If you've chosen to write a Latin@ character, what do they look like? And how do you write about what they look like?
There's a huge range of skin tones, eye and hair color, and facial features among Latin@s. I'll be using film stars and celebrities as examples, because they're easy to google.
Your character may be rubio/a (rubi@, blond), like Anita Page, Cameron Diaz, or David Gallagher.
Your character could be a pelliroj@ (redhead), like Joanna Garcia Swisher, Rita Hayworth, or Louis C.K.
Your character could be dark-haired (moren@), with skin fair enough to pass for white. Look at Alexis Bledel, Freddie Prinze Jr, Frankie Muniz, and Laura Harring.
Or your character could be moren@ and vaguely "ethnic" looking. If they were in a movie, they might be cast as a number of ethnicities, a la Morena Baccarin, Jordana Brewster, Charisma Carpenter, and Aubrey Plaza.
Your character could be "obviously" Latin@, like Penelope Cruz, Michelle Rodriguez, Benjamin Bratt, John Leguizamo, Antonio Banderas, Sofia Vergara, or Salma Hayek.
If your character is Afro-Latin@, they might resemble Celia Cruz, Zoe Saldana, Gina Torres, Tatyana Ali, J August Richards, or Tyson Beckford.
Vanessa Hudgens, Kelis, Bruno Mars, or Enrique Iglesias could provide the model for your Asian-Latin@ character.
Keep in mind that there are variations within all families. So your main character might be darker or lighter skinned than their parents, or inherit blue eyes whereas their siblings all got brown, or be stocky like their mother's side whereas Dad's people are willowy.
Don't assume these physical differences define their relationships, but don't pretend there aren't consequences, either. I dreaded being mistaken for my daughter's Mexican nanny, but apparently it could've been much worse. I was horrified but not surprised when blond Roma children were taken from their families in Ireland. And if lighter-skinned siblings are treated better than their darker-skinned siblings, whether by family or outsiders, imagine how fraught regular sibling rivalries can become.
As a reader, I want to see more diversity in the physical appearance of Latin@ characters, because (1) that would reflect reality, and (2) when writing brown characters, unskilled writers often slip into stereotypes. Maybe writing a blue-eyed Latino would help those writers resist the temptation to make that character a drug dealer or uneducated thug. (Don't get me wrong, I love thugs. But the ratio of Latin@ thugs to, say, Latin@ biology teachers is disturbing.)
On the other hand, I really need to see more characters who look like me—short, with brown skin, brown hair, brown eyes. It's not just white folks who want to erase darker Latin@s. This year's Little Miss Hispanic Delaware was dethroned first because she was "not the best representative of Latino beauty"—maybe because she's *gasp* black?—and then because she could not provide documentation to prove her Latinidad, which no one else ever had to provide before. The replacement Little Miss is blond.
Even Latin@ media whitewashes Latin@s. It's not my imagination that most covers of People en Espanol feature light-skinned Latin@s. Latina magazine is better but their covers still skew to the lighter shades. Turn on TeleMundo or Univision, look at their anchors. Earlier this year, a Mexican airline's ad agency sent out a typically racist but unusually blunt casting call that said "nadie moreno." Colorism is persistent and pernicious within our community.
So give me more dark-skinned Latin@s and Afro-Latin@s in fiction, and make more of them biology profs and pastry chefs and UN interpreters. Let's keep the thug ratio in check, shall we?
When writing physical descriptions of Latin@ characters, there's nothing wrong with saying outright that they have brown or black skin. I find that preferable to paint-chip precision or comparisons to consumables and natural resources. After all, there's a difference between noticing and fixating on (or fetishizing) skin color. Once you start deliberating over whether the character has café-au-lait skin or is more caramel—both clichés—you need to ask yourself why pinpointing the exact skin color matters so damn much, and if it matters to the story or to you.
Also note: I often refer to myself as a brown woman, but I am not a Brown woman. And frankly, when I say someone is brown, that's different from when a white person says it. Which is why I prefer to read that a person has brown skin. I don't want to have to do a background check before reading to determine whether the author is in-group or out, though it often becomes clear within a few pages.
"Color-blind" writing is a copout. (Do I even have to say this?) Reading protocols forced on us from childhood insist that white is the "natural, unmarked" state, so if an author declines to specify that a character is a PoC, we assume the character is white. That's not the reader's fault. You can't subvert the paradigm by hiding behind it. You can, however, mess with protocol by occasionally pointing out that the white characters are white. I like to do that. In my novel, the first time I describe my character Sweeney, I call him "a slightly grimy white guy." (He gets better defined over time, as the narrator gets to know him.)
Reversing the paradigm is instructive for us as writers, too. You'd probably feel silly lingering over a white man's "peaches n cream" complexion, or trying to decide if the heroine's skin is like skim milk or whole milk or soymilk, so why rely on those techniques for characters of color?
Start simply. You don't have to spell out a character's entire ancestry on the first pass, or the second, or ever. You don't do that for white characters. You will always know more about your character than can be conveyed on the page. The key is to pick the most valuable details to share with the reader, and there's oh-so-much more to a good physical description than skin color.
Use eye color or eyebrow shape. Refer to hair styles and fashion. Note stature, assistive devices, tics, just as you would with white characters. "Jordan was a preppy Latina with red hair." "Marcos painted his nails black and a strip of his black hair blue." "Over the years, Izzy's tattoos had spread and gone green, like generous patina on a bronze statue." "Standing in Abuela's immense shadow, holding her molcajete-calloused hand, made me feel safer."
Remember: Latinidad cannot be boiled down to physical appearance. That's why passing, which I'll discuss in the next installment, is vastly more complicated than how fair one's skin is. I recognize fellow Latin@s by accent, syntax, cadence, gestures, cultural references and a multitude of other markers. Use these same cues on the page and your character becomes someone the reader can believe in.