Writing Excuses 14.12: Writing the Other – Latinx Representation
Key points: Latinx, a catchall term for people with Latin American heritage. You will make mistakes, that’s part of the process. Latinx is not just one thing. To write a Latinx character, think about where they live, how they got there, what’s their family story, how did they grow up, what kind of foods do they eat and when. Remember they are people. Think about immigrant mashup foods and traditional foods. Comfort foods! Consider intersectionality, the mixture and crossing of various aspects in identity. Broad portrayals of a culture or group are likely to be misleading, while being specific about a culture or family can be very relatable.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 12.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Writing the Other – Latinx Representation.
[Tempest] 15 minutes long.
[Dongwon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Julia] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Julia] And I’m Julia.
[Dan] Awesome. This is the second in our awesome Writing the Other series, where we give you the tools that you need as an author to write about other cultures and other people that are different than yourself. We today have the wonderful Julia Rios with us. Can you tell us about yourself?
[Julia] Yes. My father is… Was from Mexico. He is no longer with us. He grew up in Yucatán and he immigrated to the United States and married my mother, who is a white woman from California. So I am half Mexican, Mexican-American, choose your choice. I am a writer, I’m an editor, I’m a podcaster, I’m a narrator. Primarily, I edit fiction for Fireside magazine and I write short stories and flash fiction in the form of text messages for an app called Flash Read under the name Julie Rivera.
[Dan] Well, awesome. We are excited to have you here. Please tell us what we’re going to be talking about today, and let’s start with the word Latinx, because that’s actually the first time I’ve ever heard it pronounced out loud and I haven’t known exactly how to say it. I know a lot of our listeners might not know what it means.
[Julia] Okay. It’s really funny, because once I was on a panel about it, and we spent most of the panel, all of the Latinx people participating, trying to decide how to pronounce it.
[Julia] We all… The four of us settled on Latinx, but it’s unclear to us that that is correct, so… 100% correct. There are probably other opinions available. But, roughly, Latinx we think is a good choice. I and four other people at least. No one has challenged me on that yet. It is a catchall term for people who have Latin American heritage. There are very many different labels, and we could have a really long conversation about that, so I don’t really want to get into it. But that means people from North America, Central, and South America, places where Spain came and conquered and colonized. Then you have a lot of mixed race people, which definitely, I fit in with that. My heritage is going to be some European and some of the indigenous Mayan ancestry.
[Dan] The word itself comes from, if I’m not mistaken, in Spanish we have Latino and Latina, which is gendered because of the way Spanish functions.
[Julia] So, because Spanish is a gendered language, to try to not default to male, which is the sort of old-fashioned way of saying… Like, “if one enters a room, he must pick up his glass of water,” and we don’t really use that anymore. So, instead of saying he or she, we move to they often in English. Latinx is the inclusive word that includes everyone, across the gender spectrum.
[Dan] Awesome. Cool. So… Well, the… Like I said, the purpose of this series is to give people tools of how they can do this right. So what are some things that people can do when they’re writing about Latinx people that they can… To do it right, to do it well.
[Julia] Yes. Okay…
[Dan] I should say well, instead of right.
[Julia] Okay. The first thing I’m going to say is there are many ways to be Latinx and there’s no one right way and there’s no umbrella term. Also, there are always going to be mistakes. No one’s ever going to be 100% perfect. So, understand that you will make mistakes, and that’s okay, that’s part of the process. But one of the things that I think can be hard to realize when you’re looking at a culture and you say, “Oh, Latinx people, we need more Latinx rep,” is it’s easy to think of that as one thing. I am Mexican. That’s one country. I am Mexican-American, so I have a different experience than people who are living in Mexico. Like, in Mexico, there are thousands of micro-cultures depending on where you live. Which state you live in, which city you live in, are you in a rural area, are you in a city? All of these things inform your experience and your cultural heritage. That’s just within Mexico. In the United States, we have a big diaspora of people from all kinds of countries and places, like Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Central and South America, Mexico, Cuba, and, depending on where you are in the States, you are more likely to have a high population of one kind of person. Like in South Florida, you have a lot of Cubans, because Cuba is right there. In New York, there are a lot of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. In California, there are a lot of Mexicans. So it kind of… Those things can inform some of your Latinx population in the United States. But also, it includes everyone in Canada, South America, North America… Anyone who is coming from those countries and then settled in those areas. So there are a lot of different people. That’s the first thing to realize. When you’re going to set out to write a Latinx character, ask yourself, where do they live? How did they get there? What’s their family story? How did they grow up? Did they grow up as a fully assimilated American, because that can be a very different experience than growing up as a first generation immigrant whose first language was Spanish and they didn’t start learning English until they were nine and they crossed the border. Then also, who’s their family? What kinds of traditional foods do they eat and when do they eat them? What kinds of relationships do they have with their families? Remember that all of these people are people just like you. You have a lot of complex experiences in your life. Your ways of operating at school would be different from your ways of operating when you’re at your grandmother’s house for a formal dinner.
[Dongwon] I think we call that term code switching.
[Julia] Code switching. Exactly. That’s exactly what I was getting at. So when you think about all of these things and you realize that people from all over the place have different things informing who they are. So your traditional foods for Thanksgiving might be very different from your neighbor across the street, depending on how they’ve grown up, and where they’ve grown up, and what their family story is. So that would be the first thing that I think is important to…
[Dongwon] I have a particular fascination with immigrant mashup foods, where, like, weird American and then whatever immigrant culture they’re coming from get all crossed over together. Like, not Latinx obviously, but my family would eat pickles with spaghetti, just because it was like looking for a little bit of like kimchi like thing. Anyways.
[Julia] No. This is totally a thing. So, we had a foreign exchange student… For a while, my mother was taking a lot of foreign exchange students. We had one from Thailand. She got to the United States and didn’t know what to do with our food at all. She was, “This is just completely foreign to me.” Then she discovered ketchup. She was like, “This is a sauce that you put on things.” So she just put it on everything. It became like the thing. We were all like, “What are you doing?” She’s like, “Well, I have to have something that gives the flavor. This is the American flavor. I will now put it on all my food.”
[Tempest] Oh, the American flavor.
[Dongwon] What’s great about that is she’s not… Wrong…
[Dongwon] It’s how she’s trained to eat her food.
[Julia] Exactly. Exactly.
[Dan] Different immigrant cultures and immigrant families all have their own style of changing the way that they act while also kind of staying true to where they came from.
[Dongwon] But there are so many Latin American cultures where there’s that iconic sauce, whether it’s chimichurri, whether it’s… Whatever it is. But…
[Julia] What your family’s traditional foods are will make a big difference. So, for me, right now we are on the Writing Excuses cruise and we just spent a day in Cozumel, which is very close to where my family lives in Yucatán. So the food here is very similar to what I grew up eating. That was very exciting because I got to go and have some of the foods that remind me of my childhood. Like ceviche and fish that’s grilled in achiote, which is a Spanish, or a Mexican spice.
[Julia] I get kind of confused about my languages, because I’ve been speaking both of them today.
[Julia] These things are traditional to me. They make me very happy, they feel like home. Also here, pretty much all throughout Latin America, which is a really weird term, but that means anywhere that Spanish people came and did conquests. There… You’ll find dishes with rice and beans. But everybody presents it slightly differently. So the kind of rice and beans that you get in Yucatán are similar in some ways to the rice and beans that you get in places like Cuba. And different from the rice and beans that you get in northern Mexico, which is what most United States Americans will associate with Mexican food. Here, the beans are black beans that are in a sort of paste. It sort of looks like chocolate pudding. When I was six and I visited, I thought that was chocolate pudding, and I was very disappointed the first time I tried it.
[Julia] Then I realized it was super yummy and I stopped being disappointed. But the first time, I was like, “This is not chocolate pudding.”
[Julia] “Somebody tricked me, it’s beans.” But that was something that I got to eat, and it was very comforting. Someone who is from a different culture will have a very different style of beans that they consider comforting. That’s one of those details that if you decide where your character’s from and what they grew up eating, you can think about like what’s comforting to them. In the same way that you’ll have your own comfort foods. For me, as growing up in California, is a very assimilated American, and also with Mexican heritage, I have these Mexican comfort foods and I love mashed potatoes. They’re my favorite. I have eaten mashed potatoes every day on this ship.
[Julia] I go to the Wind Jammer before dinner to get mashed potatoes.
[Dan] That is great.
[Tempest] That makes sense to me. I feel that that is a correct choice. I’m wondering though, in terms of thinking about making your character very specific when it comes to their culture… Like, what kind of Latinx person are they? How does intersectionality play into this?
[Julia] [Ooo] Intersectionality plays a big role. Intersectionality is the idea that everyone has more than one thing that informs their identity. So, often we talk about these in terms of marginalization. So you could be Latinx and disabled, or Latinx and queer… I am both of those things. So that’s exciting. But there are also just a lot of different things that you can be. I had a conversation with a woman in a shop today when I was buying something. She was surprised that I knew something about what I was buying. I said, “Well, it was because my father was from Yucatán.” We made a connection, and she said she was from Yucatán. She told me some of her heritage. Then she wanted to exchange the kind of mixtures that we were. So she was a mixed race person from Yucatán, and she wanted to explain exactly how. Then she was asking me like who I was, and wanted to know who my parents were, and what kind of people had formed me. This is the kind of thing that was important to her, and is important to a lot of people here because they want to make that connection with you, and they want to see where we can be together. Because we recognize that we are also very different. So she has other identity things that don’t match up with mine. We’re both mixed race, but we have different things. The intersection of those things makes us who we are.
[Dan] That’s awesome. Let’s pause here a little late for our book of the week. No, that’s okay, because this was super cool. What is our book of the week, Julia?
[Julia] Our book of the week is Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez. It’s a wonderful middle grade novel. It’s through the Rick Riordin Presents from Disney Hyperion. It is about a boy named Sal, and he breaks the universe.
[Julia] I don’t want to ruin it.
[Dan] Very descriptive title.
[Julia] I want you to go and read this book. Also, it will make you very, very hungry for Cuban food.
[Dongwon] Oh, yes, it really does.
[Julia] Specifically Cuban food. I brought this book because I got to be to read it and I know it’s deliciously wonderful. I keep waiting for the whole world to get it so I can make everyone read it and squee about it with them. But also, specifically because Carlos has written a character that is Cuban-American, and it’s a very specific culture that he’s dug into, that’s also his own cultural identity. But you get a lot of the details of how he interacts with the world. Some of them overlap with my experience, and some of them are very different, because Cuban-Americans have a different experience than Mexican Americans. So I recommend it for those specific details.
[Dan] Well, awesome. That is Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez. It is available now, so go out and look for it.
[Julia] [garbled I will tell you it] will make you laugh really hard.
[Dongwon] Maybe cry just a little bit.
[Julia] Oh, and cry.
[Dan] Laugh, and cry, and be hungry…
[Julia] It will be really good though.
[Dan] The entire gamut of human emotions contained in this middle grade novel.
[Dan] I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of specificity. Because it’s very important. That’s one of the things that we hear a lot is that if you try to portray a culture or a group very broadly, you’ll end up getting a lot of things wrong and offending a lot of people. When you zero in on one very specific culture or even one very specific family, then it’s actually even more relatable in a lot of ways. But… I want to tell this story because this is one that I did wrong.
[Dan] I’ve got… My Mirador series is about… It’s a cyberpunk trilogy, YA, from Harper. The main character is Mexican-American. I’ve lived in Mexico for a few years. I thought, I can do this. I’ve got this. I’m going to do this right. The Mexican-American community has not really picked up the book. I was wondering why. Then I came to Mexico, where the book is huge. What I realized is that I was portraying a very Mexican family, and doing it in a way where they felt seen and they felt this is us. You have portrayed us in your book. The Mexican-American community didn’t feel that, because I was not doing them, I was portraying Mexican people. So, being specific is very important. What can people do to portray these kinds of cultures and people very specifically?
[Julia] So, the first thing that I would recommend that you do is think about who specifically is your character and what their family is like. Because I don’t think it’s coming from one specific culture will give you enough. Like, I’m Mexican, but I know a lot of other Mexican people who have very different experiences. Part of that is my family, going back to intersectionality, I have within my family people who are Muslim, people from Afghanistan, people who have come from a lot of different places. So when we have Thanksgiving dinner… I always love to ask people what they eat at Thanksgiving dinner, because families bring out their favorite foods. When we would have Thanksgiving dinner growing up, we would often have turkey and mashed potatoes, but also like Afghan rice with raisins in it. That’s something that we would have because I had people from Afghanistan in my family. So your character is going to have a very specific family. That’s not something that you would associate necessarily with a Mexican experience. But it was my experience, and I’m a Mexican-American. Your character is going to have a lot of specific things like that. They’re going to have specific things that are Mexican-American. One thing you can do is go to a Mexican restaurant, and asked the people who work there where they’re actually from. Sometimes they’re from Mexico, and sometimes they’re not. Because they know that selling Mexican food, if they look Latinx, is the best way to make a restaurant successful in the United States. But if you ask them and they say they’re from Mexico, ask them what part of Mexico. Find out a little bit more about that. I don’t want you to bother the restaurant people too much.
[Julia] But usually they’ll be happy to tell you what region or what town. If they do, go home and like look that up. Find out what makes the food taste like what it is. Think about like, “Oh, okay. That’s an interesting thing.” Can you think about what those things that they might have carried with them, what comforting memories they might have brought? How those things would mesh with where you live now? If you live in the middle of Indiana and your Mexican restaurant is run by people from Guadalajara, they might really like corn in very different ways at the same time.
[Dan] That’s very cool.
[Tempest] This is all been very food based. I feel like…
[Julia] Well, this is because food is a really big part of culture…
[Tempest] That’s very true. Yeah. But also like, I love the emphasis that you have on family, because I feel that… I mean, especially when it comes to YA novels. I know that with YA that the whole thing is to like get the parents out of the way, so the kids can go out and have a dangerous adventure. But it just never seemed to be like my experience, that I would be able to like escape my parents at that point. Not necessarily even wanting to escape my parents or my family or my cousins or whatever. I really love Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s books. One of the things I love about it is that it’s about like families together dealing with issues. I feel like that’s another thing that in some cultures, that kind of family togetherness is not necessarily emphasized. But in Guadalupe’s, it is.
[Julia] I believe she is… Guadalupe is Mexican-American. She lives in Texas. She wrote a book called Summer of the Mariposas. It’s wonderful. It’s a YA retelling of the Odyssey by Homer. But starring four sisters who have to go rescue their father. They go on a quest, the same way Odysseus does. They run into some of Odysseus’s kinds of monsters, but in Mexico. So they cross the border and go into Mexico to rescue their father from someone. It uses Loteria cards, which are a very specific Mexican game that I grew up with, and a lot of Mexican Americans will have grown up with. It’s a very specific to this family and their experience of living in a border town, and of having their parents come from Mexico and having that specificity that they have within the home. So I think that’s a really rate example of using specific culture.
[Dan] It is such a great book, too. So you get two books of the week this time.
[Dan] One of the ways to get this level of specificity and to do it well is, like you said, to talk to people. Be polite about it. But talk to people and find out where they’re from, and who they are, and what they like and what they don’t like. What they brought with them? What they miss?
[Dan] I believe that’s kind of the homework that you’re going to be giving us, right?
[Julia] Yeah. I think so. My homework originally was to write a scene about someone from a very specific culture, and to think about the things that inform who they are and what they like. I think if I had had like an hour, I would have gotten into other things that weren’t food, but since I primarily talked about food…
[Julia] I want you to write a scene where people are eating a meal. It could be any meal. It could be a holiday meal, or it could be just a regular meal. It could be a fast food meal. But I want you to think about your character and who they are and where they’re from. How they feel about this food and why they feel that way? How does that inform the conversation that they’re having over the meal, or their thoughts that they’re having if they’re alone, or whatever. This could be anywhere. It could be in your fantasy world, it could be on a space station, whatever. But it will definitely inform who they are, and I want you to think about that and write that eating a meal scene for me.
[Dan] That sounds fantastic. Make us hungry as well while you’re doing it.
[Dan] Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Julia. And, obviously, Dongwon and Tempest as well. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.