Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.50: What Writers Get Wrong, with Zoraida Córdova

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, with special guest Zoraida Córdova

Zoraida Córdova, an award-winning author of urban fantasy, was born in Ecuador and grew up in Queens. She joins us to talk about what writers get wrong (and what they can get right and do well) when portraying latinas in the United States.

Credits: This episode was recorded live at FanX Salt Lake (formerly “Salt Lake Comic-Con”) by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson

Liner Notes: 

  • The comic book Howard referenced is Guardians of Infinity #3, (2016), which features a back-up story entitled “Yo Soy Groot.”
  • Peggy Whitson is the astronaut Mary referenced. As of this writing, she holds the record for longest single spaceflight by an American. 

Homework: A challenge! Find (and read) books written by Ecuadoran authors. Then make one of your own secondary characters be from Ecuador.

Thing of the week: Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Córdova.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: We don’t need just one of something, we need multitudes. Seeing yourself as a caricature all the time hurts at a very basic level. Don’t just throw in random Spanish words, like Abuela. Different Latin countries, different families, have different nicknames for things. Subvert stereotypes, think about how you are going to make your character different. Read 100 books about a culture. Be aware that Hispanic and Latino has a lot of variations and range. The Dominican Republic and Ecuador are very different. Representation in what we create is important, both for the people who have stories about them, and the rest of us to have empathy with them. “Good representation is good craft.”

[Brandon] Hey, guys. Just breaking in here before we start the podcast. This is Brandon, and I have a new story out that I think you might like. Little while ago, Wizards of the Coast came to me and said, “Will you write us something? You can write anything you want in any world that we’ve ever designed.” So I was excited. I sat down and wrote a story called Children of the Nameless which is kind of a horror story-esque thing. It starts off with a blind young woman in a town listening as everyone in her town is murdered by something she can’t see. So, you can find links to that on my website. It’s called Children of the Nameless. Or you can go to Wizards of the,

[Mary] Season 13, Episode 50.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What Writers Get Wrong, with Zoraida Córdova.

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary] I’m Mary. 

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m usually getting it wrong.


[Brandon] We are live at ComicCon Salt Lake City.

[Whoo! Applause.]

[Brandon] We have special guest star, Zoraida Córdova.

[Zoraida] Hi, guys. 


[Brandon] Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

[Zoraida] Thank you for inviting me. I’m really excited.

[Mary] So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? Because one of the things were trying to do is make sure that people know that culture is not a monolith. So what’s your background?

[Zoraida] So I am originally from Ecuador. I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador. I came here, I came to the United… Not here. We moved to New York when I was five. So I’m… I consider myself a… New York made. I am a writer, I write urban fantasy. I love painting, I love Star Wars, I love food. I do speak Spanish, but I don’t… I no longer think in Spanish. That’s a little bit about me.

[Mary] So, out of that stuff, are we gonna talk about Star Wars, are we going to talk about writing? What are we going to talk about?

[Zoraida] A little bit of everything, I guess. Whatever you want.


[Mary] We’re going to talk about being Latina in America?

[Zoraida] Yeah, let’s talk about being Latina in America. I think that, especially right now, it’s a little complicated because I grew up in a very, very diverse neighborhood in Queens, New York. I’m from Hollis. You recognize the song, It’s Christmas Time in Hollis, Queens. I never felt like an outsider really. Because I… Everyone around me was a person of color or… Even if we had like white kids in school, they were like neighborhood kids, right? So I didn’t… I was never aware of my otherness until I got into publishing. Because publishing liked to segregate books and genres for a little while. Like, my first novel went out on submission when I was 18…

[Mary] Oh, wow.

[Zoraida] Actually, 19. It was a quinceañera story, which… quinceañera are 16s, but with more pink and more cake and more family…


[Zoraida] And heels. But we got… It was the same time that Jennifer Lopez was published, like, had published a quinceañera collection, and there were a couple of other quinceañera novels. So our rejections were, “This is really funny, but we already have a Latina book for the season.” I feel like… Nobody says that anymore. They say it… They use more coded language, but it’s almost like… It’s like the Highlander, right? There can only be one of something. Because I as the Latina, in publishing, represent all other Latinos in publishing. That’s wrong. It shouldn’t be that way. We should have multitudes. So that’s… Yeah.


[Howard] I never… I mean, I get some rejections, and they’re never, “We’ve already taken books from bald dudes.”


[Brandon] Right.

[Howard] Never comes up.

[Dan] We filled our white guy quota for the season.


[Zoraida] Yes. Yeah. So I don’t… I think that things are changing a little bit, and I think that that has to do a lot with We Need Diverse Books, the organization that came out in 2014, I believe, May 2014. It started out as a hashtag. I feel like it’s not to say let’s replace white authors with people of color. It’s just let’s make the table bigger so that we can all have a seat. I think that that inclusive… Like that inclusive mentality is what’s desperately missing from publishing. My book, Labyrinth Lost, is about a girl who is… She doesn’t want power, so she casts a curse to get rid of it. Instead, she gets rid of her family, and sends them to another dimension. Oops.


[Zoraida] Now she has to go in get them back. But, above that, it’s also about a Latina family, and how witchcraft is different from this culture. Right? Because they’re brujas, which is the Spanish word for witch. At the end of the day, it’s still a universal story, it’s about family and sisters and having something bigger than yourself. But, it’s still one Latina character.

[Dan] So, one of the things that… One of the side effects of this is that often when you see Latino characters being presented in media, they’re not being written by people who actually are Latino. I’m guilty of this. I don’t know if guilty is the right word. I’ve got an entire series where the main character is Latina. But. What do you see when you watch TV or you read books, and you’re like, “Oh. That guy’s never met a Mexican in his whole life.” Like… What do people get wrong?

[Zoraida] People get the accents… In TV, people get the accents wrong, right? Like what is an accent… Ecuadorian speaking Spanish sound like? You’ve probably never heard it. But you’ve heard like Mexican accents or Colombian accents. If you watch Narcos, some Colombian people are upset because all the accents are wrong. But then again, you have a show, like Narcos, where like… They’re drug dealers. Yay.


[Zoraida] So that portrayal, the drug dealer, the… A book recently came out where a girl goes to Ecuador, and I’m like, “Yes! Ecuador’s in a book. Finally. That I didn’t write.” She gets kidnapped, right? By these drug lords. I was like… It makes me… Like, it hurts. Right? On a very basic level. Because, like, seeing yourself as a caricature all the time… Latinos… Like, every time you watch a TV show, here comes the maid, and her name is Maria, and she gives you some wisdom. So it’s the same problem with African-American people who have like the magical Negro who all of a sudden gives you a bunch of wisdom. Now you know, like, “Oh, I can finish my quest.” That goes for all different cultures, right? We have these stereotypes. For me, and YA, it’s always like the sassy best friend, or the super like curvaceous Sophia Vergara look-alike. Like, I’m sorry, I don’t look like Sophia Vergara, like… If anyone’s disappointed, like when you meet a Latina author. So, those are some stereotypes. I think that other ones that really bother me are when you can’t establish a character… Your character’s ethnicity, so you just throw in random Spanish words, right?


[Zoraida] I recently read this sci-fi book, and the only way that you know that this character is Latina is because she randomly says the word Abuela. I have never used the word Abuela in my book. Because I don’t call my grandmother that. I call her mommy. Because she’s like my second mother. So that just shows like not doing research. Because different Latin countries use different nicknames for things. Like, different families use different nicknames for things. So that’s really frustrating.

[Dan] My Latina character totally calls her grandma Abuela.


[Dan] That’s the one she was talking about.

[Howard] That’s a Puerto Rican or a Cubano…

[Zoraida] It just means grandmother.

[Dan] It’s different in every culture.

[Howard] I know, but if there’s a cultural thing… I saw this in a comic book recently. I wish I could reference it directly. Where a Latino writer put a very, very Latino Abuela in the book, and it is a beautiful, beautiful moment. I think it might actually be in a Hulk comic.

[Zoraida] Really? Well, the new Groot… Groot’s grandmother is Puerto Rican. He comes from like the Ceiba trees, and… You know…

[Howard] I think that might be it.

[Zoraida] Are you thinking that?

[Howard] I think Hulk was in the book.

[Zoraida] Oh, okay.

[Dan] Oh, that’s super cool.

[Zoraida] Yeah. I think that’s really beautiful. There are ways to do it. But that’s just craft, right? Like, as writers, we want to subvert stereotypes and we want to be like, “yes, maybe I do want to write about a sexy Latina and… But how am I gonna make her different?” One of my favorite stories is Selma Hayek, when she was in Dogma, she almost didn’t get cast because Kevin Smith just saw her as like, “Oh, she’s just like a pretty body and face.” Then he actually talked to her and was like, “Oh, maybe there’s more to you than this outer shell of what you’re supposed to be in Hollywood.”

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, although you’ve already kind of pitched it to us. Do it again. Labyrinth Lost.

[Zoraida] Labyrinth Lost is about a girl who sends her family to another dimension and then has to go and get them back.


[Brandon] Excellent. And… Um…

[Mary] So I had a question that I wanted to ask. As you were talking about some of these things that… They hurt and… I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind… And the Selma Hayek story made me think of this. Can we dig into some of your own personal pain there a little bit? So you’ve… I’m going to extrapolate from a friend of mine who had grown up in San Francisco… Actually, no. She had grown up in Texas, as a Japanese-American in Texas. She had friends from San Francisco who were Japanese-Americans. They all went to Seattle to this very small island. The San Francisco women were going, “Why do these people keep staring at us?” She’s like, “What? Are they staring?” Because she was so used to being stared at that she had just stopped noticing. So, growing up in a very diverse community, when you leave New York, what are the things that you experience that you think are probably media-based? That the… Experiences where it’s like, “Oh. Oh, you’ve just explored…”

[Zoraida] So, I think… I haven’t… I’ve been traveling for… I haven’t been home in two months. I went home for a day last week, and then I came here. So traveling in different cities has been strange. I was in Atlanta, and I think that… Like, I don’t know the Latino communities in Atlanta, but it’s… People do look at you. Most of the time, I’m on my phone talking to… On my headset, so maybe that’s one of the reasons. This girl’s talking to herself.


[Zoraida] But sometimes it’s just like maybe somebody has never seen somebody that looks like me walking in their neighborhood. I won’t really go to Arizona, because I’m afraid of like somebody asking… Racially profiling me or something like that. Like, I just won’t go there. So when I leave New York, I… I don’t always feel unsafe, I don’t… It’s not that I’m afraid of being around other people. Like, I’m literally surrounded by you guys right now…


[Zoraida] But you’re great. So I think that the problem is the language in our media right now about Latinos and about Mexicans and about like Puerto Rico and things like that. I think that has caused me to feel more guarded than I would have two years ago, right? Like, I’m always on the edge, and sort of like standing near somebody, like, “Are they going to say something inappropriate? Are they going to like…” If I’m on the phone with my mom, should I talk to her in English or should I talk to her in Spanish? Because like, if I’m talking in Spanish… You see these videos that go viral where somebody’s like, “It’s America. Speak English.” I’m like, “Well, go back to England and speak English.”


[Zoraida] So like, it’s just being afraid to do things that were normal to me two years ago.

[Mary] Right.

[Zoraida] That are a little frightening. If you look at the things from the earthquake right now in Mexico, there are these people… There’s a photo of a 90-year-old man carrying boxes to help his neighbors. So, like, these are the people that our leader calls like rapists and murderers? Meanwhile, there are some of the most helpful people like coming together for a tragedy. Where do I fit in that? Because I’m not Mexican, but if you… I don’t know what people see when they look at me. Because I only know what I see when I look at me. Hopefully, it’s like good things right now.

[Mary] Your hair is fantastic.

[Zoraida] Thank you.


[Howard] Sorry we had to put the bandanna on it.

[Mary] Yeah.

[Zoraida] I like it. I feel like I’m at Woodstock.

[Brandon] So, say we’ve got a listener who says, “I really wanted to add some Latino/Latina characters to my book.” Where would you say they begin? How do they go about that, doing it the right way?

[Zoraida] So… Just with writing, there is no one right way to do things. Right? I think that Cynthia Leitich Smith, who… She’s a native American author. She says if you want to write about somebody, read 100 books about that person, about that person’s culture. If you can’t find 100 books, then are you the person to add to this? Right? That’s one way. I think that with Latinos, you have to figure out… Don’t say… Like, I’m not telling you how to write, how to say Latino, how to say Hispanic, but there are very, very different connotations. Like, I am Hispanic and Latina, because part of me is from Spain. But there are some Latinos who have no Spanish blood, they’re still indigenous, or they’re Afro-Latino. So, like, figure out what those things mean. Figure out what country they’re from. Because even though we speak a similar language, although our accents are completely different, we have completely different histories. The history of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean is going to be different than the history of Ecuador in South America. So figuring out that there is no way to look Latino… That’s one of the things that really bothers me, because when people think Latino, they think light skin or tan or… They don’t think Afro-Latino. They don’t think of somebody like Rosario Dawson or Zoe Saldana. They think of Sophia Vergara. I’m sorry for using her over and over again, but I’m blanking out.


[Zoraida] On my Latina actresses. So, I think it’s doing a research that doesn’t feel like anthropology, because anthropology also is about studying a culture to then destroy it, right?

[Mary] Yeah, we can… If you’re not clear on that, go back and listen to our colonialism episode, and that’ll help clear that up a little bit.

[Zoraida] Colonization, yay!

[Howard] One of the things that is… Doesn’t get said enough is the importance of representation in the things that we create. My oldest son is autistic. We were watching an episode of Elementary in which Sherlock Holmes is talking to the woman who becomes his girlfriend, who is portrayed as autistic. It’s different from how my son’s autism manifests. He stood behind the couch watching the episode for about 15 minutes. For the first time ever… Ever! Watching TV, he said, “They’re kind of like me.” That moment! There are kids who are Latino, who are black, who are female, who are all kinds of ways, who never get to say that. We need to hear… We need to hear your voice. We need to hear diverse voices so that these people have stories about them.

[Mary] Well, it… Just to use a… Not… A non-loaded example, the… Oh, shoot. I’ve just forgotten her name. Astronaut. Um. She just did…

[Howard] Mae Jemi…

[Mary] No. No, no, no. She’s white. Which is why it’s a non-loaded example, because white is the American default. Sorry. But she just got the record for the most number of days in space. And said that being an astronaut had never been on her radar at all, until NASA picked… When she was in late high school, NASA picked the first class of female astronauts. She was like, “Oh, I want to do that.” If she had not seen that role model, she wouldn’t have pursued that. For a lot of people, the role model comes from fiction. Learning through fiction that, “Oh, that could be me,” or “I could do that.” Or just “I am not alone. This experience that I’m having is not alone.” There’s… While you were surrounded, there are also… When I was going to elementary schools, I would go into elementary schools in Idaho and it would be a sea of white kids and one little brown kid. One child. So that child was getting everything through books.

[Zoraida] Right. I think it’s a… It’s not just important for us, for like diverse people to see themselves in books, it’s also important for like white kids to see other people in books.

[Dan] Absolutely.

[Zoraida] Because that creates empathy. Like, as writers, our biggest thing is to create empathy through our works. When I lived in Montana for a brief period of time when I was in college, I’d never seen so many blonde people in my life.


[Zoraida] So, I would… But the people who would come up to me were native people who were like, “What tribe are you from?” Because I was confusing to them. I’m like, “I’m from the Ecuadorian tribe.”


[Zoraida] So…


[Zoraida] So, it’s… We confound each other as people, but I think that as long as we create inclusive stories… You don’t have to make it a point to say like… You don’t have to make a checklist of I have a disabled character and I have a character who’s queer and Latino. You… It has to be organic to your story, too, right? You don’t want to create two-dimensional characters. But that’s just craft. So good representation is good craft.

[Mary] Can you give some examples of some good craft? Some books or media where you’ve been like, “Ah, yes. Thank you. Thank you for using your craft to do this well?”

[Zoraida] I’m a really big fan of Leigh Bardugo and Six of Crows. I think that that is an example of a really diverse cast of con artists…


[Zoraida] I’m trying to think of lately… Benjamin Alire Saenz, who writes queer Latino boys. And Adam Silvera, who also writes queer Latino boys. But they’re completely different from each other. Part of that has to do with one is in the Southwest and one is from the Bronx.

[Brandon] Well, we are out of time. I want to thank our audience at ComicCon.

[Whoo! Whistles!]

[Brandon] And I want to thank Zoraida for coming on the podcast with us. Thank you very much.

[Zoraida] Thank you.

[Brandon] Mary? You’ve got a writing prompt for us.

[Mary] Yeah. What I want you to do is I want you to go and… This echoes something that you’ve done previously, which is reading outside of the box. I want you to go and find books written by authors in, let’s say… See if you can find a couple of Ecuadorian authors. Read them. Then… You’ve got a suggestion?

[Zoraida] No, I was going to say, challenge accepted.


[Mary] Try and find a couple of Ecuadorian authors. Then, make one of your secondary characters… Not your main character. Make one of your secondary characters from Ecuador.

[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.