Racy Thoughts: No Media Sensation Without Representation
Having grown up in Miami, a place where being Latina placed me firmly in the majority, it didn't occur to me that many, many people in this country receive the bulk of their information about Latinos (that's my label of choice for people of Latin American background, by the way, for the purposes of this blog—"Hispanic" is a term I find problematic and often misleading) from The Media™. As a member of this odd group myself, I can say, unequivocally, that we're generally not to be trusted with most things, but most definitely not with anything relating to women, gender, sexuality, or race and ethnicity.
"But you don't look like J-Lo" is something that's been said to me, out loud, without a hint of irony. I think my reaction at the time was laughter, but also more than a bit of disbelief at how little the world outside my bubble seemed to know (or care) about Latinos and Latin America.
The main reason, I've since decided, is that categories are terribly important to people, both as a means of creating a sometimes helpful way to understand others, but also out of a genuine lack of interest in getting to research a given group on a deeper level. Skimming the surface suffices when the ocean gets a little too deep and stormy, to lay some metaphors on y’all. If Jennifer Lopez was, for this person, the cultural touchstone, the totemic symbol of what a Latin female looked, acted, dressed and sounded like, anything that deviated from this was a fluke or a negligible anomaly.
So what does any of this have to do with feminism? What it comes down to, basically, is the freedom—and the responsibility—to represent oneself rather than allow others to focus on a token member of a given group and make assumptions.
At one point, I had decided that "Latino" and "Hispanic" were far too broad and vague to be useful. How could an umbrella term that hoped to describe Quechua-speaking Bolivians, Chicanos who had been in the U.S. for multiple generations and spoke only English, and Cubans with roots in Africa who spoke Spanglish possibly be useful? So I figured "Cuban" would suffice as a response to "So, like. What are you?"
Eventually, I stumbled upon a Latino blog I began to read regularly. When I learned they were hiring, I decided to go for it and apply for the position, despite finding the label problematic. As I began to interact with our readers—people I had a lot in common with, even despite our differences—I realized how important the term Latino could be, especially given that many people don't have the luxury of choosing whether nor not to subscribe to certain identifying groups. Here's this label, which along with all the positive and negative connotations you didn’t sign up for, wrapped around you like a garland and it’s up to you to make of it what you can.
The thought process behind self-identifying as Latina also helped me become a feminist: I couldn't change the way people viewed me based on the categories I'm assigned, but I could be an active, not passive, member of a group that was trying not only to level the playing field, but also provide a platform for people to represent themselves. And that's the main reason I think that identifying as Latina (as opposed to just being Latina) and as feminist are important, and are evangelical movements. You live and speak and work according to a set of beliefs while having this all observed and analyzed through several filters of cultural and social expectations, and you attempt to convert more people to something that amounts to more than a cause—it's part of a system that shows, publicly, that cultures are not unchanging or monolithic. No one person or voice, no matter how popular or prevailing, could ever accurately represent feminist thought or Latin culture.
In that same vein, I'd be remiss to begin a blog on the intersection of race, gender and pop culture without mentioning that, in reading various other blogs on all three topics, I’ve kept happening upon the same complaint: that pop culture and many feminist publications often exclude or oversee the unique perspectives offered by women who aren't white. So this blog, then, is a group effort, with your comments and experiences forming an integral part in fostering a thoughtful and inclusive discussion on feminism. Bienvenidas.
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