What it means to be Hispanic in YA

5

My heritage has always been very important to me.

Despite being born in the United States, I had always felt an affinity to my ethnic background, especially living in a city known for it’s Cuban influence. I have never been simply American or simply Cuban; I enjoyed being a mix of both.

And so, like most minorities, I felt that representation in the media for my background was nearly nonexistent. I had been taught since I was young that I had to be content with what I could get; the background characters, the Jane Does on crime shows, the “trashy” Hispanic girl that every high school series seemed to have.

I was taught that I had to be content with it because I was lucky to get anything at all.

In the spring of my freshman year of high school, I read a novel called Romiette and Julio. It’s a genderbent Chicago-based Romeo and Juliet wherein the main characters are people of color. Imagine my excitement! I was getting a story where someone like me, even if it was the boy, had shared some of my experiences.

What did I get instead?

A mash of stereotypes filled with carefully placed Spanish words and a reminder in every chapter that he is not white.

I felt cheated. It felt like my entire being had been compressed into a collection of ‘holas’ and chica’.

I was angry that my culture was shoved into the limelight for all the wrong reasons; I couldn’t fathom how people could read this and not start laughing! And then, in a moment of horror, I wondered if people honestly thought I sounded like that. If people outside of my own bubble looked at this and nodded, sure that Julio’s Spanglish and rife gang life was part of my day-to-day life.

What some people can’t seem to understand is that I don’t want to have to be a message, a reminder to the people out there that LOOK! This character is Hispanic! Look how progressive this is!

I’m a person, same as everyone else. I don’t want it to be a big deal. I don’t want you to cram my heritage into a box and stuff it down my throat just so I can be happy with what I’ve been given.

I want to have a heroine who is Hispanic and it’s not even mentioned until the last page. I want a heroine with olive skin and dark hair who isn’t described as “exotic”, but just a person who happens to have a culture different from yours. I want characters are not defined by their heritage and characters who are in love with their heritage. I want characters from all different backgrounds instead of the singular stock character I seem to be going over and over again.

I’m tired of forcing myself to be content with the poorly executed representation I’ve been given.

I know that you might feel uncomfortable writing about a culture you don’t know about. Fantasy is all made up but writing about a heritage, about a world that is so ingrained in the lives of so many, it’s daunting! I understand.

I understand but I won’t excuse laziness in exchange for a sea of white-washed faces.

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About Author

Alejandra De La Fuente

Alejandra de la Fuente is a writer for YA Interrobang.

5 Comments

  1. I’ve created the first draft of a book that has “diverse” characters in it. I use that in quotes because while I want to write diversity, I don’t want it to define my characters, any more than so-n-so having brown eyes should define her.

    See, I grew up in a small town in Iowa, where everyone was white except that one black kid who was adopted. (I’m not joking.) But I moved to Toronto, where I’m now the minority. I’ve been here almost seven years, and to me, diversity is just how it is. We’re celebrating Diwali tomorrow in the lunchroom. I work with a guy who spoke Spanish to me because I’m American. (I don’t speak it, unfortunately.) I’m work-BFF’s with a gal who’s from Sri Lanka but got chewed out by some woman in Uraguy for not speaking Spanish because she looks Hispanic. We’re all just a mixture of different cultural backgrounds–I mean, heck, I’m as much a foreigner as anyone here.

    So when I imagined this book, I just wanted people like I’m surrounded with. But I’m afraid that if I don’t put in something about their heritage, I’m doing it wrong. So I’ve ended up with characters who are darker and lighter than me, but that’s all that’s different.

    And I wonder, are you going to read it and think, “Well, that’s just a white girl in a 50-year-old Mexican-American’s body, and that’s just a straight girl trying to write a lesbian”? How do I know if I’m writing diversity right? Is having a heroine who is Hispanic and it’s not mentioned until the last page REALLY enough or will you think that I didn’t even try?

    (By the way, I don’t write YA, but the diversity part is relevant.)

    • I pretty much agree with this. I’m always afraid that I’m not “doing it right”. I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true. I don’t know how to walk that line between too little and too much, right and wrong, accurate and stereotypical. It’s really difficult to write diversity without it being “diverse”, you know?

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  3. I love that someone’s speaking out about this. I’m from Puerto Rico and I always feel excited whenever I see puerto ricans featured in a book or story. Afterwards I usually feel disappointed with the author and their character because most of the time the character’s just a mix of stereotypes. Authors should simply stop making being a minority a big deal. If the teenage girl in your story is Hispanic, she’s Hispanic. Done, that’s it. Move on. Want to throw in some Spanish? Fine, but do it right. Let her say an expression or complain in Spanish so no one will understand, don’t make her say hola every time she greets someone. That’s not right, it’s just a poor way of reminding people that she’s Hispanic. Make your character Hispanic, but don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t use stereotypes, write her like a normal teenage girl.