Lisa M. Bradley (cafenowhere) wrote,
Lisa M. Bradley
cafenowhere

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Writing Latin@ Characters Well, Part 8: Putting Out Those Fiery Stereotypes

The purpose of this series is explained here.

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.
Tags: hispanic cultures, hispanics, latin@s, racism, sexism, writing
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