Ethnically Ambiguous

Editor’s note: Viviana Leo (pictured below) is the writer and co-producer of “White Alligator,” a feature-length comedy about stereotyping in the entertainment industry. The film’s next screening will be this Saturday, May 10, at 1:30pmET at The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival. 180 Remsen St. in Brooklyn Heights. You can purchase tickets here.

“Ethnically Ambiguous” has been a hot catch-phrase in commercial and print castings for the past five years or so. Fancy words, but all it means is generally light brown skin color, preferably with a slight almond shape to the eyes. It stems from a profit-driven ad world more desperate to avoid offending anyone than interested in including everyone. A similar trend has gotten a stranglehold on Hollywood (except only among “supporting players,” not the stars driving the film.)

VivianaLeo_headshot

Viviana Leo

I was thinking about this term today. Thinking about how I kind of do fit into this category, though I don’t show it on my skin or physical features. I was raised in a Puerto Rican household in various parts of the United States. I speak two languages fluently, but am left with no specific culture I can comfortably call my own. In a room of white Americans, I am seen as different because I speak Spanish, despite my upbringing in America. (“Exotic” is a term many people use when first meeting me, which really pisses me off: is a brainy girl from Palm Beach exotic?).

And in a room full of Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, I am still seen as an outsider because I didn’t grow up on the island. I know the places they talk about, and I (mostly) get the cultural references, but I don’t have a three dimensional vision, just a fuzzy photograph swimming around my head.

So I am left looking for a cultural home—one beyond the cottages of 19th century American history, where I feel I fit right in. (I have a French friend raised in Utah that describes this same feeling: not welcome in Salt Lake City and not welcome in Paris. He’s finishing a Ph.D in Classics at Harvard and feeling very cozy amongst the ancient Greeks. Sensing a trend?)

I was recently captivated by an interview in Filmmaker Magazine with Ava DuVernay distribute her film “Middle of Nowhere,” last year’s Sundance darling. Everything she was saying about marketing “brown films” (her words) and finding an international market for them spoke to me. I was like, “YES! I must get in touch with this woman! I want to learn!” But then it occurred to me: everything she was saying – in fact her company’s mission statement – is all about getting African-American films out there. And as well she should; the African-American community needs an trailblazer and champion like her. So I began wondering where I should turn with my film. To the powerful white producers, who may tell me they don’t “do” Hispanic films? Or to the Hispanic community, who might not really “get” my film because it may lack standard Hispanic themes? I think that anyone can relate to the movie – and that anyone can relate to me. Why are we dividing ourselves?

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There’s a vendor at my job who comes every week to empty out the bins for shredding documents. As the office manager, it’s my job to take him around to all the bins in the office. He’s a really nice guy, lives in New Jersey, loves hockey, and hates the snow. He’s also Hispanic. And he is thrilled, gleeful even, whenever I sign the paperwork and he can see that my legal last name is Rodriguez. It’s because he thinks I’m one of “them”. (I get this a lot as a Puerto Rican living in NYC.) And most of the time it makes me happy to see him happy. But when the mood catches me, I start to think: if we were trapped in a room together, we probably wouldn’t have much to talk about. I’m not a ray of sunshine, I don’t live in New Jersey, I hate hockey, and I love the snow. All these topics failing, we can always talk about being Hispanic, though, right? At least that’s the idea. “La patria, woo-hoo!” But the truth is that beyond my grandmother’s stories of San Juan in the ’40s, and feeling teary-eyed whenever I hear En Mi Viejo San Juan, I’ve never really lived there. I don’t know what that’s like. And truth be told, neither has he.

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