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

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Writing Latin@ Characters Well, Part 9: Banging Down More Stereotypes

Last week I wrote about stereotypes regarding Latinas. This time I'm thinking about the men. It occurs to me that the stereotypes about women revolve around sex and those about men concern work. There's some overlap, of course (the Mexican maid, the Latin lover), but I wonder if the tendency to lump into those two groups reflects USian obsessions or my own observation biases.

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.
Tags: books, hispanic cultures, hispanics, latin@s, movies, speculative fiction, tv, writing
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