know, without food or work or family. Those were the lucky deportees: others were beaten, or stranded in deserts to die of heat stroke.

If I'd lived back then, I'd have hidden my ethnicity too, if I could have. That's why Latin@ immigration to the US looks like a new thing when it's anything but. For all the talk of the melting pot (another immigration myth), the US government is quick to throw us out of the pot and into the fire.

Some more immigration facts that fly in the face of common "wisdom," and which consequently don't make it into the stories we tell:

Currently, net migration from Mexico to the United States is at zero, perhaps even less. But deportations are at record highs.

Of the 365,000 people deported by the US Border Patrol in 2012, about 100,000 were "Other than Mexican," most of them from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Although economics remain a strong motivator for recent immigrants, many are fleeing violence. In 2011, Honduras had the world's highest murder rate. El Salvador has consistently had some of the highest murder rates in the world since 1995. From 2007 to 2011, the homicide rate in Mexico tripled, spurring higher numbers of requests for political asylum in the US due to "credible fear."

And one of my own misconceptions: I thought the numbers of Latin American immigrants seeking asylum in the US because of their sexual orientation would be higher, given stereotypes about machismo and Catholicism in the region. But most of the articles I turned up regarding QUILTBAG immigrants involved abuses in the American immigration system or cases of same-sex spouses of American citizens. If anyone has better data on this issue, I would love to see it.

Bottom line: the realities of Latin@ and Hispanic populations in the US, past and present, offer so many story possibilities. I mean, pick an era, pick a place: we're there. You just need to look.

*I talk a lot about Iowa because (a) it's where I currently live and (b) it has a reputation for being very "white." But referring to Iowa history is also useful because (1) it stands in for most of the Midwest, (2) it implies Hispanic presence in the eastern US, because it's not as if the Spanish teleported from Spain to the Midwest; they had to cross half the North American continent, and (3) because whatever Latin@ presence we uncover in the Midwest, we can extrapolate even greater influence in the western US, which Spain held onto for longer.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (morena baccarin)
This is part 2 in a series, as explained here. I have adjusted my settings so that readers not registered as LJ users should be able to comment now.

Where are you from?




parksnrec4 by jessepumpkin on tumblr
photo set from

I don't watch the tv show Parks and Recreation, but this much-tumblrd exchange between Leslie Knope and Tom Haverford sounds familiar. As a brown-skinned person living in Iowa, I often field similar, if less insistent, questioning. Although I moved here from South Texas, Latin@s have been living in Iowa since the early 1900s, at least. And yet, this history somehow resists becoming common knowledge.

In any case, when a white person asks where I'm from, I know what they're getting at. The subtext is: 1) I look "different" and 2) The way I look, I can't be from "here."

The insistence on locating the Other in some distant, different place has consequences for genre fiction. Some writers don't think they can include Latin@ characters in their stories because such diversity would be unrealistic. "But my story is set in Montana, or a small town in New Hampshire—there are no brown people there!" If that sounds ridiculous out loud, well, at least they're a step ahead of the folks who don't acknowledge that brown people exist, anywhere. Audiences hold similar misconceptions. Apparently, the new tv show Sleepy Hollow (a new favorite of mine) was criticized for having a diverse, and thus "unrealistic", cast.

Speculative fiction allows us to take all sorts of liberties with reality, so if diversity is your sticking point, I feel bad for you, son. But let's clear up some misconceptions.*

Consider this map from the most recent US Census. Remember that renters tend to be undercounted and home owners are overcounted, that "minorities" are undercounted while whites are overcounted, and that there is still a lot of fear and distrust of census takers among some groups. All those caveats aside, the most recent US Census is considered fairly accurate.

There's a Latin@ population in every US state. It might be small, but it's there, and chances are it's concentrated around agriculture or another welcoming industry. After all, few people willingly throw themselves into a new place where they know no one and have no work. Then again, I did just that as a college student, so there are probably also pockets of Latin@s in or around college towns. Cursory looks at Latin@ populations in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin, seem to support this hypothesis.

No matter where in the US or its unnamed doppelganger you set your contemporary spec fic story, you can have Latin@ characters. Perhaps your Latin@s moved to a predominantly white state to work in fields, factories, or meat-packing plants. Frankly, that feels a little stereotypical to me, but on the other hand, I don't see a lot of stories that deal with blue-collar workers and their families, so these characters could generate fresh, exciting, rich stories.

Families grow and spread, so maybe your character's family started out in one of those industries but subsequent generations have branched out. Or, your characters could be college students or faculty, in any number of fields. If college occupations are overrepresented in fiction, at least your character's ethnicity will set them apart.

Even states that appear overwhelmingly white have Latin@ populations, a fact that becomes clearer if you look at maps that highlight population growth.

Several counties in Montana, for example, have experienced 100% or more growth in their Latin@ populations. Technically that could mean a county went from having one lonely Latina to a whopping three Latin@s, but more likely a new family joined friends or relatives in a certain neighborhood, or a factory in the area recruited a bunch of young, unmarried Latin@s from somewhere in Texas (yes, that happens).

Keep in mind that, as the first map suggests, specific groups of Latin@s (like Cuban@s or Guatemalans or Puerto Ricans, etc), are more likely to live in some areas than others. But the census data can't really capture the complexity of our reality. So what it boils down to is, if you're writing contemporary spec fic set in the US or using US characters, there's no demographic reason not to incorporate Latin@s of some kind.

That said, please don't drop a Latin@ into a role previously assigned to a white character with no other alterations. No matter where we are, we have our traditions, our comfort foods, special holidays…a culture, and that culture should seep into the story, if not permeate it.

If you write spec fic set in the future, it makes even more sense to include Latin@s in your story. Look at the population growth map. Also, consider the following stats from the US Census.

By 2043, the US will probably be a majority-minority nation for the first time, meaning no one ethnic or racial group will constitute a majority. Give that a moment to sink in.

So-called minorities will outnumber whites by 2060, making up 57% of the population. The number of people identifying as biracial or multiracial will likely triple by 2060. More specifically, the Latin@ population is projected to more than double. In 2060, almost one in three residents will be Latin@/Hispanic.

Imagine how the faces we see on television will change, not to mention the shows and products sold. Imagine what our Supreme Court will look like, the songs we'll sing to our crying babies, and the scary stories told around our fire pits or chimineas. Think about the aisles of future grocery stores. How will educational philosophies change, or boardroom protocols? Who will our ambassadors be and what will they look like?

Even if your futuristic story isn't set in the US, if you have a lone American character and they're not Latin@ or multiracial, you really need to examine why that's the case. It's not realistic, so is there a reason to erase the diversity?

These projections don't even take us into the next century. If you write further-future stories—whether science fictional or fantastical in nature—you must account for these trends. Population busts and booms have consequences. A record number of Latin@ students in 2060 may mean a proliferation of Latin@ architects and astronauts and CDC spokespeople in the 22nd century. Higher education and the networks it creates become legacies, passed on to subsequent generations and affecting who goes to school where and when.

At some point, there should be a lot of elderly Latin@sare they in nursing homes, changing the way we think about and accommodate senior citizens, or are they living in multigenerational family homes, or something else still? What kind of health problems do different populations face, and where will research money be going as a consequence? What cures will we be obsessed with finding? What Muzak awaits us in those futuristic waiting rooms?

When writing far-future stories, you must posit why these population trends do or don't extend beyond the 22nd century. And even if the trends do not persist, some artifacts from these times will. After all, we still design buildings after Greek temples and Egyptian pyramids. The US still puts Latin on its currency, uses Arabic numerals, and references ancient Babylonian law in its legal code (code of Hammurabi). It's not a stretch to think we'll see echoes of current Latino culture in a far-future society, American or otherwise.

Don't think you're off the hook if you're writing historical spec fic. In the next installment, I'll talk about Latin@ immigration and some common misconceptions about Latin@ immigrants.

*Although this post focuses on the US, I believe the approach can be useful regardless of where you set your contemporary or futuristic story. Don't rely on "common knowledge" or your own observations about where Latin@s live and work. Do your research. Broaden your horizons—and your story's.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (garcia)
Today I begin a series of blog posts on the topic of writing Latin@ characters well. I am writing these posts because:

1)  I would like to clarify for myself what I know/think about writing Latin@ characters by explaining to others how to write them.

2)  There is a dearth of well-written, multi-faceted Latin@ characters in speculative fiction (perhaps in all mainstream fiction), especially compared to real-world current and projected Latin@ populations.

3)  I would like to focus less on What Not To Do when writing Latin@ characters and talk more about ALL THE POSSIBILITIES.

4)  I would like to move beyond the general guidelines that I would hope most well-intentioned writers have already internalized (Do your research, check your sources, find beta readers, etc) and discuss specific facets of Latin@ representation.

5)  Even writers with no interest in writing a Latin@ character may find the posts useful as a concrete demonstration of how to write characters belonging to different identity groups than their own. Writing the "Other" is a skill we develop by doing, and "doing" can include following along as someone else does it.

6)  Being able to write effectively about ONE kind of marginalized group does not automatically mean we can write effectively about ANY or ALL marginalized groups. We become aware of lacuna in our skill sets when we study specific iterations, hence this one focusing on Latin@ representations.

7)  Exploring the wide range of Latin@ identities may help us diversify the range of all other characters. Current genre trends do not accurately represent the diversity of reader identities, even among readers who identify as white. If thinking about realistic Latin@ representations prompts writers to explore how their own class, race, immigration, language, ability, gender, and sexuality differ from the imagined default, then so much the better.

8)  I hope that, after considering what it takes to construct a realistic Latin@ character in fiction, readers will apply the same scrutiny to representations of Latin@s in film, on tv, and in the media.

9)  I need to refashion something positive from the status quo that makes me want to kill or be killed. It's a self-help mental health thing.

Once a week I will post a new essay to prompt discussion. These are the topics I have in mind.

What ARE you? This post will examine labels such as Latin@, Hispanic, Mexican-American, ethnic Mexican, and others.

Where are you from?  A look at the Latin@ population in the US, past present and future.

No, but where are you FROM?  In which I discuss immigration issues and misconceptions.

You don't look _______.  Considering the range of Latin@ appearances and how we discuss physical appearances.

Say something in your language! How do Latin@s talk, and how can we effectively convey that speech in a fiction context?

I love Mexican food! It's more than tacos and enchiladas: recognizing the variety of our cuisines.

Depending on how discussions evolve, questions that arise, and level of reader interest, I may change the order of topics and expand upon them. I'm also looking for more topics, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

I'm really excited about this project and hope many of you will participate by asking questions, sharing your own experiences, providing examples and counterexamples, and inviting others to join the conversations.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (misunderstood)
Last week, Tweetie went to a sleepover, so J and I got to see a grown-up movie, in the theater! We watched Prometheus. I absolutely loved Michael Fassbender as David. Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, and I lay there thinking thinky thoughts about the character, about identity and performance, nature versus nurture, obedience versus resignation... No conclusions to be had from my late-night cogitations, but it was a good way to spend the time.

Before the movie, we saw previews for Savages and Django Unchained. My main problem with Savages is that we have two high-profile Hispanic stars, Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro, playing the leaders of a Mexican drug cartel. Still?! Still. Thanks, Oliver Stone. Thanks a bunch. Now, if we had more Hollywood movies featuring Hispanic actors in juicy, sympathetic roles, I might not be as peeved, but this just seems like a waste of talent to perpetuate stereotypes we really don't need, especially when a 96 yr-old former Arizona governor is regularly hassled by Border Patrol because he's Mexican-American. And I'm a little horrified that the studio is spending lots of money to lure in Spanish-speaking audiences, even organizing campus outreach screenings. The movie industry acts puzzled about how to cater to Hispanic audiences, but can't they just ask Vin Diesel? Oh wait, he's busy working on Fast & Furious 6. That's right, the sixth. 

On the other hand, I was surprised to see Django Unchained didn't look half bad. I'm not a Tarantino fan, and I was leery of how he'd handle a story that relies so heavily on American racism, I might have to reserve judgment.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (garcia)
I continue to think about my encounter with the artist at the Farmer's Market, and how it could've gone better and what about her art was so disappointing. In email discussion with a dear friend, I hashed out some additional thoughts. This entry is a re-framing of that conversation. (Hence the formatting quirks. Sorry 'bout that.)

First of all, the fact that the artist was fair-skinned and blonde could've been irrelevant. I didn't even notice her at first, though when she emerged from behind the table to talk to me, my gut instinct told me she was "Anglo." My gut notwithstanding, skin color is not indicative of Mexican heritage. My husband, JJ, for example, is so fair he burns when we *talk* about the sun, and his parents are first-generation Mexican-Americans. But since the artist zeroed in on me (and I don't even know when/if my family immigrated from Mexico), I knew she was making assumptions based on skin color, which confirmed that she wasn't Latina herself, or even particularly savvy about the culture she had mined for material.

Now, some context for my reaction to the Lady of Guadalupe imagery: Honestly, I am drawn to that imagery because I grew up with it, same as I pine for incense and candlelight and stained glass at times. I have not bought anything with the Virgin on it, however, because I am most definitely *not* religious or Catholic. People who know me would assume I'm being ironic (which would be a green flag for them to co-opt the imagery) and people who don't know me would make assumptions. At the Farmer's Market, I was probably on guard from the moment I saw the art because I'm aware of having to police myself. If I don't get to claim the Lady, then I don't want people with less direct cultural contact to be using the imagery willy-nilly.

As to my interaction with the artist: I would've been happier if, instead of making the conversation about me, she'd just told me about her art or a particular piece. She could've explained where she bought the materials and asked me, "Are you familiar with that area of Mexico/loteria cards?" She could ask *anyone* that, but if I (as a brown woman) felt like sharing, that would be an opening for me. The key is invitation, not (implicit) demand.

I don't 
want to imply the proper mode of interaction is just a matter of asking the right questions in the right way, however. It's more a realization of the give-and-take nature of equality. It's never a zero-sum game in human relations, but sharing about oneself is always a good start. By the time the artist started sharing, it was already too little, too late. By sharing, I mean she told me about the town she visited and how much the materials cost--which was nigh meaningless to me, since I haven't looked at the peso to dollar exchange rate in over a decade. And, as my friend pointed out, isn't it kind of gross when people gloat about the "deals" they get in other countries? "Yay for economic inequalities!"

But about the art itself: 
I found this an interesting puzzle. I think of collage, which is what this woman was selling, as the selective assembly of disparate elements and symbols into a whole that makes personal "sense" to the artist, and hopefully to the viewer. So I'm not sure I could look at a piece and say, "That's appropriation," just because it employed elements nonnative to the artist's primary culture. It'd be like reading someone's dream and saying, "Stop! You're appropriating!" (Granted, it's different when someone decides to display or profit from art utilizing another culture's imagery, but I'm not prepared to say one can NEVER use that imagery.)
I looked at this woman's art, hoping to see a sense to it. One canvas had several women's images on it, including a pic of Frida Kahlo, but I couldn't tell if there was meaning to the assembly. And the artist never alluded to themes or her intent. She was quick to tell me how much something cost though! So I came away with the feeling that Mexican culture was just a jumble of shinies to her.
In contrast, I have a friend who incorporates loteria cards into her art even though she's not Hispanic. I love her work, and I've even given her some of our loteria cards to use. But she uses these elements judiciously for their symbolic and graphic qualities, not just because they're cool or "primitive" or colorful. She integrates them into her personal vision; she doesn't just throw them together and expect meaning to arise. As I said earlier, I'm leery of the use of the Virgin imagery. I think it can be used effectively by folks from various cultures, but it takes some doing.

In sum, I was hoping for more thoughtfulness--both in the sense of human kindness and of conscious introspection by the artist. This woman wasn't trying to be rude or mean or diminishing. She struck me as more...scatterbrained? Definitely artless. Which is kind of sad, when you think about it.

Questions welcome. But please note I am in Mommy Mode and may not respond immediately--and it won't be any reflection on your question, so don't be worrying, "Oh no, I really stepped in it, didn't I?" I'll let you know, gently, in private even, if you did.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (garcia)
I'd heard good things about the science fiction movie Monsters--mostly that it was a good effort on a small budget (small being relative: $800K in this case), and unusual for being set in Mexico. The premise is that a NASA probe carrying alien-life samples crashed over Central America and when the extraterrestrials started breeding, a section of Mexico was quarantined to try to keep the aliens from entering the United States.

The aliens are amazing: both potentially terrifying and beautiful; familiar and uncanny. I loved them and the explanation of their life cycle and habits. The on-location cinematography is often beautiful too, but so geographically incorrect as to be painful. Northern Mexico is portrayed as jungle, with no explanation as to how that currently arid region was so transformed in a matter of years. A Mayan pyramid is supposedly within sight of the enormous wall the USA has built to keep the aliens out. And the South Texas scenes seem to have been filmed in Galveston (a coastal city), so we see all these houses on stilts in what would, in fact, be a desert environment. To fuss over such details, I've read in other reviews, is to miss the point of the allegory.

Okay, so let's look at this allegory. The US builds a wall to keep out the aliens. The aliens, we are told by some of the Mexican citizens, don't mean any harm and will leave you alone if you leave them alone. The problem is that the Americans are bombing the region and using chemical warfare to try and eradicate the aliens, thus killing aliens and Mexicans alike. (We are, I think, supposed to be surprised and horrified that the US would do such a thing. Well, one out of two ain't bad...) The aliens tend to stomp around and destroy things at the best of times, but when angry, they can decimate cities. A young American woman asks her taxi driver if he feels safe living in one of those cities and he admits to being frightened, but asks what are he and his family supposed to do? Where are they supposed to go?

So...undocumented immigrants are like Giant Space Squids? Strangely beautiful during mating rituals but likely to destroy cities? Unable to tell the difference between true aggressors and noncombatants? Fearsome to both compatriots and Americans? Mysterious and clumsy, like this allegory?

I don't think it's okay to rearrange another country's geography and landmarks for the sake of putting forth our allegories. (springboarding from real geography to imaginary world geographies is different, imo.) And aren't we done with the tedious substitution of "alien" for other races? But even if I were to accept all that, the plot pacing is off. We spend too much time watching our two American protags trying to negotiate their way back to the States and then embarking on the perilous journey through the infected zone. (Which seems mostly to be footage of Costa Rica and Guatemala, rather than Mexico.) The movie handwaves what could've been the hardest part of the journey. At one point we're at the crest of a mountain, looking down from a pyramid at the Rio Grande and the great Wall (visible from space, we're told). Next thing, the protags have somehow scaled the wall and walked right through the open gate into the States. ("One does not simply walk into..." But apparently, two can and do.) 

Worse, the characters aren't very interesting. Sam is the stereotypical poor little rich girl touring Mexico, and her father has sent one of his minions to fetch her from that foreign battle zone. Andrew is said minion, a cynical photojournalist looking for his money shot. Why we should care about two underdeveloped American characters rather than the Mexican characters also trying to circumnavigate the infected zone...I don't know. And why they fall in love is beyond me, too.

J and I are accustomed to compartmentalizing, so we sat through the whole movie without complaining too much, but we won't watch it again, and we don't recommend you pay to see it.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
This is one of those times I wish I could have a single, simple reaction to something, like I so often do with chocolate cake. But if stuff has to go through my brain rather than simply my senses, it turns into a muddled mess of compartmentalized appreciation and deflated fury.

Reading the cover of American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct 2011, I was delighted to see "Chicano/Latina Poets, 12 poets introduced by..." But I wondered about the label. Chicano slash Latina? Both, either/or? Seemed like an awkward combination. What were the editors trying to accomplish by that strange slash?

Personally, I grew up with the label Hispanic, which comprises the populations of Spanish-speaking peoples and was in my case especially ironic, considering I did not speak Spanish (well). But we are now/always in a state of nominative flux, and the same way Americans have variously used Negro, colored, black, and African-American, and one can sometimes spot generational differences from the use thereof, we have struggled to choose the "correct" label for my ethnicity. I'm sort of resigned to the Latina identifier now (it includes Brazilians. Never understood Chicano though.) Likewise, I grew up saying Chippewa, but am now more inclined to use Ojibwe. And Winnebago is giving way to Ho-Chunk, at least in Iowa and Wisconsin.

Those were my initial reactions to the cover. Only now am I chagrined to note that Chicano/Latino poets is highlighted the same way other poets' names are: Robert Bly, for example. There are reasons, I'm sure, the editors chose not to highlight any one name from the group. But I doubt they're good reasons.

[ETA: These are the 12 poets featured in the supplemental section. Their names do not appear in the Table of Contents, either.]
Angel Garcia
Cristian Flores Garcia
David Campos
John Olivares Espinoza
Luis Lopez-Maldonado
Ruben Quesada
Sara Aranda
Wendy Silva
Iuri Morales Lara
Yvette Luevano
Scott Hernandez
Adriana Sanchez Alexander

The introduction makes clear that, more than "Chicano/Latina"--whatever that means--the poets are specifically from southern and central California. (I am pleased by how familiar their stories are, though I grew up in Texas.)

I feel pretty confident that most of these poems wouldn't make the pages of APR without the special ethnic focus. It's not that they're not good poems. Most are great. I enjoyed almost all of them. But they are strongly narrative; they throb with a sense of physicality and focus that is generally too raw or "naive" for APR. They are stories, whereas most poems printed in APR seem designed to deflect as much as describe.

Elsewhere in the journal, in the essay on Robert Bly, Tony Hoagland writes, "contemporary American poetry seems less political and more esoterically self-involved than ever." I posit that, if this is the case, it is for the exact same reason so few of the C/L poems would normally make it into APR: critics and editors deliberately turn away from the flourishing counterexamples. Somehow, brown poetry doesn't count. [Echoes of the SpecFic anthologist's lament: "I'm just picking the best I can find--and it's all by white men!"]

Another painful quote from Hoagland's essay: "In his advocacy of poetry from other traditions and cultures, Bly's assertion has been that, unlike cultures subjected to Western European Christian rationality, poets like Neruda and Lorca rediscovered the radical psychic freedom of the imagistic leap. Thus they can remind us how to get to a neglected part of the mind."

Aside from the festering Noble Savage rhetoric, I'm disgusted by this mentality's erasure of immigrants and in-betweeners. Don't get me wrong; I want ALL the poetry, from EVERYWHERE. But did Bly really have to look so far afield? As if there weren't Hispanic poets in America at that time? Their writing not consonant with the same luminaries Bly was chasing? I don't know; I can't rattle off names to prove my point, but I feel a nagging suspicion of erasure.

In her acceptance speech for this year's Tiptree, Andrea Hairston showed some black-and-white slides that validated such suspicions. One showed a Native American director, apparently quite successful, whom I'd never heard of. These omissions are on par with the "historical accuracy" in feudal fantasy worlds that conveniently obliterates women from the storylines. A special APR supplement dedicated to my people's poetry hardly makes up for the widespread erasure of said poetry from the status quo. Especially if it can't be bothered to name (the poets') names on the cover.

Cat: this is why we can't have nice things!

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (skull gloves)

I've been thinking about character bleed and the way I talk. I've been thinking about how my characters talk, and wondering how much of that is my own verbal venting. My characters cuss a lot, and they get a twang now and then, and they add "yeah?" onto seemingly declarative statements. As I write, I have a definite sense of "tuning in" to a special station. And once I've tuned in, I might clean up some dialect for readability, but more and more I want to leave the patois as is, out of a sense of respect and authenticity. Which is not to say the voice is the Texican I remember growing up with. Some, yes. The rest, I guess, is me.

As a result of writing in this voice, I'm increasingly aware of how much I censor myself. Part of this censorship stems from my desire to make Tweetie's life easier. I can repeat the mantra I used to preface the Honey Badger video in my sleep: "Some of these words are considered 'bad words' and if you say them at school you will get in trouble and get sent to the principal's office and you will have to accept the consequences." But it's not just cussing, it's not the words themselves. It's more, I think, the difference between profanity and obscenity. Perhaps because it's not expected from me, I shock people. 

But my desire to be a good role model doesn't explain why I retract my mush-mouthed contractions in emails: who does it hurt to say I'd've? Why do I feel the need to backspace and type out I would've or even I would have? If I think yeah? at the end of a sentence, why don't I include it? I'm letting my verbal bad habits hang out more.

J shared this NPR story with me, about a Cuban-American poet lamenting and celebrating the burden of bilingualism. He quotes his poem "Bilingual Blues":

psycho soy, cantando voy:
You say tomato,
I say tu madre;

I burst out laughing in recognition. The interviewer translates tu madre as "your mother," to which the poet, Firmat, says, "'s more like saying your mama, because it's actually an abbreviation of a somewhat longer and more intricate curse, which is the worst possible curse one can utter in Spanish and which I can't tell you on [the radio]... I think inter-lingual puns are often pujas in Spanish, which are jabs. You know, sort of stabs of anger."

As someone who grew up between languages, I can say that rings so true. I often feel a rebellious burst rising up between my words: what I can and can't say, what there are and aren't words for... Firmat goes on to explain, "There are not only mother tongues. There are also father tongues, and sister tongues, and lover tongues, and brother tongues, and son tongues." And he explains how he can only curse in Spanish, but he can't say "I love you" in Spanish without feeling ridiculous. I recommend reading the transcript, it's short.

Also on NPR, there's a piece on Hispanic roles in Hollywood as seen through the disparate experiences of Rita Moreno and John Leguizamo. Moreno's discussion of West Side Story pretty much explains why I can't stand to watch the movie except with the sound off. I love the color sculpting, the shadow play, the writhing men, but I can't cope with the accents and stereotypes. According to the article, Ricardo Montalban once said, about Hispanics in Hollywood, "the door is ajar." Leguizamo adds, "yeah, you gotta kick your foot in there, then kick the other foot in, then throw somebody in there quick. That's what you gotta do, exactly."

And once you've thrown somebody in there, odds are they end up fighting for the worst, most stereotypical roles: "It'd be me and all the same dudes — Benicio Del Toro, Benjamin Bratt, Esai Morales and Jimmy Smits," he recalls. "And you'd go out there and [the roles were] all gang leaders, drug dealers, janitors, murderers. And you're like, 'All these roles? Really? Don't we contribute more?' I mean, I went to college, man. I'm an educated human being, and I know a lot of hyper-educated Latin people."

Again, I LOLd, because so often I've been like, "Again, Jimmy? Must you be ALL the Mexicans?" This article is also worth reading, but the conclusion has a slightly "bootstrapping" tone I could've done without, the radio shorthand for "conclusion about overcoming adversity yadda yadda yadda."

I have no such conclusion shorthand. Hell, I don't even have a conclusion!

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (chevy)
from Gustavo Arellano's Ask a Mexican column in OC Weekly (the Q&A re Mexican airlines is pretty good too):

DEAR MEXICAN: Who puts the intense pressure on all adolescent Mexican boys to either shave or buzz their cranium hair, regardless of the number of scars, large ears or folds of ugly neck skin revealed?

Dirty White Boy


DEAR GABACHO: That suffocating menace known as "youth culture," with an assist from "prison culture" but not the "Mexican cultural expectations" your "pendejo ass culture" is insinuating. Simply put: Like any teen trend, shaved heads started with youngsters imitating their friends, who imitated their older brothers and cousins, who imitated their peers. The two great historical fashion trendsetters in Mexican-American youth culture, according to James Diego Vigil’s Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California, have been prisons and the military, and both subcultures prefer a close-cropped hairstyle for men for efficiency’s sake. But if you ever see a baby with a shaved head, it’s most likely a kiddie shorn by wabby parents in the belief that a thicker head of hair would emerge, a Mexican fable as laughable as the belief by children that the wrapped Xbox caja under the Christmas tree actually contains a gaming console and not underwear and socks.

FU, Dirty White Boy!
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)

I finally finished reading a book for grownups! Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey. The cover blurb from William Gibson really sold it for me: "An addictively satisfying, deeply amusing, dirty-ass masterpiece." I love this scene where the hero, Stark, boosts a Ducati:
Rule one when you get back from Hell and haven't ridden a high-performance in eleven years is not to get on the bike after three or five Jack Daniel's. Rule two is not to try a stoppie...When you're drunker than you think you are, which is pretty much always, you're going to lean too far forward and pull the rear end of the bike up and over onto your dumb ass...

Off to my left, the bike is pinwheeling down the empty street, kicking up, sparking, and shredding its plastic and chrome skin as it flies apart. It's kind of beautiful, turning from a machine into an ever-expanding shrapnel flower.

Then I hit the street...
But what I lovedlovedloved about the book, what had me all heart-eyed as I read, was what Kadrey did with a secondary (tertiary?) character, Carlos. He's the owner/bartender of the punk-tiki bar Bamboo House of Dolls (where no "dolls" ever appear). Despite being an ex-con and big bruiser type that Stark sizes up as ex-football player or boxer, Carlos is nonviolent and not associated with any gangs. Which is why he asks Stark to fend off the skinhead assholes who are trying to extort "protection" money from him. Later, Stark tries to hand Carlos a gun, and Carlos refuses it twice: "I don't like guns," he says, simple. And as his part of the deal with Stark, Carlos provides nummy Mexican food and drink for free, for life. Stark says, "It's like God left his lunch in the microwave and you get to finish it."

I am just so grateful for a smart, funny, strong Mexican character who defies stereotype and doesn't get offed the minute the shit hits the fan, ya know?

I will definitely read the next in the series, Kill the Dead, due out October 2010.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (Default)
The look on JJ's face when I told him my reason for not calling out the "Mexican who shall remain nameless" for his merely adequate acting:


He asked, "Is favoritism the same as racism?"

I'd asked myself the same question. I'd decided that there are plenty of white actors who occupy the same slot in the movie business. They're not especially good actors, but they do their work, they look decent doing it, they don't cause much trouble in their private lives, and they (hopefully) make a living. I don't generally slam the white actors for not being the next Paul Newman or Al Pacino. Why would I harass a Latino for it?

(Because the few highly visible Latinos bear the burden of representing us well? Because there are plenty of talented, struggling Latino actors busting their butts to get into movies, and the few "openings" for brown folks seem to be permanently filled by the least threatening mediocrities?)

I made an emotional decision. I have reasons and arguments to back it up, but I won't pretend my decision is unrelated to a sense of protectiveness, of defensiveness, of camaraderie. So, I'll never make it to the Supreme Court. I'll get over it, I guess.


cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (Default)

August 2017

1314 1516171819


RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 24th, 2017 05:10 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios