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.
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/c
- Flavor of the Day:Dunkin Donuts Original Blend
- Mood: relieved
If you're interested in any of the books listed below, leave a comment or contact me via email: cafenowhere at gmail. Many I bought secondhand or picked up at library sales, but they should be in good shape. All are paperback unless otherwise noted. Anything left over will be donated to a good cause. If it seems worthwhile, I'll make another post when I've culled my nonfiction shelves.
UPDATE: WOW! You guys have made a good-sized dent in my To-Go pile. Thanks very much. I have edited the post so it's easier to see what's left.
Jago by Kim Newman, hardcover library discard
Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice, hardcover
Ender's Game by OSC
City of the Beast, or Warriors of Mars (DAW 1975) by Michael Moorcock
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow, hardcover library discard
Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
From the Corner of his Eye by Dean Koontz
Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
Sula by Toni Morrison
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
Daughter of Troy by Sarah Franklin, library discard
Anabasis by Ellen Gilchrist, hardcover library discard
Don't Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities, ed Victoria Law & China Martens
Acts of Contortion (poetry collection) by Anna George Meek
Feel free to spread the word.
- Mood: busy
I'm wearing my wrist braces most nights, and often during the day, too. Because of wrists and depression and a trial membership of Amazon Prime, I've been watching way too much tv. I finally got to see the first season of Vikings. I'm most of the way through season 1 of Copper. I'm zooming through Parks and Recreation. I watched season 4 of Justified and season 5 of Sons of Anarchy. I tried Lost Girl. I've been rewatching season 2 Buffy. ALL THE TV GIVE IT TO MEEEEE!
I've roused myself from my self-pity enough to pick up another book to read, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
Writing time is devoted mostly to the next novel, with occasional breaks to work on a short story for a Secret Thing or to provide extras for recent or upcoming poetry publications. I hope to get back on track soon with the Writing Latin@ Characters Well series, but we shall see.
How's everybody else doing? It'd do me good to focus on somebody else for a change.
- Mood: okay
I've had some improvement in my hands and arms. I'm tweeting a little more, but I'm trying to save my spoons for writing work. So no Facebook, no Tumblr, and reading-not-posting/commenting on LJ. Responses to emails and DMs will probably be slow. But I continue to cheer you all on from afar!
Have an excellent weekend!
By far the most prevalent Latino stereotype I see in fiction and movies is the gangbanger. I don't even know what to do with that. Can we just call a moratorium on writing Latino gang members?
If you write crime fic, if you've researched real gangs and their methods of operation, if you portray a range of Latin@ characters—individuals versus groups, I might give you a pass. Under those circumstances, you're less likely to mistake fashion (or camouflage) for a uniform, or confuse safety-in-numbers for gangs. For example, in INK by Sabrina Vourvoulias, anti-immigrant legislation has essentially criminalized the existence of most non-whites in the near-future US. Vourvoulias portrays a range of covert communities, including Latino gangs. Although not POV characters, the gang leaders Toño and Neto are portrayed sympathetically and distinctly.
Richard Kadrey veers from the gangbanger stereotype in Sandman Slim with his portrayal of Carlos, the owner of the Bamboo House of Dolls, "LA's greatest and only punk-tiki bar." Carlos has a physique that suggests ex-football player or boxer, but he has an aversion to guns. Carlos admits he did time for boosting cars as a kid, but he seems to have been on the straight and narrow since. He asks the main character to deal with the skinheads demanding protection money from him. It's refreshing that he doesn't have recourse to friends or relatives who are gang members.
When writing about different eras, take care not to fall into the gang member stereotype under another guise. For example, if your story is set in 1940s California, think twice about making your sole Latino character a gangster in a zoot suit. Likewise, don't assume futuristic drug cartels will use the same distribution pathways used now, or that a drug kingpin must always be brown.
The flipside of the Latino gang member is the Latino cop or military guy. With a backstory of struggling against the evil influences of drugs and gangs, the Latino cop or soldier represents the "good" minority who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and seeks to help his community. Grimm just featured one of these guys in its "El Cucuy" episode. Most representations of these "good guy" Latinos, especially the military types, ignore the social realities that guide Latinos into those careers, nor do they question the morality of police or military work.
"Jorge Mariscal, Ph.D., director of Chicano/a studies and professor of literature at University of California San Diego, has researched Latinos in the military and says that there are three basic reasons Latinos join–the lack of opportunities to pursue other careers since education is being priced out for many working class people, a tradition of military service in many families, and the appealing masculinity attached to serving. He points out that the highest percentage of Latinos is in the Marine Corps, which is often considered 'the baddest gang in the world.'" [emphasis mine; source]
From the same source: "the army intentionally uses Latino recruiters in Latino areas, and…to get families on board, recruiters often make home visits, which is very rare in the recruitment of other nationalities."
Agent Carlos Delacruz in Daniel Jose Older's Salsa Nocturna is a welcome departure from typical Latino cops. In fact, when reading Carlos's stories, one realizes how rare it is to hear a Latino tell his own story, cop or otherwise. Although definitely one of the good guys, Carlos is matter-of-fact about his bosses not being awesome. We get an insider's view of the racism and power politics involved in the supernatural equivalent of the NYPD.
Private First Class Vasquez in ALIENS is memorable largely because she's a genderswap of the stereotypically macho Marine. But the critique of military force in ALIENS is important, too. And though Vasquez falls on the wrong side of that critique, she is shown dealing with sexism and mourning the death of one of her comrades. So she rises above the usual Latin@ (and action-hero) caricatures.
Latinos are often portrayed as lazy. This folds into the gangbanger stereotype, as the typical gang member is shown holding up a wall until called upon to fight or commit some crime. Ironically, in the double-think common to prejudice, alongside the cartoon Mexican who sleeps under a sombrero against a cactus (because I guess we don't feel pain like white folks?), we often have the martyred migrant farmworker. Cowardly, powerless, and/or ignorant, the downtrodden farmworkers need a charismatic savior to advocate for and organize them. (Mulder and Scully showed up to investigate once, because chupacabras, but the agents did nothing for the workers' living conditions.)
Cesar Chavez notwithstanding (incidentally, did you know he served in the Navy?), the charismatic labor leader story is a version of the "Great Man" theory of history. As such, it ignores the fact that Latin@s, Mexicans especially, have a long history of union and anarchist organization. Por ejemplo. It would be exciting to see stories that convey an understanding of Latin@ union history, or that portray Latin@ farm owners and their employees, whether those farms operate in the US or elsewhere, past present or future.
Terraforming is common in space opera, yet we don't often see Latin@ characters engaged in that work. Agriculture will be crucial to human survival on other planets, but too often, once ag work achieves that level of sophistication or becomes high-stakes, writers whitewash the workers.
On a slightly different note, the tv show Revolution caught my eye when it introduced Mexican day laborers, with a twist. In Revolution's post-techno-apocalypse, Americans clamor for the opportunity to do physical labor in Mexico. The white protags, who are searching for a family member in Mexico, pose as day laborers to get across the border. Unfortunately, we never see the labor reversal truly developed. Once chosen for farm work and smuggled across the border, the white protags hijack the wagon and head off in a different direction, quickly running afoul of—wait for it!--a Mexican gang.
I said I wasn't going to focus on the negative, but I'll harp on Revolution's misstep a bit longer, because I think it's emblematic of spec fic's failures. For this storyline, the writers had already broken with status quo by reversing the day-laborer scenario. They'd already done some world-building regarding US-Mexican relations. But the show failed to commit to its own innovation. Revolution needed conflict between the American and Mexican characters, and it resorted to an old standby, rather than using something that likely already existed in its nascent world-building.
If we truly want more diversity in spec fic, we need to go beyond the gesture or flourish. We need to commit.
- Mood: busy
- Music:"Poison Trees," Devil Makes Three
Also, for new readers who might appreciate an updated bibliography, here are links to the three poems I had published in 2013. I'll add these to the biblio section of my user profile page, too.
embedded, Stone Telling 9 (includes audio of me reading the poem)
Riveted, Flying Higher: An Anthology of Superhero Poetry, ed. Shira Lipkin and Michael D. Thomas
Hello Kitty, Hello Blood, Lakeside Circus 1
- Flavor of the Day:Panera Light Roast
- Mood: busy
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.
- Mood: thoughtful
Last night, over candlelit dinner, Tweetie suggested we end the evening with a Christmas movie. Since Fast and Furious 6 just became available for rent, we proposed that.
"How is that a Christmas movie?" she asked me.
"Because Vin Diesel and his body are a gift to all of humanity," I said.
She looked at me like I'd drunk more wine than she'd realized.
JJ said, "Because it has car chases and explosions and what could be more festive than that?"
Tweetie kindly said, "Well, because it's Christmas and it will make you two happy, we can watch it. But I may not pay much attention."
After the first big chase scene, Tweetie, who was curled up against me said, "I can't believe I'm actually watching this."
"It's good, right?" I said.
"Yeah," she said, sounding surprised.
About midway through the movie, I noticed her eyelids drooping and asked if she wanted to go to bed or stay up and watch the whole movie.
"Whole movie," she said, too tired for complete sentences.
And she did watch the whole thing.
- Flavor of the Day:Starbucks Willow Blend
- Mood: happy
- My poem "Hello Kitty, Hello Blood" is now live at Lakeside Circus. Read it and if you like it, "Like" it, vote for it, tweet it, share it.
- I sold another very uplifting poem, about a town drowning in rain and disease, but the ToC for that publication hasn't been announced yet. So, more details when it's official!
- My series "Writing Latin@ Characters Well" will be on holiday hiatus next week, possibly longer. Future topics I'm pondering: mental health issues among Latin@ communities; entertainment; social media usage; literary legacies; intra- versus inter-group conversations.
- Bogi Takács has compiled a list of diverse editors of speculative fiction and poetry. I find this list functions as an excellent reminder of who might be interested in my work when I'm sending out subs, who might be facilitating works with themes of interest to me when I need to refuel with good art, and who I might support on those rare days when I have extra bucks burning a hole in my paypal account.
- I could've sworn I had more to say, but then I got caught in a twitter war about violence in Juarez, Mexico, and the frustration wiped my mind.
- Oh yes, I will not be sending holiday cards this year, because my RSI is flaring up. Also, the end of the year always requires more spoons than I have. But if you're reading this, I wish you a wonderful holiday and a bright, beautiful new year.
Skimming cookbooks, visiting new-to-you grocers, and sampling cuisines can be fun forms of research. Just remember to be respectful when entering someone else's space. Feel free to ask questions, but don't expect people to disregard regular customers or business to indulge your curiosity or hold your hand. For all they know, you're a one-time gawker.
The Mexican food I associate with winter, and Christmas more specifically, is tamales. I vividly remember the one Christmas our family made tamales from scratch. It was women's work and there was much laughter and gossip and excitement at passing down the tradition. There was also a lot of muscle power involved, as my rail-thin great-aunt cranked the meat grinder to make the filling. I suspect one reason tamales are a holiday food is precisely because it can take a village. There's so much work, it's more fun as an assembly line. Also, with all the people in the kitchen and the steaming going on, it gets really warm, even in a poorly insulated house in the middle of winter. Tamales can be sweet or savory, but I never had sweet until I moved away from home. It just wasn't something we did, and I don't know if that was cultural or family-specific. I like this recipe/historiography about tamales.
My husband reminisces about Las Posadas at his aunt's house. In her community, folks would recreate the procession of Mary and Joseph in search of shelter for the night. At each home, the occupants would turn "Mary and Joseph" away, then join the procession until the entire neighborhood showed up at the aunt's house, where they were all welcomed and a celebration ensued. Obviously, the event took days of preparation, and part of that preparation was the slaughtering of a pig. My husband says that this was also very gender-divided work, with the boys and men expected to stay outside and do (or watch) the killing and the females inside doing the cooking. My husband hated that tradition.
The gendered roles in traditional cooking can be quite problematic, with their normative assumptions about what a man or woman should do/like/be. Alberto Yáñez's short story "Recognizing Gabe" acknowledges how difficult such divisions can be for transgender people, in particular.
Something my husband and I can hate in common is menudo. Since it's a hot soup, it's generally a winter time food. I remember families going home from high-school football games (VERY big in South Texas) and delighting in the prospect of warming up with the menudo waiting for them at home. J and I are not fans of eating organs in general, and there's a distinct smell to tripe that neither of us can get past.
Something that's much easier to love is Mexican hot chocolate, which has more spice (cinnamon) to it than regular hot cocoa. We grew up with the Abuelita brand.
Even if your story does not involve a holiday, food details can enrich the characters and setting. For example, our household eats a lot of Mexican food. It's our comfort food. When I'm feeling sad, I often want beans and rice and enchiladas. (If we go out to eat and I'm feeling fragile, chances are I'll choose the neighborhood Mexican place, because no one will look at me "that way.") Our family's too-tired-to-think go-to meals are Mexican or Mexican-inspired: chilaquiles, burritos, tacos, nachos, quesadillas, black bean and tofu scramble. Our special treats include black bean soup, maranitos, sweet empanadas, botanas, and tamales. And meals that wouldn't ordinarily be considered Mexican become so in our household, because we use cumin, garlic, onion, and chili powder the way other families use oregano and basil or fennel and marjoram.
Contrary to most fast-food versions of Mexican food, our homemade food is not smothered in cheese or sour cream. Using ALL THE CHEESE is not authentic. Besides, my daughter and I are lactose sensitive (as is most of my side of the family). It's unclear how prevalent lactose intolerance is among Latin@s. At least 10% of Latin@s self-report as lactose intolerant, whereas some studies predict 50-80% are lactose intolerant. In any case, I make our cocoa with soy milk.
Of course, my extended family might argue that some of my food doesn't "count" as Mexican. When my aunt found out we intended to raise our daughter vegetarian (we didn't, but that's another story), supposedly she said, "But then she'll never taste fajitas!" Apparently mushroom and veggie fajitas don't count? Likewise, TVP burritos, soy-rizo, and Quorn tacos would be oh-so-wrong. This kind of conflict can be useful for storytelling. Cooking disputes can reflect conflicting values, or generational differences. Your Latin@ character might roll their eyes at someone else's food choices, or they might welcome the variety at a potluck or family function.
You can convey a lot about a character by showing how they react to new foods. For example, I became much more interested in trying different cuisines when I realized most cultures have a tortilla correlate or proxy. There's fry bread and pita and na'an and the pancakes in mu shu pancakes and crepes. However similar to or different from those foods tortillas actually are, that's what I compare them to, because that's what I know. Likewise, when I encounter a pupusa, I think it's like a gordita, whereas someone else might think, oh a pasty! So get inside your Latin@ character's head and figure out what their foods are and what they're going to be comparing everything else to.
On the other hand, just as some people are "meat and potato" folks, with no interest in experimenting, some people are "rice and beans" folks and anything outside their traditional meals is viewed with suspicion or dread. And, of course, just because your character is Latin@ doesn't mean they can or want to cook (or eat) traditional foods—they might be into South Indian cuisine or really love sushi or crave wasabi peas. If they hate okra, they probably hate nopales, too, because both can get slimy if not prepared properly.
Other matters to consider regarding your Latin@ character and their relationship to food.
Latin@s are not immune to eating disorders. (see also) Research has shown that Latinas have higher rates of binge eating than other groups. Adolescent Latinas, in particular, may have the highest rates of dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviors. (The trend seems to be that the more assimilated one gets, the greater the likelihood of having an eating disorder.) And yet, I can't think of one story I've read in which the person with an eating disorder was Latina.
If allergies and sensitivities are underdiagnosed among the general population, they are usually even more so among minority populations, who are understudied and for whom traditional diagnostic rubrics may not work. I already mentioned the uncertainty regarding lactose sensitivity in Latin@ populations. The incidence of celiac disease among black, Latin@, and Asian Americans is estimated to be 1 in 236. But there doesn't seem to be enough research among the individual minority groups, so take that stat with a salt lick.
About 12% of Latin@s have diabetes, which is a rate 66% higher than the non-Hispanic white population. Among the Latin@ population, the incidence rates seem to be highest for Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Adjusting to a new diet is hard even when you have plenty of resources and support, but imagine what it's like for recent immigrants, who may not be able to find or afford products that are both healthy and nurturing in their familiarity.
Add these food realities to whatever SFnal premise your characters face, and those characters become more complicated, three-dimensional. A great example is Gordo, in Daniel José Older's "Salsa Nocturna", who takes his high-blood pressure medication every morning with a side of bacon or sausage, for balance. If I hadn't loved Gordo from paragraph one, then this admission of his in paragraph two would've completely won me over.
- Flavor of the Day:Dunkin Donuts Gingerbread Cookie
- Mood: hungry
I was in first grade when we moved back to the Valley. This was the 1980s. Everyone spoke Spanish but the schools fought a losing battle of "English-only!" In elementary school, children were shamed, scolded, and spanked for speaking Spanish. I was very invested in being a Good Student, so I quickly got with the program. I resisted my grandparents' efforts to teach me Spanish at home, because Spanish was for illiterate hooligans who'd never amount to anything.
This is what racism does: vilifies all things native, turns the child against her family, uses lateral violence to eradicate the culture. Schools are still trying to smash down native languages. Just last week I read about a principal in Hempstead, TX, who tried to make her middle school English-only. Fortunately, enough students and their families were outraged that the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund got involved. Last year in Wisconsin, a Menominee girl was suspended from her school's basketball team because she had been speaking Menominee in class.
If you're writing a Latin@ character, think about where and when they grew up, and how authority responded to their native language. Was Spanish encouraged, nurtured, privileged, or was it scorned and silenced, or was it fused with other languages, and if so, to what benefit and disadvantages of the character? Is your character a native speaker or a heritage speaker? Are they fluent or working with incomplete acquisition?
Immersed as I was in the language, I learned Spanish rather against my will. I am a heritage speaker with woefully incomplete acquisition. My elders spoke Spanish to me, and I'd reply in English. We mostly understood each other, but were sheepish enough about our respective accents not to push the convos into one language or the other. (To this day, my mother-in-law speaks to me in Spanish and I reply in English.) Oddly enough, I could read in Spanish, unlike many of my Spanish-speaking friends.
When I moved to Iowa, I seized the opportunity to take Spanish classes where no one could judge my atrocious accent. And I realized something:
There are many Spanishes, just as there are many Englishes. And each variant is legitimate and fruitful.
If you wish to write a convincing Latin@ character, you need to know what form of Spanish they speak. Textbook Spanish will only get you so far. For example, in Spanish there are five forms of "you" (intimate singular, formal singular, intimate plural, formal plural, etc). Not all Hispanics use all forms. For example, Mexicans do not use the vos/vosotros forms but the tú/usted/ustedes forms.
Then there are dialects. I grew up hearing the word rentar, meaning to rent/lease something, used all the time. In "proper" Spanish, the term is alquilar. My college teachers had no experience with Texican Spanglish, but fortunately they didn't try to "fix" what I'd inherited, only offered the textbook versions as a better way to communicate with my classmates.
Things get further complicated in translation. Pan dulce can be literally translated as "sweet bread", but "sweet breads" are something VERY different in English.
As in English, there are different registers for different degrees of formality. One speaks differently with one's childhood friends than with one's parents, and differently yet with one's boss or a state representative. This is code-switching.
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of code-switching is knowing how and when to use slang. My college instructors were sometimes horrified by my slang, which they found lowbrow and "rough." Native speakers are often inured to the literal meaning of words and underestimate their shock value. For example, English seems violent to me, with admonitions to "hit this key" or "kill the program" or "axe this section." Likewise, my casual "chinga this" and "chinga that" might startle folks who have to look up the term. If I were speaking to my child's teacher in Spanish, I'd definitely scale back the slang and avoid cursing.
Just as one finds different slang in different regions of the States, different Hispanic groups have distinct forms of slang. On tumblr, a reader reblogged a link to my first installment of this series and added, "If I read a book and you tell me the character is Puerto Rican, I’m gonna get excited cause fuck yea, Boriken baby! But if said character is clearly using Mexican words/slang, I’m done with you. Think of it as writing a British character but instead if using British slang, you use American cause you can’t bothered to learn the difference."
I do think there are times when an author can choose to mix things up—for example, when depicting mixed-heritage characters or communities. But such conflations must be conscious decisions, even in a speculative fiction context. When I was worldbuilding for my novels set in the fictional bordertown of Exile, I decided that my foul-mouthed but sympathetic Spanish-speaking characters would not rely on sexist or homophobic insults. This meant I had to depart from the standard cussing I heard in my childhood. After researching different regions' uses of profanity, I chose some creative turns of phrase more common to Spain than Mexico. I'm prepared for readers to question that choice.
Something harder for me to explain is how one's accent may change to suit register. There's a…sing-songy quality that I slip into when speaking with my Spanish-speaking family. Even if I'm speaking in English, the cadence of my speech will change to mimic the rhythms of our Spanish. This rhythm tends to be overdone on tv. Shows that don't normally feature Spanish-speakers caricaturize the accents—how many times have you heard that guttural "ese" to indicate Latinidad? I've heard the sing-iness badly done on The Walking Dead and X-Files and (sometimes) Sons of Anarchy. I've heard it well done on Grimm. I don't have any tips for reproducing the musicality of Latin@ accents to the page. I suspect if you're fluent, it comes naturally, and if you're not, you shouldn't try it.
If you don't speak Spanish and your characters do, you absolutely need a fluent Spanish speaker to beta read your story. What's more, you need a reader familiar with your character's particular dialect. If you don't have a real person who can do this for you, you are not equipped to write the story.
Yes, there are tools like Google translate. I use that one a lot. But I use it as a reverse look-up. As a heritage speaker, I already know more or less what I want and I'm merely checking the spelling or verifying conjugation. I recognize my characters' dialect, so I know which options to use. I also rely on my husband, who speaks better Spanish than I do, and we will ask our native speaker relatives when we're in doubt. Moreover, I mostly write contemporary characters who talk like I do or like people I heard when I was growing up.
If I were writing something historical, I'd rely more on book research (primary resources) to approximate the language of the time period. Geographical and class differences aside, Porfirio Diaz spoke different Spanish than Frida Kahlo, who spoke different Spanish than Enrique Peña Nieto, the current Mexican president. I'd want a native speaker to review my manuscript because, even if they weren't an expert in the time period I was writing about, they'd be better attuned to anachronisms than I am. If I were writing something futuristic, I'd want to discuss my ideas about language progression and fusion possibilities with native speakers.
As for rendering the words on the page, I tend not to use italics when my characters talk or think in Spanish. The general rule has been that we italicize foreign words. A word is no longer considered foreign if you can find it in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary.
But more important, Spanish is not a foreign language to me or my characters, so italics bring undue attention to everyday words. I end up emphasizing the words when they should be part of the flow. If it's an unusual word to me, or could be confused with an English word spelled the same way, then I'll make an exception and use italics. There's a good two-part exploration of this question at the Ploughshares blog.
Likewise, I don't translate the Spanish words I choose to use, especially not in dialog. We only use that sort of repetition when we're consciously trying to accommodate for language differences, as when we're teaching a child a new language. I am trying to depict, authentically, my characters. I'm not teaching Spanish. When I was growing up, I read plenty of books with French, Latin, and Greek sprinkled throughout the text, with the unwritten understanding that an educated person would know multiple languages or be able to figure it out.
Readers don't need to be spoonfed. If a non-Spanish-speaking reader can't cope with a little ambiguity, they can look up the unfamiliar phrase. It's easier than ever. Besides, it won't hurt them to have a fleeting awareness of what it's like to be on the outside, listening in.
- Flavor of the Day:Dunkin Donuts Gingerbread Cookie
- Mood: hopeful
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?Collapse )
Edited to make LJ cut more obvious, 12/2/2013 5:05 pm CST
- Flavor of the Day:Starbucks Willow Blend
- Mood: busy
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.
- Mood: tired
The kids were arranged in small groups and told to imagine themselves as pilgrims on the Mayflower. They were supposed to decide on a form of government for themselves, and they were given several options: monarchy, a council of five wise men, voting by all adults, voting by all adult men, voting by all pilgrims age 10 and up. Tweetie thought everyone over the age of 10 should get a say. All the other children in her group insisted on replicating the historical sequence of events and chose voting by the men. Tweetie tried to explain that life expectancies were different back then and 10 yr olds had a lot of responsibilities and so they should get to vote, too. (Interestingly, she doesn't seem to have made the feminist argument. If she could just get them to let in the kids, the sexism would be moot.) Her group said, NOPE NOPE NOPE. Apparently, "debate" got pretty heated and the teacher had to intervene to explain that everyone's opinion was valid but majority ruled. (The irony!)
The next stage of the lesson was for two small groups to meet and negotiate on a common form of government, and there Tweetie found some other students who thought her way and she felt better. Because, I suspect, regardless of what the larger group decided, she and those other renegades were going to break off and do their own thing.
Listening to the teacher's account, I tried not to smile too broadly. My little anarchist... Once at home, we did discuss temporary truces and other negotiation tactics, but I'm not concerned. My daughter is strong-willed and principled, traits that would be lauded and rewarded if she were male. She already knows how to go along to get along. Withstanding peer pressure (and scorn) will be a more valuable skill in the years to come.
- Mood:proud mama
- Music:MLP marathon