While Cher once proclaimed she was strong enough, it’s alright to admit we may not feel Latinx enough at times, especially in the eyes of others. Whether it’s because our Spanish isn’t good enough, or our salsa dancing isn’t coordinated enough, or our skin isn’t brown/black/white enough, we Latinx people tend to suffer from identity complexes. Mind you, this isn’t necessarily our own natural state, but a neurosis that’s formed over time due to a judgmental society that pigeonholes what a Latinx person is supposed to look and act like. Similar to the way Hollywood stereotypes us as maids and gardeners, in many ways Latinos can be just as hard on one another as well. Since one Latinx person’s experience can vary greatly from another’s, we have to find ways to embrace not only our own unique identity, but every other Latinx person’s as well.
For the Latinx community, our identity is multidimensional and multifaceted. Some define it by our family’s country of origin — being Mexican-American for example. Others prefer to use a pan-ethnic term like Latinx to describe themselves. While others identify with their race, as Afro-Latino; or their sexual orientation, a gay Cuban-American. I consider myself as both a Latina and a Colombian-American. I was born in New York to Colombian parents and no matter how many years I have tried to master my parents’ native tongue, my Spanish is still far from perfect. To South Americans I’m way too American. To North Americans I’m sooo Latin American. Give a girl an identity break, will you? As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
The truth is I have never felt Latina enough around native Latin Americans and even among some U.S.-born Latinos as well. Take my body image for example. My body is not at all like the Colombian bombshell Sofia Vergara’s but more like hers perhaps when she was preadolescent. Not being curvy or good enough in Spanish grammar always made me feel like I wasn’t Latina enough. But then I remember travelling to places in the Southwest in my twenties and meeting people with Hispanic surnames and faces like mine and being shocked that they didn´t know one word of Spanish. They didn´t seem Latino enough to me. And then I realized, I was also guilty of judging other Latinos. It’s a vicious cycle.
Grappling With Identity in the Spotlight
Identity issues are especially hard for artists. Not only will casting directors dismiss you if you are an actress and don’t speak with a thick enough Spanish accent or aren’t “Latino-looking” enough for the role of the narco girlfriend they had in mind, but when you do snag the role your audience of Latinx people will also dismiss you for not representing their particular image of what a Latinx person should be. Remember what happened to Jennifer Lopez when she was cast as Selena? She received backlash from a segment of the Latino community for being the wrong kind of Latina to play the slain Tejano singer. This points to how far we still have to go in understanding the true nature of diversity of expression in the arts and in real life. We need to accept the fact that a Latinx actor can fulfill a role even if it has not been their particular experience and that a writer doesn’t have to write about Latino characters either to be Latino enough.
Take for example Matthew Lopez, the gay Puerto Rican playwright of the award-winning Broadway show “The Inheritance,” who has been criticized for a lack of diversity in the central cast of his play. For Lopez, who chose to write about gay culture in the wake of the AIDS crisis, he believes that by simply writing honestly about his experience as a gay man, he has contributed one more example of what it means to be a Puerto Rican man in the United States.
Unfortunately, many don’t see it that way and think he should have written and cast a Latino in the main role. In an attempt to defend himself he wrote in The New York Times: “And while I examine race in ‘The Inheritance,’ it is not one of its central themes. This is a decision for which I have been criticized, but it is a decision that I made consciously as a person of color. It is a consideration that is not asked of white writers, but it is one that writers of color must face with every project we begin.” For Lopez, the virtue of the fact that he, a gay Puerto Rican, wrote, “The Inheritance” is a reflection of a Latinx perspective. His unique perspective. Meanwhile, in the final weeks of his show’s run, he celebrated on social media Bradley Tejada’s opportunity to take the stage as Adam/Leo, so it’s crazy to feel that he isn’t excited to support Latinx actors through his work.
When it comes to Latinx actors, they can all cry you a river of hellish moments of Latinx identity. In her TED Talk, the Honduran-American actress America Ferrera, describes a highly self-conscious moment when she was urged by casting directors to “sound Latina” during one audition: “Well, I am a Latina,” she insists, “so isn’t this what a Latina sounds like?” Ferrera realized that they wanted her to speak in broken English and that she couldn’t change what a system believed about her. But she chose not to believe the system’s beliefs and to be comfortable in her own skin.
Gina Torres, the Afro-Latina who currently stars as a lawyer in the Suits spin-off series, Pearson, has long been vocal about how Eurocentric the representation of Latinidad in Latino culture is. “When I became an actress, I quickly realized that ‘the world’ liked their Latinas to look Italian and not like me,” she says in the NBCUniverso’s documentary Black and Latino. Casting directors continuously passed on her for Latinx roles because they thought she didn´t look Latina enough. Luckily, Torres knew who she was, stating in a Latina interview: “I’m Cuban American,” but it’s the film industry that needed to “figure it out and catch up.”
Not one piece of art or representation from our complex community will ever tell everyone’s unique story. That’s why we need so many more Latinx narratives in the arts and in the media — even ones that are unfamiliar to us or maybe even have us questioning its Latinidad — to educate everyone about our rich and sprawling dimensions of identity.