The most common term used by minority activists is the need for diversity. We see the word in hashtags, slogans and t-shirts. Diversity has replaced “melting pot” to describe the true aspiration of American society, to be multi-racial, multi-religion, multi-perspectives. The more diversity, the better, whether in television and movies, in Fortune 500 companies, law offices and politics.
White-dominated movies like Aloha, 10 years ago, would not have generated mass controversy over a white actress playing a half-Hawaiian character, yet in 2015, it sunk the movie just as much as its awful script. Pointing out the lack of diversity in events like the Oscars lead to a viral hashtag on Twitter and dozens of news stories.
This phenomenon is fairly new, but it continues to only apply to the differentiation of skin color and gender. There are calls for more blacks, women, Asians and Latinos to be represented in media and in the boardroom, but do you see how this “diversity” is already a problem?
I didn’t say Chinese, Thai or Indian. I said “Asian.” I didn’t say Puerto Rican, Argentinian, Honduran or Peruvian. I said “Latino.” The differentiation between countries and cultures remains the privilege of Europeans and the United States. When people speak of diversity for those two groups, and Africans, for that matter, the specificity ends there, turning continents into homogenous races.
Sad to say, the superficial calls for diversity are not solely the practice of whites or the media. It exists within our own community.
I recently spoke with Linda Nieves-Powell, author of the play Yo Soy Latina, about the challenges sometimes faced by Latino actors and writers.
While your play Yo Soy Latina is about the universal experiences of Latinas, did you ever feel like it was treated as just a Puerto Rican play?
Never. That was the beauty of the play. Everyone loved it. Women felt proud and inspired. The play pokes fun at our differences. On paper the play was very misunderstood by many. It wasn’t until you saw it performed that you got the magic of it.
What has been your experience working with different Latino groups concerning your work?
I started developing the stage play in 2000, and it was nice to see a diverse group of Latinos embracing the piece. Audiences could not get enough of it, and we had folks come see the play three and four times. The one group of Latinos that weren’t thrilled about it, were the Spanish-language theater companies like Repertorio Español. In fact, a known director would refer to my play as the play with the chairs, never by its title: Yo Soy Latina!
Thank goodness that there were many others who saw the value of the play. The first few folks who invested their time and energy were Claudia Norman of The Queens Theater in the Park Festival, Rebecca Vasquez of HBO Latino, Rome Neal and Lois Griffith of the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe and Rick Khan of the Tony Award-winning theater company Crossroads in New Jersey. As well there were some off-off Broadway folks that offered me the chance to develop the play at their festivals, like Here Arts Center and Manhattan Theater Source. But the dominant Latino theater community did not support it.
This is why I do not trust the mission of some of these Latino-run organizations, because they still view certain Latinos in a negative light. If you don’t speak Spanish as they do, if you do not act as they do, you are not accepted into their circle. I feel many old-school Latino theater folks had a problem with the title being in Spanish, but 99 percent of the content written in English. Plus I’m a Puerto Rican playwright writing about Chicanas, Colombians, Panamanians, Cubans, so now I’m guessing they didn’t trust my ability to write a variety of authentic Latina characters.
And it could also be that this play explored the brutal truths we felt about each other in a sitcom-like humor. I made sure to mention the Latino hierarchy, where Cubans were always at the top while the darker-skinned Latinos were on the bottom.
What do you feel needs to be done to strengthen support for Latino groups whose experiences do not gain as much exposure as others?
That’s a tough question. I believe some of us our outliers in our own community, and we should remain that way. I know I am. I do not fare well in these groups. I need to remain independent in order to keep my voice authentic. I feel strongly about this because the minute, I feel, you align yourself with a group, their beliefs and practices can be forced on you.
Do you feel there is a Mexican bias in Latino arts? How do you see it manifest both inside and outside the Latino community?
I remember in the early 2000s, or even in the Nineties, becoming excited when I saw a movie about Latinos, like La Bamba, Selena, Mi Familia and so on. Then as time went on, I realized that all these stories were about Mexicans. As much as I feel I can relate to some degree, it isn’t my experience. I do see more work in theater, TV and film about the Mexican or Mexican-American experience. I think it has taken Hollywood some time to catch up, but I think they finally get how diverse this Latino community is.
But then there is this: If there is a Mexican American in a position to greenlight a project and two scripts come his or her way, one that centers around Mexican issues and the other that centers around Cuban or Puerto Rican issues, and they’re both topnotch scripts, what do you think is going to happen? Same goes for that Puerto Rican in a position to greenlight a project. You always have to convince the majority that your story matters, even if the majority is just as Latino as you are.
Now, Linda brings up some very important things to highlight: One is that in our community, we find a lot of common ground and a lot we can bond over. The other is that, in spite of those bonds, we are still very distinct groups who look out for ourselves. We are tribal, and the fact is that Mexicans are the largest group, especially out west, and Puerto Ricans are the second largest, especially on the East Coast.
As a result, most movies are about Mexicans and most Latinos in television are Puerto Ricans. Yet because the producers of minority entertainment are financed by whites, even the Puerto Ricans will likely play a Mexican character. The perception of Latinos in the U.S. is that they are all Mexican, and so one way or another, Mexican culture dominates, with Puerto Ricans running a distant second, Cuba an even more distant third (and only because of movies about the Cuban Revolution) and the 18 other Spanish-speaking countries might as well call themselves Mexico-lite, or not exist at all outside of drug movies.
But what is really the solution here? Should we spend time educating people on the differences between Paraguayans and Ecuadoreans, or should we take Linda’s advice and go it alone in order to lead and make change a reality.
If we Latinos really want respect, we need to stop using the homogenous umbrella of latinidad and use our art and our activism to differentiate ourselves. The best way to show people what makes being Chilean so amazing is by creating work that distinctly heralds that culture. Instead of signing on to do a show about Mexicans when you are Guatemalan, try to develop a show that is centered on Guatemalan culture and Guatemalan characters. And I realize I might lose you all here, but why don’t we try telling some stories that aren’t about immigration, the Cuban Revolution, Puerto Rican gangbangers or Colombian drug cartels, and try telling some Dominican sci-fi stories? An Argentinean western? A Peruvian monster movie? Why don’t we create entirely new genres, like Taíno fantasy?
If we really want diversity, we cannot settle for skin-deep. We have to set out on our own and show the world why being Panamanian is as enviable as being French, why Venezuelans are as romantic as Italians, and how Bolivians can be as bad-ass as Russians. We cannot let the status quo of Latino entertainment limit our creativity, our vision or our unique cultures that defy marketing. Then, and only then, will we break the chains of stock minority characters and be true equals on the world stage.
Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books, Kings of 7th Avenue and The Feast of San Sebastian, deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a BA in Spanish studies from the University of Tampa and a MH in creative writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.