I am not Hispanic, I am Puerto Rican – Isabel Schechter
I’ve heard people complain that calls for diversity are all about forcing quotas on stories, which strikes me as odd.
Isabel Schechter mentions the number of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. (almost five million), and in New York alone. I think back to things like Friends, which was ostensibly set in New York. And I don’t think we’re talking about clumsily or artificially inserting diversity into stories so much as we’re pointing out how so many of our stories have clumsily and artificially stripped that diversity away…
When I was young, I became obsessed with reading. I read everything I could find. I especially loved mythology, fantasy, and Choose Your Own Adventure books. They taught me that gods were blond, magicians were powerful, and boys could be astronauts. Oh, and everyone in the future was White.
When I was older, I read comics and novels. Women could now be superheroes, but everyone was still White. Except Storm from the X-Men. Storm was a beautiful Black woman in a flowing cape and tall boots. What was there not to love? It never occurred to me that my connection to her might have been rooted in the fact that neither of us was White. Until Storm, it had never occurred to me that I could be a superhero. I wasn’t White, blonde, or tall, and I wasn’t ever going to have boobs like that. Sadly, I never questioned why those were the criteria for being a superhero.
It wasn’t until I attended a feminist sf convention that I was exposed to strong, powerful women who were not all White. Some were Black, and every now and then, there was a Mexican. It was more representative of the world I lived in, but I never saw a Puerto Rican in sf. Given how many of us there are in the US, (hell, in New York alone!), I would think we could have at least one Puerto Rican character somewhere in the genre. If that character could have been a woman, too, that would have been even better, but hey, I was a desperate woman. I would settle for what I could get.
From that desperation came excitement when the TV show Heroes first started. A diverse cast! A Latino artist! Finally, a show that would include people of color as main characters and not just in the background, and they would even have superpowers! It turned out to be too good to be true. The list of fail in that show is far too long to go into detail, but my particular sore spot was the Latino representation. The Latino artist could only paint while high on heroin, and the brother and sister duo were illegal aliens. For bonus points, the sister happened to bring the plague with her, and of course, seduced one of the male Heroes in a particularly hot, passionate fashion. Because, you know, that’s how Latinas roll. Ugh.
In contrast to Heroes, The Sparrow, a novel by Mary Doria Russell, has as its protagonist Father Emilio Sandoz, a brilliant Puerto Rican linguist who is of Taino and Spanish background. The Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite books, and Emilio Sandoz is one of my favorite characters, and one with whom I identify closely. Not to take away from the novel, which I think tells an incredible story, but the fact that the portion of the novel that takes place on Earth takes place in Puerto Rico, and that the main character is Puerto Rican is part of why I love it so much. Finally, someone who looks like me. Someone who lived in the same place my mother grew up, where her parents came from, a place that I was connected to.
Puerto Rico is a place where people look like me, where we’re the majority, not the Other. When I went to Puerto Rico with my mother a few years ago, I saw the house she grew up in and I went to Arecibo to see the telescope there. Most people can understand why I would want to see my mother’s hometown, but wouldn’t have guessed that I went to Arecibo because the telescope plays an important part in The Sparrow. I even drove by La Perla, the slum where Emilio grew up, and which is an important part of what makes him who he is, because I wanted to see if it was as awful as he described, so I could understand him a little better.
When I found out that Brad Pitt’s production company had optioned the movie rights to The Sparrow, I was terrified. What if they got it wrong (as most adaptations do)? What if they cast someone who wasn’t Puerto Rican (let me guess—a Mexican)? Hold on, this was Hollywood, what if they cast a White guy? What am I talking about? This is Hollywood—of course they would cast a White guy. Because, you know, all the good guys and heroes are White guys. I mean, Jake Gyllenhall was the perfect actor to play the Prince of Persia, right? And changing the entire cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender (except for the villain, of course) to White people made total sense given the source material. And hey, Scarlett Johansen’s acting ability makes her the obvious choice for Ghost in the Shell, doncha think?
Sure enough, Brad wanted to cast himself as Emilio. Shocking, I know. Or not. But seriously, how could he possibly think he was the right actor for that role? Emilio Sandoz is the only character in sf I can think of who is Puerto Rican, and yet again, some White guy was going to whitewash a great POC character and erase that which made him who he was. Hollywood was going to take from me the only character I could identify with, the only Puerto Rican in all of sf. As if the real Emilio never existed. As if I never existed.
Rather than have that happen, I would have settled for any other Latino actor to play the part-Mexican, Columbian, Dominican, Guatemalan, Cuban, insert-any-Central-or-Southern-American-or-Caribbean country-here, just please, please, please, not a White guy! Thankfully, the film option expired and my beloved novel and only Puerto Rican character were safe, and I could stop living in fear. For now.
I know that given the dismal shortage of representation of any kind of people of color in sf, I should be grateful for any Latino characters, and I am, but it’s precisely because Emilio is the only Puerto Rican that it’s important to me that he stays Puerto Rican. It’s precisely because in the future everyone is some mysterious monolithic “Hispanic” that I want the world to know that “Hispanic” isn’t enough. It’s not enough in real life, and it shouldn’t be enough in our literature and media.
There are all kinds of Latinos in the real world, and there should be kinds of Latinos in sf. All of us should be represented, and faithfully so. We don’t all come from one country—no Virginia, Latin America is not one country. We don’t all look alike-yes, really, some of us are blonde. We don’t all dance salsa—some of us prefer Bachata. We don’t all eat tacos—pupusas are delicious, you should try them. We are not all Catholics—the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere are in Latin America. I could go on, and on, and on, but my point is that each of our cultures is unique, and everyone should get to see that. Just as not all White people insert-stupid-stereotype-here, not all Latinos insert-stupid-stereotype-here.
The number of myths and misconceptions about “Hispanics” is both hurtful and depressing. For a genre that is supposed to explore the universe, yet somehow can’t manage to explore the people living right here, right now, science fiction fails, time and time again, to be forward thinking. I am tired of never seeing myself represented. I am tired of reading about or seeing characters who are one-dimensional stereotypes. I am tired of White people trying to make it seem like they’re the only ones that do anything, and none of the rest of us even exist except in the background or as villains. I am tired of it all. And I demand better. You want to write whitewashed, one-dimensional crap? Feel free, just don’t expect me to spend my time or money on helping you push your agenda.
Isabel has been a fan since childhood and active in fandom for almost 20 years. She is Latina by birth, Jewish by choice, vegetarian by conscience, and uppity as necessary. As an event manager for a science museum, she is free to reveal her geekiness at work and not suffer any consequences. Isabel and her husband recently relocated to sunny California and so far, she has resisted the urge to go on Facebook and post pictures of herself wearing summer clothing in February while her friends back in Chicago are experiencing the Polar Vortex.
March 12, 2015 @ 10:11 am
Thanks for including me.
Jim C. Hines
March 12, 2015 @ 10:15 am
And thank you for being a part of it! 🙂
March 12, 2015 @ 10:36 am
As an American woman born of Colombian Immigrants… YES. ALL MY YES.
Thanks so much, Isabel! I’m so tired of seeing Colombians portrayed only as drug lords or cocaine pushers in Hollywood. I hate that “Hispanic” or “Latino” in this country tends to be code for “Mexican” (and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people say, “Oh, you’re Latina? Are you from Mexico?” I don’t even LOOK Mexican, not even remotely).
And I certainly never had any representative superheroes or heroes of any kind in the science fiction and fantasy I devoured as a child. It doesn’t help that I also happen to be a heavy Latina. Boobs and hips that are the stuff of dreams, right? Yeah, superheroes are always petite, blonde, slender… none of which describes me in the least. So yeah, I just assumed I could never be a superhero as a kid. There wasn’t a place for me in that world.
March 12, 2015 @ 11:10 am
I’d like to see more tv shows of all types that are based in a real city have at least the background characters represent the general ethnic diversity of the place it’s set. Ideally it’d be cool to have the whole case more representative, but if they aren’t brave enough for that then at least the crowd scenes and all levels of background characters should show that people created from cookie cutter moulds.
It can’t be that hard to send someone out to say an intersection in an area like the one they want to portray on the show and taking notes on the general ethnic makeup and dress at different times of the day.
I’m now actively starting to seek out diversity in my characters I read about, as I find I want to read about experiences which are different from mine at various levels and I’d kinda like to see that represented in the TV I enjoy too.
March 12, 2015 @ 11:59 am
A lovely essay that I completely relate to from the related perspective that not all Asians are interchangeable.
I do want to mention an error though in that the movie with Scarlett Johansen is Ghost in the Shell, not Ghost in the Machine.
Jim C. Hines
March 12, 2015 @ 12:03 pm
Thanks, Laurie. Fixing that now.
March 12, 2015 @ 12:20 pm
Thanks for writing this.
March 12, 2015 @ 4:44 pm
She’s a better person than I am. I am ALL ABOUT bragging about the weather to friends back East.
March 12, 2015 @ 7:30 pm
This was an interesting piece for me for several reasons and brought a great deal of my own thoughts (and fears) to bear. First, let me say how much I appreciate the tone and obvious desire of Ms. Schechter. The words were well-spoken. Before I get further into my own thoughts, a bit of explanation so everyone at least knows from where my thoughts originate. I am a white male, as close to a WASP as you can get, I guess. I’m proud of my own heritage – Appalachian from the mountains & coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and Western West Virginia. You would know us as “The Hatfields & McCoys.” So, I know quite a bit about stereotypes. I also do a fair bit of writing, though nothing to the degree found on this site.
When I read the opening line of this blog post, “I am not Hispanic, I am Puerto Rican”, I knew I had to read more. Last year, I submitted a short story to the Fantasy Faction Anthology. Out of 1500, it made the cut in the top 30 and received rave reviews from all who read it. It’s “star” was a Puerto Rican female.
I cannot speak to why I chose Puerto Rican as her ethnicity. I knew I wanted her to speak Spanish, but other than that, I’m not sure why I went that direction (much of the creation is a blur of conversations with my wife – bless her heart for enduring all those rambling discussions). My best recollection is that I hadn’t seen a Puerto Rican in any fiction and wanted to try something different, outside of my comfort zone. After the decision was made, I did as much research as I could find. I devoured anything I could find on Puerto Rican culture, language, etc. I was then blessed with a coworker, Micaella, who was, as she says, a “Mexi-Rican,” labeling herself such because she was born Mexican but adopted by a Puerto Rican family when she was 9. Her insights of her upbringing guided much of what I attempted to do with this character.
Even with that research and personal touch, I must admit one important reality – it’s frightening to write a person impacted by another culture. As I mentioned, I grew up in the Appalachians. Until Mica, I’d never even met a Puerto Rican (I met her parents at a birthday party and then Catholic Mass, another first for me – the Mass, not the party). In spite of being a voracious reader (and I’d daresay scholar who has always spent more time studying history, culture, sociology than is normal for a child/teen/adult), I found myself questioning multiple decisions in dialogue, mannerisms and all the other myriad factors that make up a well-rounded, “real” character.
I wonder if that isn’t the reason for the lack of ethnic diversity in speculative fiction – much easier to create a culture that has internal logic within your story than it is to be attached to one so well established in the hearts and minds of millions. In one, if you get it wrong, no one is mad and if they are, it’s just a story; in the other, an “oops” just won’t do it. You have to be cautious of stereotypes, while at the same time keeping viable to the story that which is culturally important. You have to be “true” to the people without demeaning their values (and values that you only know tangentially, no matter how much you dive into it).
And in a world where any screw-up among racial/ethnic lines causes such turmoil, that anxiety can only be increased. No doubt, that’s the reason my story’s POV is written from a white male’s perspective (His Watson to her Sherlock). At least if I do screw up, I can blame it on the POV’s viewpoint and not reality.
With all that said, it’s my hope that what I do connects with a reader, enriches their lives, makes them laugh, and helps them see things a bit beyond their own worldview. It required me to stretch my own boundaries, so I pray that comes through. I’ve mentioned some of my fears, but my greatest is that you could simply paint “Puerto Rican” over a WASP character, not being any other way recognizable as the culture that impacted the character. I worked too hard for that, but I’d be lying if I said I was confident each of my decisions are correct. I wonder if my own fears speak for others as well.
March 12, 2015 @ 11:05 pm
John Leguizamo (actor) talks about how when he told someone he landed a role they asked him which one-drug dealer, gang member, or …( something else stereotypical that I don’t remember). I feel the same way about most Latin@s, and I especially understand your frustration at Colombians usually being portrayed as the stereotypical drug dealers.
And yes, our bodies are not the kind you see in sf (or anywhere else), so assuming we couldn’t be superheroes is unfortunately something we all went through.
March 12, 2015 @ 11:06 pm
Sorry about that. My error.
March 12, 2015 @ 11:08 pm
Thanks for reading.
March 13, 2015 @ 4:55 am
I like to see diversity in literature and other entertainment. So that’s how I write too. It’s boring when all the characters are alike!
I couldn’t turn up a Puerto Rican character of mine on a quick search, but I did have a brief note for a pair in Polychrome Heroics superhero series, so I fleshed out Silencio and Melazo. If you want to see them in play — or suggest other Puerto Rican characters — just drop by any of my open prompt calls and ask. If you haven’t already discovered crowdfunding, I highly recommend it; many writers are taking inspiration from audiences, so it’s easy to ask for what you want and get it.
Breaking Mirrors – Diana Pho
March 13, 2015 @ 8:30 am
[…] think Diana Pho’s post makes a good follow-up to Isabel Schechter’s post yesterday, though I’m having a little trouble getting the words right to explain why. (Low […]
March 13, 2015 @ 6:39 pm
March 16, 2015 @ 10:54 am
From a British point of view, the terms “Hispanic/Latina/Latina” confused the hell out of me when I first encountered them as a kid, particularly as (a) Americans seemed to use them as a racial category and (b) people from actual, like, Spain apparently weren’t included. Aboriginal Tierra del Fuegans? Latino. Don Quixote de La Mancha? White. 4th-generation residents of South Dakota with a Portuguese surname? Totally Hispanic. It’s even more of a grab-bag than most of our sweeping “ethnic” categories, and that’s saying something. (A friend of mine has a major chip on his shoulder about how people here refer to “Africans” as though everyone from about Mauritania to Swaziland belongs to just this huge undifferentiated poverty-stricken mass.)
March 16, 2015 @ 11:05 am
It’s kind of terrifying how deep-rooted the Latino drug lord stereotype has become. There are people I (unfortunately) know – and try to avoid – who actually believe these stereotypes are the true. Aside from their own one-dimensional imagination, I think Hollywood is to blame. The problem is that Hollywood borrows quite a lot from literature, and so, ultimately, the abuse of this shady drug dealer trope in books is to be blamed.
“Just as not all White people insert-stupid-stereotype-here, not all Latinos insert-stupid-stereotype-here.”
Very concise and very true. It seems that the more attempts I make at using a form of this sentence to drill this simple fact into people’s brains, the more thick-skulled and immune they get against it.
Before I get carried away: thanks for writing this, Isabel!
March 16, 2015 @ 2:47 pm
Kanika, good point. Overgeneralization is a bad habit in literature as well as logic.
There are Latino druglords, and they make the news both in terms of American gangs and productions rings in other countries. Writers often draw inspiration from headlines, so that feeds into the prevalence. If you’re doing that, try reading a Spanish (or at least Latino-community-in-English) newspaper and look for different inspiration.
The problem is when that’s ALL people write about, when there are few or no Latino characters of other types. Another concern is losing the personal details and reducing down to a stock character. That’s how a valid pattern turns into a stereotype.
So the way to fix it is simply to vary up the content. If the character is a druglord, does s/he have to be Latino, or would a Russian or Chinese one work instead? (Which of course hits another stereotype, but there are a handful of cultures that dominate this field. Casting, say, a Norwegian druglord is doable but would require more background.) If the character is Latino, does s/he have to be a druglord, or would some other profession work instead? Even if you need a scary badass, what about a bodyguard, bouncer, or cop? Just don’t repeat an overused trope if you can avoid it. If a Latino druglord is the only character that will fit, is that a story worth writing? Will it do more good than harm, or is it just repeating a negative riff?
Then another method is to spread out the representation. Any time you’re worried about stereotyping, make sure to have at least two characters with that trait, and make them different from each other. This refutes the “all X are Y” argument, because your Xs are Y and Z (or A and B). A Latino cop and his black partner hunting down drugrunners who may be black, Latino, white, etc. will pose far less of a problem than a story in which the ONLY Latino is the druglord. Or the janitor. 0_o