Bella Thorne

Actress Bella Thorne, who is half Cuban.

photo: Corbis

Growing up as a Puerto Rican girl in Colorado, I found myself explaining my identity quite a bit. How come I spoke Spanish but wasn’t Mexican? Why did I look more mixed-race, or black than Selena or Jennifer Lopez? Nothing bothered me more than hearing — in a misguided attempt to reassure me that I wasn’t like those "other ones" — that I didn’t look Latina at all.

The idea that one can look Latina betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Latin American mix. Latino is not a race. European colonialism of the Caribbean and Latin America resulted in what Dominican superstar Juan Luis Guerra described as “Una raza encendida — negra, blanca, y Taína.” That is, “a race that is lit — black, white, and Taína (indigenous).”

Related from Vivala: That Pivotal Moment We Realized We Were Latina

Alexis Bledel

Actress Alexis Bledel, who is of Argentine and Mexican descent.

photo: Corbis

In popular U.S. culture, Latinos encompass everyone from Eva Longoria to Rosario Dawson to Alexis Bledel. But popular culture also causes confusion. Longoria, whose family traces its Texas roots back nine generations, is frequently cast as the archetypal Latina. Bledel, whose parents were raised in Argentina and Mexico respectively and whose first language is Spanish, plays stereotypical American WASPs such as (the beloved) Rory Gilmore, while Dawson has consistently played both Afro-Latinas and African-American women. Although all of these actresses identify as Latina, popular media restricts their expression of that identity in order to fulfill stereotypes that perpetuate confusion about who can own this identity.

The same whitewashing that occurs in Hollywood is reflected in Latino media. In response to the lack of representation of Afro-Latinos on Univision and Telemundo, sisters Sofia Arzu and Victoria Arzu launched Proyecto Más Color in 2014.

“Our whole lives we’ve been watching novelas and we never saw anyone on television that looked like us,” said Sophia in a YouTube video explaining why the networks needed to diversify. Explaining how alienating being a black Latina can be in the U.S., Victoria added:

“It’s like you’re not black enough, but you’re not Hispanic enough.”

Related from Vivala: What It Means to Be a U.S. Latina

In fact, a March 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that a quarter of all U.S.-based Latinos identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean, or descended from Africa. Yet that identity is scarcely shown.

Although white Latinos are overrepresented in Spanish-language media, in the United States they face incredulity about their identity. In an interview with PBS’s Tavis Smiley, Louis C.K., whose father is Mexican, spoke about the assumptions about his race in the United States.

“But because of the way that I look, I wouldn’t be pegged as a Mexican,” he said. “Which is interesting because I’m more Mexican than a lot of people that are known as Mexicans, you know.”
The interview is well worth listening to in its entirety for the way C.K. points out the class-based stereotypes involved in recognizing Latinos.

The question over who is or is not Latino based on what they look like is confusing even among Latinos. The bane of many a multiracial Latino — the U.S. Census — officially classifies “Hispanic” as an ethnicity, not a race. For the purposes of the government, “Hispanic” refers to anyone from Spain and/or a Spanish-speaking country, while Latino(a)(x) refers to anyone from Latin America, excluding Spain. Penélope Cruz is Hispanic, Sofía Vergara is Latina and Hispanic). Yet more than two-thirds of U.S.-based Latinos identified “Hispanic” as their main racial background in another Pew study from 2015. Many other Latinos were more comfortable identifying as mixed-race, which falls in line with terms like mestizo and mulatto, according to Pew.

Related from Vivala: 18 Things I Don't Want to Hear About Being Latina

What accounts for this disparity? Possibly a culture clash because, while anti-miscegenation laws clearly delineating race were instituted in the colonial United States, the Spanish and Portuguese crowns encouraged intermarriage for the purpose of Catholic conversion and in the hopes of creating a loyal population (at least at first). Over the centuries, this has created a complicated racial identity.

We cannot overlook the negative consequences of assuming that all Latinos do or should look a certain way. In Latin America, looking indigenous or black has historically resulted in discrimination, as in a recent lawsuit brought by indigenous women of Guatemala proves. In the U.S., Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” law lets police officers request immigration papers of anyone they suspect might be an undocumented immigrant. What can drive such a suspicion other than looks? No wonder those "I only look illegal" T-shirts are so popular.

Given the complex politics and identities at play when describing Latinidad (even to ourselves), affirming our culture may be a matter of both expanding representation across all forms of media as well as celebrating our own diverse history and roots. Here we are, una raza encendida, created over centuries of births and immigration. How are we to answer the question of why we don’t look like a prescribed stereotype? The answer is, “¿Y tú que sabes de eso?”