Where are you from?
photo set from jessepumpkin.tumblr.com
I don't watch the tv show Parks and Recreation, but this much-tumblrd exchange between Leslie Knope and Tom Haverford sounds familiar. As a brown-skinned person living in Iowa, I often field similar, if less insistent, questioning. Although I moved here from South Texas, Latin@s have been living in Iowa since the early 1900s, at least. And yet, this history somehow resists becoming common knowledge.
In any case, when a white person asks where I'm from, I know what they're getting at. The subtext is: 1) I look "different" and 2) The way I look, I can't be from "here."
The insistence on locating the Other in some distant, different place has consequences for genre fiction. Some writers don't think they can include Latin@ characters in their stories because such diversity would be unrealistic. "But my story is set in Montana, or a small town in New Hampshire—there are no brown people there!" If that sounds ridiculous out loud, well, at least they're a step ahead of the folks who don't acknowledge that brown people exist, anywhere. Audiences hold similar misconceptions. Apparently, the new tv show Sleepy Hollow (a new favorite of mine) was criticized for having a diverse, and thus "unrealistic", cast.
Speculative fiction allows us to take all sorts of liberties with reality, so if diversity is your sticking point, I feel bad for you, son. But let's clear up some misconceptions.*
Consider this map from the most recent US Census. Remember that renters tend to be undercounted and home owners are overcounted, that "minorities" are undercounted while whites are overcounted, and that there is still a lot of fear and distrust of census takers among some groups. All those caveats aside, the most recent US Census is considered fairly accurate.
There's a Latin@ population in every US state. It might be small, but it's there, and chances are it's concentrated around agriculture or another welcoming industry. After all, few people willingly throw themselves into a new place where they know no one and have no work. Then again, I did just that as a college student, so there are probably also pockets of Latin@s in or around college towns. Cursory looks at Latin@ populations in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin, seem to support this hypothesis.
No matter where in the US or its unnamed doppelganger you set your contemporary spec fic story, you can have Latin@ characters. Perhaps your Latin@s moved to a predominantly white state to work in fields, factories, or meat-packing plants. Frankly, that feels a little stereotypical to me, but on the other hand, I don't see a lot of stories that deal with blue-collar workers and their families, so these characters could generate fresh, exciting, rich stories.
Families grow and spread, so maybe your character's family started out in one of those industries but subsequent generations have branched out. Or, your characters could be college students or faculty, in any number of fields. If college occupations are overrepresented in fiction, at least your character's ethnicity will set them apart.
Even states that appear overwhelmingly white have Latin@ populations, a fact that becomes clearer if you look at maps that highlight population growth.
Several counties in Montana, for example, have experienced 100% or more growth in their Latin@ populations. Technically that could mean a county went from having one lonely Latina to a whopping three Latin@s, but more likely a new family joined friends or relatives in a certain neighborhood, or a factory in the area recruited a bunch of young, unmarried Latin@s from somewhere in Texas (yes, that happens).
Keep in mind that, as the first map suggests, specific groups of Latin@s (like Cuban@s or Guatemalans or Puerto Ricans, etc), are more likely to live in some areas than others. But the census data can't really capture the complexity of our reality. So what it boils down to is, if you're writing contemporary spec fic set in the US or using US characters, there's no demographic reason not to incorporate Latin@s of some kind.
That said, please don't drop a Latin@ into a role previously assigned to a white character with no other alterations. No matter where we are, we have our traditions, our comfort foods, special holidays…a culture, and that culture should seep into the story, if not permeate it.
If you write spec fic set in the future, it makes even more sense to include Latin@s in your story. Look at the population growth map. Also, consider the following stats from the US Census.
By 2043, the US will probably be a majority-minority nation for the first time, meaning no one ethnic or racial group will constitute a majority. Give that a moment to sink in.
So-called minorities will outnumber whites by 2060, making up 57% of the population. The number of people identifying as biracial or multiracial will likely triple by 2060. More specifically, the Latin@ population is projected to more than double. In 2060, almost one in three residents will be Latin@/Hispanic.
Imagine how the faces we see on television will change, not to mention the shows and products sold. Imagine what our Supreme Court will look like, the songs we'll sing to our crying babies, and the scary stories told around our fire pits or chimineas. Think about the aisles of future grocery stores. How will educational philosophies change, or boardroom protocols? Who will our ambassadors be and what will they look like?
Even if your futuristic story isn't set in the US, if you have a lone American character and they're not Latin@ or multiracial, you really need to examine why that's the case. It's not realistic, so is there a reason to erase the diversity?
These projections don't even take us into the next century. If you write further-future stories—whether science fictional or fantastical in nature—you must account for these trends. Population busts and booms have consequences. A record number of Latin@ students in 2060 may mean a proliferation of Latin@ architects and astronauts and CDC spokespeople in the 22nd century. Higher education and the networks it creates become legacies, passed on to subsequent generations and affecting who goes to school where and when.
At some point, there should be a lot of elderly Latin@s—are they in nursing homes, changing the way we think about and accommodate senior citizens, or are they living in multigenerational family homes, or something else still? What kind of health problems do different populations face, and where will research money be going as a consequence? What cures will we be obsessed with finding? What Muzak awaits us in those futuristic waiting rooms?
When writing far-future stories, you must posit why these population trends do or don't extend beyond the 22nd century. And even if the trends do not persist, some artifacts from these times will. After all, we still design buildings after Greek temples and Egyptian pyramids. The US still puts Latin on its currency, uses Arabic numerals, and references ancient Babylonian law in its legal code (code of Hammurabi). It's not a stretch to think we'll see echoes of current Latino culture in a far-future society, American or otherwise.
Don't think you're off the hook if you're writing historical spec fic. In the next installment, I'll talk about Latin@ immigration and some common misconceptions about Latin@ immigrants.
*Although this post focuses on the US, I believe the approach can be useful regardless of where you set your contemporary or futuristic story. Don't rely on "common knowledge" or your own observations about where Latin@s live and work. Do your research. Broaden your horizons—and your story's.