The past few years, I’ve been thinking more about my identity. I was born in Venezuela and my parents came to the United States when I was six months old. Spanish was my first language, and I was mandated to speak it at home (something I was later grateful to my mother for). Though I learned how to read and write in Spanish in Venezuela, the year I spent there in kindergarten, my proficiency in English eventually overtook my Spanish.
I want to say here that what I write below are my thoughts, opinions, and attempts to untangle the subject of identity and race and how I have been personally shaped, and I may not get it right from a PC angle; I hope to only open up dialogue.
I started writing stories when I was eleven years old. I was a prolific reader from the time I was seven years old. All of my early stories assumed white characters. I think it was the influence of mainstream 80s and 90s TV and movies, as well as the books I read. I loved a good Babysitters’ Club and Sweet Valley Twins/High series. I still remember the description of the twins as having blue eyes, blond hair, being 5’7” and being a “perfect size 6.” Obviously we hadn’t yet hit the 90s rage for a size 00 yet.
It did not occur to me that I looked nothing like these girls, and that the culture I was growing up in was nothing like what was represented in the books, TV and movies I was avidly consuming. I have always loved stories.
I also never seemed to fit in with the Latinx kids at school. In elementary school in the Inland Empire of California, I was generally seen as a nerdy kid and had very few friends. The Mexican girls intimidated me, with their slick hair and huge hoop earrings. They all had accents they pressed on, and my English was much too perfect. I had one good friend who was white and overweight and somewhat of an outcast herself, but not as much as I was. In seventh grade, when we went to middle school, I was placed in the gifted classes and met new kids. I finally made some friends, all white girls.
At the end of 7th grade, my parents moved us to Florida. In Florida, into middle school and high school, the core group of my friends were white, though I went to a high school that was so diverse white was considered a minority. I liked the variety of people, and I didn’t think much about it. In undergrad, at the University of Florida, it didn’t even cross my mind to consider joining the Hispanic sorority. I joined in to one of the big sororities (another story for another day). That time in my life is when I realized I was not white, I was not blond, and that made me less than the cultural ideal.
In both California and Florida, despite my integrating in with the white kids, there was not an assumption that I was white. Friends all knew I spoke Spanish, and they were used to having diversity around, even if we weren’t all as integrated as we could have been. I had some African American friends in high school, none that were close, but people I spoke with on a consistent basis. I honestly had very little intelligence about the subtleties of micro-aggressions against women and people of color until the last five years or so. You could say I was asleep to this most of my life.
It was when I moved to Denver, Colorado that I began to see more subtle racism. A friend who’d moved from Tallahassee told me when I moved here that people here considered themselves uber-accepting and uber-liberal, but there were no people of color around (he was especially bitter about Boulder). There is actually a good amount of diversity in Colorado, especially Denver; the problem is, it is highly socio-economically segregated, with the privileged, mostly mid-Western whites living in the nice/gentrified parts of town, and the others pushed out to the edges of the metro area. One of my first friends in Denver said I was the first Latinx person she’d ever really talked to, and asked me if I spoke Spanish and how my parents came here.
I never felt the need to tell people in Florida that I was Latina. There is a different mentality there; a lot more variety in the people I saw every day. There wasn’t an assumption that because I’m a well-educated professional, and that I speak eloquently, that I was white. Whereas in Colorado, people do assume that. And even well-meaning people who consider themselves accepting and liberal have said things to me borderlining on stereotyping, and possibly dare I say, racist.
The most blatant of these happened to me in writing classes, which very much surprised me. My good friend (who is half-Thai) and I co-wrote a screenplay in which we identified our heroine as Asian-American (Thai to be exact) and her husband as Latino, and the heroine’s best friend as African-American. We shared our first five pages with the writer’s groups, and one of the first questions was “Well why are they Asian-American/fill-in-the-blank, what purpose does it serve exactly? And how does it change their experiences?” The second question might be fair; however, our characters were several generations removed from immigration. They were what I call Americanized. No more or less American than a white person from Iowa. And just as disconnected from their roots. The reason we were specific is because we know that if it isn’t specified (in a screenplay, especially) the character is assumed to be white.
The same thing happens in prose, but it seems to be less talked about. I came across this in a different class where I was receiving feedback on the first page of a short story where in dialogue, I identified a character as “Hispanic” by another character. The two characters were lying in bed together. The instructor said, “I think this is just exposition, and you could consider cutting it.” She was right. Others said, “I think maybe it leads to tension later in the story.” Which was fine too. Then I explained that our instructor was correct, that I have been trying to find ways to put identity on the page. One person suggested I talk about their skin colors as “latte on freckles.” Our instructor shut that down immediately. What I didn’t point out is that I told them nothing about the second character, but the assumption had been made that the second character was white, which further proved my point about the default read. People tend to assume, unless you tell them otherwise, that a character is white. It’s our default on the page, default on the screen, and so it’s not surprising that we assume it be some kind of default in life.
Then, another well-meaning person in my class said, “what if she [Hispanic character] is the first in her family to go to college?” to which I muttered, “that’s another stereotype.”
I’m still grappling with my own Americanization and white-washing. The way I speak, look, and carry myself, as well as the lightness of my skin, might suggest that I am white, if you are stereotyping. I do have extra privilege because of this, too. I have not felt discriminated against because of my race, though I know it exists, especially from talking with my (darker) cousin (my gender is another story). On the flip side, I don’t feel like I belong among Latinx people, either. I’ve surprised many people by speaking Spanish to them. I have trouble feeling like I belong anywhere.
All this to say that I have shifted to writing characters that are more diverse, and I challenge each of us to think about how we read American characters whose race hasn’t been identified. Is there a default mode because of the images we’ve been bombarded with?