1. My dad is Latino and my mom is White, so that makes me both of those things.
2. I got my dad’s facial features and my mom’s skin tone, more or less.
3. My best friend in middle school called me “Spicky” in reference to my being Latino, though he eventually changed it to “Jose” because it was slightly (not at all) less offensive. And while I protested this nickname, I never really went out of my way to make it stop.
4. I have been told much more than a handful of times that I can “totally pass as a white person.”
5. People will ask if I speak Spanish, as if that is a requirement to be Latino. All. The. Time.
6. With a few publications under my belt, a degree in writing, and enrollment in an MFA program, I feel comfortable calling myself a writer.
So let’s talk about why I am not a Latino writer.
Maybe we should look at what makes a Latino writer. Being of Latino (or Hispanic [because I don’t want to play this game right now. I am going to use Latino, since it’s the term I describe myself as]) decent and writing seem to be the two big points. However, there is no set and clear definition. But, looking at lists (like this one from HuffPo that says “Latinos and Writing are a couple made in heaven” whatever the fuck that means) of Latino writers, you start to get a clearer picture of what people are talking about. Spanish speakers who drop the language into their books, who talk about Latin neighborhoods or countries. Authors who have their characters’ lives intertwined with their heritage.
So now we can talk about why I don’t count.
Most of my friends are white (that is a topic for another day). Most (all?) of the people in my MFA program are white. And so whenever the topic of race comes up, it’s not unusual for me to hear “I don’t think it should matter anyway. We’re all just people,” which is a very white thing to say. And sometimes I’ll say things like the above, but usually, I don’t say anything. Because what, like I experience discrimination all the time? If I didn’t tell people I was brown, they would never know. So I keep my mouth shut, letting people think that yes, race doesn’t matter, and we’re all just people.
But then the writing happens. And in the writing, the characters are all white, unless they are not.
I want to say that again, because the way I am saying this is important:
The characters are all white, unless they are not.
Buzzfeed (which I hate with a passion of a thousand suns) recently ran a list of examples of white characters being described like characters of color. Mostly food related, which I’m guilty of myself (I recently described characters’ skin using different types of wood). But the problem isn’t the café con leche legs of a Cuban dancer. The problem is characters named Emily are assumed white unless otherwise shown with their milk chocolate complexion or speaking Spanish. Throw in Ignacio or Enrique, and people get it. But what color is Alex? What color is Jerry? Kim? Kelly?
The problem isn’t in authors needing to describe a character’s background better. The problem is the way we read. I write characters like myself. In my head, I see mixed race, ethnically ambiguous, sometimes queer sometimes not, depressed or manic, high or sober characters. But sometimes, usually, most times those descriptions don’t help drive the narrative. They don’t add anything to the context of the story that I am telling. And so those details get cut in favor of more gesture, or another, more useful descriptor. And in doing so, they lose their identity and become another white person falling in love.
And so, I come to a crossroads. Do I make an effort to bring more identity to my characters? Do I give them full names so that they can be Alex Gonzales? Emily Villanueva? Do I talk at length about upbringings in a mixed household, about eating pasteles on Thanksgiving? Or do I keep on doing what I’m doing, hoping that at some point the whiteness of my characters isn’t something that I think about?
And this makes me not a Latino writer. I am Latino. I am a writer. But I don’t write about being Latino. I don’t write characters that are specifically, outwardly, openly Latino. I am in the Latino closet because fiction has taught me that if it’s not important, keep it inside. Let your characters pass for white. People like that, people like white. I am not Junot Diaz. I am not Jorge Luis Borges. I don’t have a firsthand look at my own heritage. I write love stories with people in them that might be white. I don’t have my Latino characters speak Spanish or make tostones to prove their browness. And that, as banal as it seems, strips part of my life away from me. It takes the Latino-ness that I identify with, that I try to connect to on a personal level, and makes it feel like it is evaporating. And all because a white person in Duluth might think my characters are as white as they are.
I don’t have any answers. I never do. I just want my characters to not have to feel like I do. Like a failure to their ethnicity.