Is there a problem with how Latinos are depicted in literature?
A couple of months ago, I was reading this piece on CNN’s website. There’s definitely an issue with the depiction of Latinos in Hollywood. Television and film have a long history of misrepresenting minorities and perpetuating negative stereotypes. And this inevitably got me thinking about how this bias affects literature.
There first time I bumped into this problem was when I was editing my first novel, “Sleeper’s Run.” The editor pointed out that there was no clear reference that my protagonist was bilingual, and suggested that I should “spice up” the dialogue. This left me confused. Not only I had described that the main character was born and raised in Venezuela, and was fluent in a few languages, but he speaks those languages throughout the story. When I called the editor and asked him what he meant, he basically said to pepper a few Spanish words into the character’s English dialogue. Something like, “Buenos días, señor. I want to have some breakfast for the señorita and me. Gracias.” Now, I’m bilingual, and I know a fair share of people who are as well. I’ve never heard anyone talk like that in my life, ever. The example above is not broken English or even a fair representation of a badly spoken language. It’s simply a made up gimmick to “add color” to dialogue. I actually tried to portray a true English-as-a-second-language character in my novel, but it was unanimously perceived as grammatical errors by editors and proofreaders alike. Granted, they are, but that’s how someone with an imperfect dominion of the language will actually speak.
When I brought this up to the editor during a phone conference, he couldn’t understand what the problem was. When I told him that his suggestion was unrealistic and even racist, the editor took offense. I know that his suggestion didn’t stem from some thinly veiled attempt at bigotry. It’s just the way things are done. It’s what I like to call “cultural racism.” The subconscious prejudice ingrained in the general culture. And that brings me to the next ethnical blunder I encountered.
When editing my second novel, “Status Quo,” one of my editors suggested that my character should be American instead of Venezuelan, because of his preference in pop culture and music. It seems like rock music and Star Wars never crossed the borders of the United States (maybe Europe?). So this person is basically telling me that my childhood, and the childhood of my friends, family, classmates, and contemporaries, is a lie. The first action figure I ever had was R2D2; my first movie was Star Wars. I grew up watching Japanese animation, reading my brother’s Batman and Spiderman comics, I played with G.I. Joes and Masters of the Universe, and all I listened to was hard rock and heavy metal (a musical genre that to this date it’s HUGE in Latin America). And I wasn’t alone. So what is this editor telling me? That to be a true Latino I had to play soccer, watch soup operas, and listen to Salsa? What if she actually met me? I’m racially white, ethnically Latino and my family is European. I guess her brain would implode because of her perceived discrepancies. “But you’re white!” I’ve been told a few times when I say I’m from Venezuela.
In my writing, I portray cultures as realistically as I can. Yes, they are brown people in Latin America, but there are also black people, Asians, middle-easterners, Eastern Europeans, Jews, native tribes, and Caucasians. On top of that, those races and cultures get mixed (the secret to our beauty pageant dominance). So painting Latinos with a broad-brush stroke not only is wrong, but completely unrealistic. And it gets more complicated than that. Many times people refer to me as a South American, which is geographically true, but technically incorrect. I’m Venezuelan. “Venezuelan, Argentinian, it’s all the same,” said an Iranian gentleman to me a few months ago. Most Latin American countries share a common cultural link. They were former Spanish colonies after all, but people still give me an incredulous look when I tell them there are countries in South America where French, Dutch, and English are the spoken languages. Let alone the people that forget that Portuguese, not Spanish is Brazil’s lingua franca. We have many things in common, but we are not the same. How would that gentleman have reacted if I said something like, “Iraqi, Iranian, it’s all the same”?
And that’s the problem, oversimplification and repetition. How terrible would be if Americans were depicted in fiction as obese, gun-loving, uninformed, arrogant, self-involved Caucasians? That’s all you get, every time you’re going to introduce a token American into your novel, that’s the archetype you pull out. It would be ignorant, sad, irresponsible, and untrue. Yet, this fallacy is perpetrated against other cultures repeatedly in works of fiction. Maybe my characters were not exotic enough. “People want to go into different cultures and get to know them,” an editor wrote to me. And I love that, but not every incursion into other cultures has to be an anthropological dissertation. It’s another country, not another planet. Sometimes what you find out is that, in the end, we’re more alike than fiction lets on. It is said that there’s a grain of truth in every stereotype, and we can agree on that. The problem is when that grain is presented as the whole reality.
Being an indie author, I have the freedom to publish what I see fit. My editors are just people I hire to help me to polish my work, not the gatekeepers at a publisher to which I’m beholden. Their myopic view of my culture—or any other I choose to portray—does not affect my writing in any way. I can do so honestly without fear of the market’s perception, or disrupting what passes as acceptable in the industry. But it makes me wonder how this cultural misunderstanding affects the writing of those authors lacking this freedom.
At the end of the day, it is up to us, the writers, to choose how our characters are portrayed. So before you go on and write that fanatical Arab, the Latin Lover, the rude Frenchman, or the workaholic Japanese, make researching these cultures part of the prep for your novel. Next time you take a trip somewhere, get out of the hotel, don’t take the bus tour, avoid the tourist traps and mingle. Talk to people, eat what they eat, sit somewhere, and watch them be. Note what’s similar to you and what’s different. What do you consider they do better or worse than your own experience? Film, television, and even the news are not ways to learn about other cultures (Anthony Bourdain aside). As the Roman philosopher, Seneca said, “All art is but imitation of nature.” Not the repetition of fabrications.