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: http://derica.tumblr.com/post/9403426031/chris-rock-the-license-to-suck
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 (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 (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 (why we can't have nice things)
Wow, I was really angry yesterday. And I suspect I'll be equally enraged by the end of today, what with the fuckery unspooling from the George Zimmerman trial, the Supreme Court shitting on section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and Texas's SB5 threatening women's rights, health, and lives… Yeah, I'll be needing a drink sooner than later. But today's bitchfest concerns not these macro-aggressions, but what I'll call meso-level aggressions, the periodic outbursts of sexism and racism from SFWA members (SFWA = the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America).

I am not a member of SFWA. Maybe one day. I like the idea of their grievance committee, which helps to resolve contract disputes, and I can see the value of their emergency medical fund. I know there are smart, mega-talented people working their asses off to make SFWA an excellent organization.

I also know that SFWA, whether or not I am a member, represents "my" genres to the public. So when SFWA's official publication's cover is one I'd be embarrassed to carry around in public—woman in a barely breast-defying chain-mail bikini, in the snow?—I shake my head in chagrin.

When two of their long-standing writers "Dialogue" about "lady editors", "lady writers", and see fit to comment on said professionals' physical appearances when the topic is supposedly their work and legacy, I roll my eyes and hope none of my non-genre friends ever see this travesty.

When another SFWA columnist upholds Barbie as the role model for young girls "because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should", I grit my teeth and swap sarcastic jokes with other SF writers on Twitter.

When, in SFWA's next Bulletin, the authors of the "lady editors" piece are permitted a lengthy rebuttal of (completely justified and well-reasoned, passionate) critiques, and that rebuttal is essentially "liberal fascists!" and "CENSORSHIP!!!", I feel like SFWA is a sinking ship and I'm caught in its sucking vortex. (For the text of their article, scroll to bottom of this link roundup or read this evisceration.)

But when some jackass uses SFWA tools to spread his racist hate, to denigrate a fellow member with more talent in her pinky finger than he has in his whole waste of organs, to call her a savage and her plea for reconciliation within the SF community "a call for its decline into irrelevance"…?

I cannot, in the parlance of our times, even.

Forgive me if this seems like old news, if I am hopelessly late in joining the choir. The irony is, I had to choose whether to speak out against this racism and misogyny in the SF community OR work on my science fiction novel with a female protag and characters of color fighting for their lives within a quarantined environment. I didn't have the spoons to do both. I wonder why.

Other writers have already written passionately and insightfully about SFWA's inability (or unwillingness) to quash these concerted efforts to sabotage the organization's credibility. I agree that the racist dickblister should be expelled from SFWA for hate speech and improper conduct. I agree that SFWA should take proactive measures to ensure a safe environment for all its members, rather than working around the pus buckets.

I don't want to belong to an organization where I must survey the scene and wonder, Which of these folks doubts that I'm "equally homo sapiens sapiens"? How many of these guys wish I were a pink plastic doll whose mouth didn't open? This is not a free speech issue. My humanity is not up for debate. I will not join a group that allows members to behave as if it is.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (destroy everything)
A lot of shit went down last week (and the week before, and…). I couldn't comment on this shit because I had goals I absolutely had to achieve, and diverting any intellectual focus to people's asinine behavior would've meant my own bodily disaster. My body was already rejecting demands for such frivolous things as sleep. So I put my blinders on. Despite my laser focus, however, certain matters kept creeping into my awareness, and though I couldn't formulate eloquent responses to them, you'd better believe I had emotional responses throbbing just below the surface of my forced calm.

Well, now I'm at a point that I can remove the blinders.

I am so sick of hearing that people who call out racist, sexist, classist, or colonialist behavior are just "looking to be offended." Last week, I certainly wasn't looking to be offended. I was barely even looking! And yet I was deeply offended.

I was fucking offended by the US House of Representatives even debating a farm bill that would've cut more than $20 billion from the food stamps program over the next ten years. My family used food stamps when I was growing up. My mother worked night shifts as a waitress to support three kids, and we would've starved without food stamps. I saw how hard it was for her to get those food stamps, too. Not just psychologically, but logistically. Hours she should've spent sleeping, she wasted on bureaucratic bullshit to prove how bad off we were, because god forbid we get a loaf of bread or carton of milk we didn't deserve. The rate of misappropriated food stamps is a measly 3 to 4 percent, and most of that is due to honest clerical errors, not intent to deceive or steal. The 234 representatives who were willing to pass that bill were willing to let children and old people and poor people starve.

What's more, before the bill got voted down, the House passed two amendments on it, one that would've allowed states to administer drug tests to food stamp applicants. So on top of everything else, my mother might've had to pee in a cup? My fury is too vast for me to keep track of the alphabet, so I'll try numbers.

1) Drug testing is an attempt to shame people out of applying, with its implication that if you need assistance, you must be an addict, with all the moralistic baggage that accompanies such a label.
2) Drug testing is an attempt to scare people out of applying, because what the hell happens if you test positive?
3) Lest we forget: False Positives. They Happen.
4) How many hoops must hungry people jump through before they're "deserving" of aid?
5) WHO THE FUCK CARES if an applicant is using drugs if they and/or their dependents might die without those food stamps?! Really, you're saying that if my mom had a toke to blur the edges of her hard-scrabble life, my siblings and I wouldn't deserve to eat?
6) If you report the guardian for illegal drug use, what the fuck do you think happens to their dependents?

Don't get me started on the other amendment, which would've required applicants to meet federal welfare work requirements. (Although you, dear reader, are welcome to rant about that one in the comments!)

I suppose I should not be surprised that the House deliberated over whether or not to let people starve when it also passed a ban on abortions 20 weeks after conception. Twenty weeks is five months of pregnancy. Do representatives sincerely believe anyone that far along would choose to terminate without a Really Good Reason? Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I can think of a whole helluva lot of awful scenarios to explain why someone would seek an abortion at that stage of pregnancy. Which is pretty ironic, considering my genres of choice are often considered "escapist." Furthermore, I can imagine the time taken to plead one's case before a complete stranger might result in irreparable harm that a speedy abortion could prevent. But I honestly don't think it's because of my storytelling prowess or even my capacity to become pregnant that I know it's not my place to judge what another person would do in any of these terrible situations. I have so often been powerless, I will not rob fellow humans of power over their own bodies. And I'll be damned if my legislators get away with it. Not in my name.

Two other items of national note that offended me, because I was looking, ie., because I haven't gouged out my eyes or eardrums yet:

Congress's ongoing immigration reform debates
Kickstarter: We Were Wrong – you bet your ass you were, and your apology is too little, too fucking late.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (hola)
This weekend Tweetie went to a sleepover, so JJ and I had some ultra-rare adult time in which we spoke in complete, uninterrupted sentences in satisfyingly thorough conversations not suited to little pitchers with big ears. We figured out some stuff and got on the same page about other stuff and I surprised both of us by telling him something about me that he didn't know, which is difficult considering we met when I was 14.

We watched Seven Psychopaths, which was entertainingly meta about the limitations of American action films. Great dialogue, charming psychopaths, stunning scenery. As is often the case, however, lampshading the problems is no substitute for fixing the problems. Consider the poster for the movie, which features 7 white people, two women. Now, there is one female psychopath in the story, but she's black. And I don't think she has any lines. Her story is told by her male lover. So the marketing department clearly wanted to tell potential audiences that there were women in the movie, but we couldn't have *gasp* black women on the posters. (The most admirable, bravest character in the film is, in fact, an older black woman. But she dies. And Gabourey Sidibe, of Precious fame, is totally wasted as a sobbing object of fat-phobic verbal abuse.) Even  though one character tells the main character, a screenwriter, that he writes crappy women characters, the movie itself is no better. In fact, the movie's actual director/screenwriter admits he wrote that chiding scene just to let himself off the hook. Knowing that kinda defuses the truth bomb delivered by his most charming psychopath: "You can't let the animals die in a movie...only the women."

We also watched Robot and Frank. I found it sweet and visually appealing, often funny. Frank Langella has marvelous gravitas, making him believable as both a grandpa and a still-sexual person. But the threat posed by the police in the movie seemed unrealistic to me. Surely they wouldn't be allowed to access a person's medical records without a warrant, maybe not even then. Also, I'm not sure what the message of the movie is supposed to be except that, we can't always mind the gaps, because we can't always foresee what the gaps will be. And sometimes people will get hurt.
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 (hammer head)
Our family went to the Farmer's Market this morning. One of the tables that caught my eye had bright, glittery collages incorporating Our Lady of Guadalupe imagery. I drew closer to examine the art, and a blonde woman came around the table to talk to me. She was the artist.

She asked me if I was from Mexico. (She at least had the decency to stutter.)

I kind of blinked and said, no, not originally. What does that even mean? I'm not sure--there was a lot of WTFery going through my head already--but it seemed to convey enough, because she nodded and said she'd had several second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans come by. I blinked again, imagining how many other folks she'd forced to go through this conversation, and at what level of detail, if she knew what generation they were. She asked (knowingly) if I recognized the loteria materials she'd incorporated, and I said yes, although I conceded there was one set I'd never seen before. So she told me about the city in Mexico where she'd gotten it and how many pesos they cost.

I nodded and ate my cherry turnover while appraising her work. It was colorful and interesting, but not technically proficient. I imagined the collages falling off the canvases as the humidity changed. Eventually I walked away and met up with J again.

I told him, "I didn't even know what to do with that."

He nodded and said, "No, I know, sooo many things there." 

"I don't even know where to start," I said, still marveling. "The racism? The appropriation? The obliviousness?"

We walked on, agreeing that We Don't Even.
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 (gun)
exit through the gift shop dvd cover
This documentary (or prankumentary, depending on whom you talk to) about street art is thoroughly entertaining, albeit sometimes in a cringe-worthy kind of way. I wouldn't have minded a bit more analysis of the art itself, but that approach would probably detract from the iconoclastic, free-thinking ethic that the artists promote.

Some thoughts:

1) Infantilization of nonnative English speakers is widespread and insulting. And may come back to bite you in the ass. I think a lot of the artists who trusted Thierry Guetta to film their exploits did so from a combination of egoism, practical self-interest, and deprecation of Guetta's intellect. They did not perceive him as a threat because he spoke English poorly.

2) In America, it must be a lot easier to be a working street artist if one is a white male. I cannot imagine the police officers in this film, who were neither courteous nor patient, indulging mis primos, let alone black artists, as much as they indulged the white men featured in the film. True, the artists had a camera man, which may have mitigated the officers' natural attack response, but I still can't see officers letting off Hispanic or black men the way they did the artists here.

3) What must it be like to be a female street artist, even a white one? From the sex worker bios I've read, it seems men in perceived (even if only self-perceived) authority positions feel perfectly entitled to interrogate any woman as to where she is going. If the woman rebuffs the questions, she comes under harsher scrutiny. Imagine fending off curious, even hostile men at night while carrying art supplies to create quasi-legal art. At least one woman (white) appeared in the documentary--I believe it's Swoon--and it's noteworthy that her brief scene includes Guetta teasing her as she struggles to get a nearly life-size wallpaper portrait to adhere to a wall. He says something like, "I bet you wish you were taller." She laughs and says, with equal parts frustration and embarrassment, STFU (or something like that). Guetta is not shown making any effort to help her, although he engages in death-defying climbing antics to abet male artists.

4) It looks a lot easier to critique materialism, imperialism, and privilege when one is a product thereof. Easier, and more profitable. So much of a street artist's success rests on how well they can blend into a crowd and how long they can work unmolested before someone questions their right to do so. If I, as a short, round brown woman, go out and mark up buildings, I get noticed, harassed, and thrown in the slammer. If I somehow manage to succeed at my art, I'm more likely to be considered an artist of color than a famous street artist.

When Guetta beats his heroes at their own game, his art is belittled. How can this French guy who barely speaks English possibly understand the true nature of street art? It's ludicrous, a scam, a joke. He is an outsider. How dare he critique the very system that marginalizes him? Personally, I don't consider Guetta's work to be art, at least not what went on exhibition, but the point still stands.

Clarity

Sep. 24th, 2010 10:10 am
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (Default)
"Institutionalized power. You can do things people acknowledge as wrong, and suffer no consequences, and even be protected by the system.

Thankfully, this is a stupid, small example.

Not like police shooting unarmed children, cities cutting off vital services to unwanted communities, withholding medical supplies in the face of H1N1 infections or the many, many other examples [which] kill people and/or ruin lives.

But hey, small stupid examples sometimes are clear, because people haven't already built up a layer of myth of who deserves and doesn't deserve to be served by institutions." from yeloson.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
Debbie Reese ([livejournal.com profile] debreese_nambe ) has critiqued Syd Hoff's classic easy-reader Danny and the Dinosaur (1958). Because I constantly need to perform damage control after others "educate" Tweetie about American Indian tribes ("You know Indians still exist, right? They're not extinct. They are us. We're part Ojibwe.") I found Debbie's analysis particularly valuable. An excerpt:

The University of Michigan took a lot of heat for their decision to remove the dioramas [about American Indians] from their museum. How many of those people, I wonder, remember Danny's visit to the museum? How many of them got their introduction to Indians in museums from the much-loved Danny and the Dinosaur? Is Danny and the Dinosaur in your collection?

The book is not in our collection, although not for this particular reason. We do, however, have a copy of Aliki's My Visit to the Dinosaurs (1969) that has been converted into a spiralbound journal for Tweetie to write and draw in. So far as I can see, there are no Indians behind glass in Aliki's book. Or Tweetie's scribbles.

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:

o_O


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)
Ask a Mexican

You're welcome to ask me questions, of course. But Gustavo Arellano answers "Mexican" questions, stupid and not-at-all stupid, for a living. He even has a book. But his website was wonky last time I checked, so I refer you to his OC column archives. He's also on Twitter.





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

Amazing as it now seems to me, when I lived in South Texas, I often “passed” for white. No doubt, my “American” surname, my relatively light complexion, and my inability to speak decent Spanish in a community that was 95% Hispanic/Latino created the confusion. In high school, a new friend asked me, “What are you? Asian?” When I looked at him, baffled, and said, “What? I'm Hispanic, like you!” he babbled, “I thought maybe because...you know, your eyes?”

I still have no idea what he was talking about.

My brother also passed for white, but my sister didn't. As you can imagine, this made for some interesting family dynamics.

I can't remember dating any guys who passed for white, with the exception of JJ, now my husband. I think it is generally harder for guys to pass down in South Texas, since they have to spend more time acting tough and that toughness overlaps so neatly with Mexican machismo. Any “coding” confusion my husband's pale complexion and light hair may have caused in South Texas was canceled out by his Spanish fluency and his interaction with his sisters at school, since they were more obviously Hispanic.

There was no ethnic-coding confusion when J lived as a migrant farm worker in Michigan. His school correctly categorized him as Latino. They also figured he was mentally challenged—because he didn't speak English.

Somebody was clearly “challenged.”

Maybe he didn't respond when the teachers called on him, either. J has a very common name, and the teacher had to resort to nicknames. She asked J if he had a nickname, but he didn't understand the idiom, so he said no. She decided to call him Pancho--which is the nickname for Frank and bears no relation to my husband's name.

Even once the language thing got sorted out, the school still wanted to put J in special ed classes. He wouldn't read the assigned stories at the assigned times, so clearly he was mentally deficient. In actuality, he'd read his textbooks in their entirety within the first few days of school, and he had near photographic recall and he was easily bored, so he found other things to do at the assigned reading times.

J went on to become an excellent student, in South Texas, and he graduated in the top 10 of his class of 500+. Considering the crap he had to endure early on, he has a remarkably easygoing nature.

But it really pisses him off when he gets junk mail in Spanish.
Or telemarketing calls in Spanish.
Especially calls from people who clearly can't speak English and yet are selling learn-to-speak-English materials.

I think some of this rage is of the “You don't know me!” variety. People make assumptions about him according to his name. And not generous assumptions, either. He says the least people can do is ask him what language he prefers to use.

I bet it'd be even nicer if the deals they offered were actual deals, rather than predatory interest rates, New-Age mysticism, and bad satellite TV: the American Dream in Spanglish.



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

IBARW 4 will take place between July 27 and August 2.

How to participate:

  1. Announce the week in your blog.
  2. Post about race and/or racism: in media, in life, in the news, personal experiences, writing characters of color, portrayals of race in fiction, review a book on the subject, etc. (Linking back here is highly appreciated!) The optional theme this year is "global."
  3. Let us know by bookmarking your post on Delicious with "for:ibarw," or comment with a link to your post in one of the link collecting posts.

pic of stereotypical "sexy" Latina from fandom

Lately when I think about racism, I think about how the men in my life (Latino) have had to deal with it. It's the men I hear about it from. Do Latinas not complain about it as much (or at least not to me?), do they not experience it as much, do they not recognize it when it happens to them, or do they simply attribute it to something else? Are we better at assimilating, at deflecting negative attention, do we more effectively employ social skills to skim past overtly racist behavior, or...what?

I don't know. I do know it's no accident that I'm accustomed to worrying more about my brothers' suffering than my sisters'--that's how the women in my family, my culture, are raised. The other day I was thinking about a horror movie I'd watched that featured a male Hispanic in a leading role. I've seen this guy in other films, and my general impression is that he's an adequate actor, but not leading man material. I thought about mentioning the movie in my LJ, and I decided against it. My exact thoughts were, Sure I could criticize a brother, but there's plenty of folks who'll do it for me, because he's Mexican, so maybe it's best if I just keep it to myself. If you can't say anything nice, right?

But that didn't stop me from complaining about Jessica Alba and her lack of comedic prowess in a different post. Of course, Alba's identity as Hispanic has been somewhat...conflicted over the years, so maybe that explains my double standard.

Right.

However disproportional my concern for “my men” may be, since I'm thinking about them, I'll be blogging about them.

 

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

Last week, Tweetie got a new LeapPad book. When she points to certain words, the LeapPad defines them for her. I wasn't paying too much attention until she pointed to jealousy and the computer voice said, "A bad feeling toward another person."

"Hey what now?" I thought. "Did I just hear what I think I heard?"

I intervened, explained to Tweetie that emotions aren't good or bad, they just are. It's how we turn emotions into deeds that can be bad or good. I told her jealousy is more like wanting what someone else has, or wishing they didn't have it if you couldn't have it too.  Which she seemed to grok.  Better definition and less moralizing.

I grew up in a loud, raucous family. Growing up, I'd hear my grandma and her sisters shouting (in Spanish), "Get OUT! Shut UP!" and the like. I thought they were really fighting until someone set me straight. My gram and grampa would start hollering at each other and my brother or I would cry, "Stop fighting," and the inevitable response was, "We're not fighting, we're DISCUSSING!" Fighting meant bloodshed.

I didn't realize until I was in jr high that not all families heckled the tv, or each other. That not all families had screaming fits over whether a fan stayed plugged in or not, that the way my grandparents cursed at us might've qualified as abuse.  Part of this was just run-of-the-mill kid ignorance--we don't know all families aren't like ours.  But part of my comfort with this emotional gauntlet was that I soon learned, no matter how much we cried or screamed at each other, no matter how miserable and uncomfortable we were for a while, it passed.

So...Anger. I can haz it. I can hear it, I can show it, I can deal with it.

Watching RaceFail, MammothFail, and the still-unfolding postmortems, I've been baffled by how some adults do not seem equipped to deal with strong emotions during arguments. The instinct seems to be to smooth things over, squelch valid, healthy emotional responses, restrict one's tone. But denying emotions does not rid us of them, nor should it. Like physical pain, emotional pain indicates that something is WRONG. If we ignore it, we can't fix it.

And sometimes the inability to cope with these unpleasant emotions prompts people to shut down the arguments that stir up such emotions. Which is even worse.

On a related, or lateral, note, I appreciated [livejournal.com profile] asim 's "cranky essay," The Future is made up of our Pasts, especially this astute observation:

 
Arguments don't kill people. People who can't handle emotions kill arguments.

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