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A Conversation On Latino Identity, Skin Color, And Portrayal In Hollywood

Everyone wants to reach Latinos in the U.S., particularly during Hispanic Heritage Month. Here 12 Latinos go beyond the spicy and the caliente to discuss things people still don't get about us.

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It happens the same way every year. Brands and everyone else rush to break out their dusty Hispanic outreach folders for Hispanic Heritage Month. While there are some nice attempts at celebrating Latinos, there are also plenty of awkward, uninspired, and sometimes insensitive efforts, all because of the difficulty of trying to paint a diverse group of people with the same brush. Unfortunately, that means that an effort to celebrate Latino culture just ends up showing how little they're understood as Americans and as a part of mainstream culture. Twelve Latinos at BuzzFeed had a conversation about identity and a whole host of issues that face the community to illuminate just exactly what it means to be Latino in America. And they had some fun too because, obviously.

Who are you and how do you identify?

Adrian Carrasquillo: I'm the editor of Latino coverage and a BuzzFeed News reporter. I probably identified as a New Yorker first for a long time. But of course being Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian was always a core part of who I am. It's a part of you that you embrace and love; whether visiting the Puerto Rican side in El Barrio in Harlem or the Ecuadorian side in Queens and New Jersey, it's ever present. I've also always been American — dualities are a beautiful thing.

Nicolas Medina Mora: I'm a reporter for BuzzFeed News. I identify first and foremost as Mexican — I was born and raised in Mexico City, and came to the U.S. for college. I do not have American citizenship, but I'm lucky enough to have an H1B work visa. I also think of myself as a criollo, because my ancestors were mostly Spaniards rather than indigenous people. This last bit means that I don't have a personal claim to the struggles of many Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, and other U.S. Latinos.

Jessica Lima: I am an associate editor for BuzzFeed Español. I identify myself as Guatemalan — I was born and raised in Guatemala and moved to the United States at the age of 15. Although I've been in this country for almost 11 years, I don't think of myself as American, but I also don't consider myself an immigrant. I am lucky enough to live in a city that embraces diversity, so I never feel out of place. However, I could never call myself an American because my Guatemalan culture is the most important thing and my favorite thing about me.

Ann-Marie Alcántara: I'm an editorial fellow at BuzzFeed. I identify first as a New Yorker, but whenever someone asks where I'm from, I identify as being from Peru and Spain. I have never used Peruvian-American nor do I ever think I will. While it's probably the right definition to use, I feel more comfortable and grew up saying some variation of "I'm from Peru" or "My parents are from Peru."

Alejandro Alba: I'm an editorial fellow and I identify as Mexican-American. I was born and raised in the border town of El Paso, Texas, where both cultures perfectly co-exist. I've never been able to consider myself a complete American because of my ties with the Mexican culture. Everything I learned was in Spanish first and through the "Mexican way."

Norberto Briceño: I'm a staff writer and I identify as Mexican-American/Chicano, born and raised in L.A. Both of my parents immigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles back in the mid-'80s. I grew up in a Mexican household, spoke Spanish first and foremost, and attended a predominantly white high school. I've been labeled Latino, Hispanic, American, but I like to stick with Mexican-American. Being Chicano is a point of pride with me, and I like to wear it on my sleeve.

Julia Furlan: I'm the audio editor. Latino identity has always been a tricky subject for me. I was born in São Paulo, Brazil, where my dad is from, and grew up in New England, where my mom is from. I grew up going back and forth between the U.S. and Brazil and always identified myself as Brazilian. I'd say I'm Brazilian first, Latino second, and definitely not Hispanic (Hispanic people = colonized by Spain). People forget about Brazil when they talk about Latinos, but I like to remind them that Brazil is a huge country — the ninth-largest world economy, and almost half of South America.

Alex Alvarez: I'm a staff writer. Growing up in Miami, Latinos formed a dominant culture, so it was more likely that people were defined in terms of not being Latino or Latin American ("Americanos," we'd call them). In Miami, I was Cuban. Moving to New York City for college, I felt more of a pressure to define myself as something other than "just that" from other people, particularly from non-Latinos. This was also the first time I was told I wasn't "white," despite growing up with the idea that, as a Caucasian, I was both a white person and a Latina person, and that one identity does not cancel out the other. Again, I grew up learning about and living among white, Asian, indigenous, and Afro-Latinos, so the idea that one can indeed hold multiple identities is not foreign to me. Besides, there's a difference between race and ethnicity. Today, I identify as white (but not capital-W "White"), Cuban, and Latina. Being Latina means that I feel a connection to other people with overlapping experiences and reference points, particularly when it comes to our continued misrepresentation.

Conz Preti: I'm the editor for BuzzFeed Español and BuzzFeed Brasil. I was born in Argentina but grew up between Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and now the U.S. My dad is Italian, my mom is Spanish, and those two cultures are very present throughout my life. How do I identify? A third-culture kid. Yes, my passport says I'm Argentine, but I don't identify 100% as such — I'm a mix of it all.

Brian Galindo: I am an associate editor for BuzzFeed Rewind. I identify as Latino. I was born and raised in L.A. My mother is originally from Guatemala, and my father is from Mexico. I have a large family that is of mixed race (mostly white American) — this has perhaps factored into how I view my Latino identity.

Javier Moreno: Staff writer. I identify as Latino. I have mixed ancestry and have spent my entire life in the United States. I was born and raised in Texas and identify as a Texan more than anything else.

David Noriega: I'm a reporter for BuzzFeed News. I'm half Colombian and half American. I was born in Colombia and moved to the U.S. when I was 13, but I grew up straddling both cultures. I identify as Colombian-American, but these feel like distinct halves, rather than a blended whole; at any given moment one side is active and the other is more or less dormant. This applies to language, cultural tastes and preferences, sense of humor, and the like. As such it's hard for me to say that I "identify as Latino" — I do sometimes. Besides, as far as things that determine the course of my life, I think my whiteness and socioeconomic background (my "privilege") trump these geographic and cultural affiliations.

What does Latino mean to you?

Adrian: "Latino" was a word I didn't really use growing up in New York City; if I were forced, I would have said Hispanic. But working in media aimed at Hispanic-Americans, I came to appreciate Latino identity, shared experiences, and the knowledge that everyone from brands to politicians wants to treat Latinos like they're all the same. While that's obviously silly, and there are a whole host of differences among U.S. Latinos, I'm really interested personally in the similarities and shared experiences. A smart man once told me Latino identity is blossoming because of social media and the internet, and I've come to see it as increasingly true.

Brian: The word "Latino" never had a negative connotation for me. I always felt, as Adrian points out, that being Latino is about the shared experiences that bind us.

Norberto: I don't even know what Latino is anymore. Growing up, I always thought Latino meant people who looked like me: brown, speaks Spanish, probably from Mexico or some other Central or South American country. As I went to high school and then to college, I realized that Latino goes way beyond that. There are black Latinos, white Latinos, Asian Latinos, Latinos who don't speak Spanish, etc. It's SO complex. So vast. I generally stick to Mexican-American for this reason.

Alex: I really like how Norberto's answer touches upon just how broad and diverse a group we are. Like, what binds us together? We encompass so many experiences, religions, languages, countries, political views. I think, not to be touchy-feely about it, but it's based on a sense of familiarity. Despite all these differences within the group, there are things we have in common that you recognize in specific moments.

Conz: To be brutally honest, when I moved to the U.S. I hated being called Latina because i felt like ~most~ people were using it to talk down to me. I feel in four years a lot has changed and there's more a sense of empowerment within the U.S. Latinos here.

Alex: I think the "being talked down to" element is also a reason why it's important to identify as Latin@ in a public way. It allows us to dictate, for ourselves, what that word means and the associations that go along with it.

Nicolas: Alex is getting at something. I think of Latinidad less as a fixed category that you either fall into or not and more as a network of solidarity based on a shared history. To call yourself Latino or Latina is, in my mind, to cast your lot with other people whose position in the world was shaped by the history of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the Americas. When you call yourself Latino or Latina, you are assuming your part in that history — whether you ancestors did good or bad things — and you decide that you want to take responsibility for redeeming what went wrong and continues to go wrong with that history. I also think that this is a kind of solidarity that makes the most sense in the United States.

Norberto: I dig Nico's point. "A network of solidarity based on a shared history." A Mexican-American from East L.A. can have the same experiences with a Cuban-American from Miami. I think that's really cool and a point of pride for many Latinos. The U.S. is one big melting pot. Unless you're Native American, no one is truly American. People have different backgrounds in this country and, for me at least, it's cool to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the lot. Latin@ is our thing. And I dig that.

Julia: It's really hard to use this one word/identity to define a huge group of people, but Nico, I'm not sure there's always a "shared" history as much an implied one. As Latin American Studies grad students, we spent an entire year studying Spanish influences on Latin America, and one day discussing anything about Brazil. I feel warmly when I'm accepted as a Latina, but there's always a moment of pause and separation when I remind people that Brazil is still a part of the whole jam. Sometimes I feel like I'm on some kind of insane life quest in search of the answer to this exact question of what Latino ~really~ means.

David: One point I'd like to add about "shared history" being a part of Latino identity is the role that the United States has played in that shared history. Latinidad is something that exists, directly or indirectly, in relation to the United States: as interventionist power, as immigrant destination, as finishing school and playground for elites. This may be one reason why it's easier for Latin Americans from different countries to relate to one another in the United States than in Latin America itself. Which reminds me — for me personally, being Latino in the United States is less something I feel internally than something I feel when I communicate with others. I'm Latino when I'm speaking Spanish in Queens, not necessarily when I'm walking around Central Park. Obviously, this has to do with the fact that I'm also American, I'm white, and I speak accentless English. As such, my being Latino is never wielded against me or thrown in my face, and often isn't even perceived — which is not the case with most Latinos and with many in this discussion.

What are the misconceptions and things media gets wrong about Latinos?

Conz: That we are all the same. One-size-fits-all kinda thing.

Brian: YES! One hundred percent agree with Conz. I feel oftentimes that ALL Latinos are portrayed as a Mexican stereotype.

Ann-Marie: I think what the media always gets wrong is when they try to "connect" with Latinos and use a headline with the word spicy, caliente, or that awful New York Times story about Latinos growing from picking crops to running the farm. I always wonder, who are they targeting? Actual Latinos or other demos that will click and "learn" more of who we are?

Norberto: To add to Ann-Marie's point, I FUCKING HATE IT WHEN WE GET REFERRED TO AS SPICY. For real? "Spicy"? Like, WTF? Also, English-language media is the worst when it comes to Cinco de Mayo. If I have to see another white news anchor dancing around in a sombrero and poncho and shaking a maraca, I'm going to punch a wall.

Alejandro: I agree with the whole thing about using words in Spanish to describe us. However, what really makes me mad is the ignorance of people with geography. They think we all live in the same place. I think it's important to differentiate each culture so we can embrace their uniqueness. People really need to pay attention in their ninth-grade geography class.

Julia: Can we just ban all food-related comparisons forever? One thing I've struggled with as a writer as well as a reader is how easily these stupid, simple garbage words and metaphors really stick. If I have to look at another damn headline that draws a comparison between pubic hair and the country of my birth, I'm going to scream. It's dismaying to see when writers don't take their words or language seriously. Words hold a very specific power and perpetuate very real, extremely problematic stereotypes.

Alex: Another thing that irks me about the things are marketed to Latinos is that it reveals that many companies and orgs are just NOW paying attention to us. And, while it's true that we're a growing population, the reality is that we've been an integral part of this country for generations. We been here.

Adrian: This outreach never acts like we're American and mainstream. There was a Honda commercial that in marketing to Latino millennials actually made fun of how brands usually try to reach young Hispanics. It did it in a really funny, smart way, because it treated Latinos as normal — trying to go to work, buying groceries. Sad that it came off as a breath of fresh air.

David: When I first moved to the U.S. and told people I came from Colombia, I'd often hear one of two things: some comment about the drug trade, or some comment about attractive women. It's a pitfall of the ever-so-slightly informed, as opposed to the totally ignorant — those who reduce our countries of origin to stereotypes derived either from headlines (poverty-stricken hellhole with car bombs) or travel brochures (cruise ship paradise with cocktails and hip shaking).

To what extent does class/race factor into Latino identity, and what about colorism in the Latino community?

Norberto: I'll be the first to admit that I had a very ignorant view of white people growing up. White people were white. They can't be Latino. They don't know what I've been through. They don't look like me, so we're different. They look like the people who oppress me. I had a very militant ideology at the time. And only later in life do you learn that you're a complete dumbass thinking this way. Anyone can be Latino, regardless of the color of their skin.

Julia: I totally, feel you Norberto — I had to actively divorce myself from the lessons I learned from my Brazilian family about race, class, and gender. It hurts and it's not easy to come up against the fact that this part of you that you love isn't always perfect. There's definitely something to the idea that as representatives of the Latino community we don't want to hurt our own cause by coming to terms with the serious failings that do exist. But being visible and complete as a diverse entity requires having some discussions that aren't always easy.

Javier: I have always felt that colorism and race is the biggest elephant in the room in the Latino community. Both are extremely prevalent, yet nobody ever talks about it. I am dark compared with most of my relatives and friends, and have always been treated differently because of it. Class is also a factor that ties into that. The people who have the most also coincidentally have the most European blood and a lighter complexion. It is even present in Spanish- and Portuguese-language media. If it ain't white, it ain't right.

Adrian: Some of this is so ingrained in Latino families. Like you'll have darker family members who said they wanted a grandchild with green eyes or something. Implicit in that is wanting to be whiter, to mejorar la raza, or improve the race, as they say, so unfortunately.

Nicolas: Norberto is right when he says that a person can be Latino irrespective of the color of their skin. I would add that there are Latinos of all classes. Sure, we are all Latinos — but that doesn't mean that we get a free pass to not contend with the very real differences among us. The fact that there are light-skinned Mexicans at the helm of tech companies, for example, should not be counted as a political victory for Latinos.

Alex: That's another flaw in how Latinos are represented in both American culture overall and within Spanish-language media — by showing mostly light-skinned or, like, "lightly bronzed" Caucasian Latinos, it not only fails to represent all the different races within this group, it also works to portray us as a monolith that doesn't have its own issues to work through. Classism and colorism cast very, very long shadows over U.S. Latinos and Latin Americans, and have from the get-go. To ignore that is to ignore both the current reality of what it means to be part of the Latino experience, broad as that is, as well as the history of Latinos. So when I read something like the New York Times or Washington Post article on Latinos "becoming" white or choosing to identify as a certain race, it essentially ignores or glosses over the colorism and classism present within the community.

Norberto: Adding to Alex's point, we like to blame English-language media a lot — but we also have to look at ourselves for how our Spanish-language media puts white people up on a pedestal. Just look at shows like Republica Deportiva and El Gordo y La Flaca and you won't see too much brown in there.

Let's get into that — portrayal of Latinos in Hollywood/TV/media, and particularly, I know we've written about the problems of Latina portrayal.

Jessica: Latinas on Spanish-language TV must ALWAYS be some sort of sexy. And in some shows, like El Gordo y La Flaca, you can see women in the background dancing half-naked and stuff. Latinas in the media always have to be sexy and attractive first and foremost. It's just upsetting that there is so much pressure to look a certain way in order to even be considered to be on TV as a Latina.

Julia: Aaand there's this really complicated thing that happens when stereotypes that you really need to leave behind decide to follow everybody into the "Brave! New! World! of being a Latin@." As a recent study showed, it's hard to think of a moment when being a Latina on TV/in film doesn't mean performing your sexuality in some way.

Conz: All I got to say here is that I don't LOOK like Sofia Vergara, I don't SOUND like Sofia Vergara, and I honestly think that the fact that the most popular portrayal of a Latina right now is Sofia Vergara is really harming us women in more ways than we might understand.

Alex: And that extends to the way Latinas are portrayed and discussed online, again both within English- and Spanish-language media. Do a Google image search for "Latina." Take a glance at the coverage of women, particularly Latin American women, during the last World Cup. That's why I admire efforts like the one to "bomb the Latina tag" on Tumblr, because it cements the reality that it's up to us, particularly behind the scenes, to dictate, for ourselves, how we're represented. And a big part of that means leaving the door open behind you for other Latinas as well.

Hey, there's positive stuff out there too! Who is a Latin@ out there today whom you admire?

Adrian: Gina Rodriguez has a new show, Jane the Virgin, and I think she sort of exemplifies where we're coming from a little bit. She's a Latina on TV, on her own terms, and has talked powerfully about why she didn't want to take on stereotypical roles like that of a maid. She feels she has a duty as a Latina on TV, and that's cool in my book.

Brian: Guillermo del Toro. I think because he is someone who is admired more for his storytelling and visionary style than he is for being a Latino.

Conz: My dad. Because he took a chance accepting a job in a country he didn't know and took my mom on an adventure. And after that, we all couldnt stop moving around the world and discovering new places/cultures.

Norberto: I'm going to with Gabriel Iglesias. The dude is hilarious and he's himself. As he's said in the past, he's not a "Latino" comedian. He's a comedian who happens to be Latino. I've always admired that mentality.

Nicolas: Rosairo Caicedo. She's from Colombia, and is a retired social worker who lives in New Haven and does a ton of really incredible work for undocumented people there. The kind of exhausting, unglamorous work that gets zero attention and yet makes all the difference in the world.

Javier: Honestly, Diego Maradona. He's never been afraid to be who he wants to be.

Ann-Marie: My parents, who immigrated from Peru, and despite arriving here and doing jobs they didn't want to do at first, made sure to somehow still get back in journalism. They now run their own community newspaper.

Alex: Teens on Tumblr. They show that young Latinos are awesome, creative, informed, intelligent, inspired, weird, and hilarious.

Jessica: Jennifer Lopez. She has managed to stay relevant for a very long time, and is also a smart woman who is extremely business-savvy. She is essentially the whole package, beauty and smarts.

Alejandro: I'd go with my Chicano professors from college. Most of them are authors and I think them writing about Latino literature really blazes a trail.

David: Manny Garcia. He's a kick-ass journalist, an unwavering mentor, and a good, humble person.

You're stuck on an island with only two things from your culture/family. What do you bring?

Adrian: Maaan, my mom makes a bomb-ass pernil, and if it's endless, that with arroz con gandules and her sauce with onions, it's a wrap. Music would be "Vivir Mi Vida" by Marc Anthony, a banger until the end of time.

Ann-Marie: I would definitely, hands down, bring a huge pot full of lomo saltado and maduros. I'd sing myself Marc Anthony and J.Lo tunes.

Alex: Walter Mercado and Pitbull.

Alejandro: Enchiladas & OV7 Albums.

Conz: Dulce de leche and Soda Stereo, all of their albums.

Norberto: Green chilaquiles with fried eggs. And Rubi.

Javier: Al pastor tacos and Celia Cruz.

Jessica: Ceviche and Gallo (Guatemala's premium beer).

Nicolas: The complete works of Alfonos Reyes. And I'd also like an endless supply of chilorio, gracias. Wait, no. Make that mezcal. The cheap kind.

Brian: Oh man, this is a tough one. I would for sure bring my mom's black beans — so delicious — and pollo campero!

David: A stack of old cumbia and currulao records, and a stack of García Márquez's books.

What emoji would you use to describe being Latino?

Conz: NO EMOJI CAN DESCRIBE HOW AWESOME WE ARE.

Adrian: ::100 100 fire emoji little smirking dude::

Alejandro: ::Smirking dude:: because we're just too cool for everyone so they be hatin' on us.

Alex: ::Smiley caca:: because we're the shit.

Jessica: ::Rocket emoji:::: because we are out of this world.

Adrian: Smdh.

Nicolas: I hate emojis. Ban emojis!

Norberto: I just realized I hate emojis. I'm with Nico.

Ann-Marie: +1 Conz. There is no emoji to describe how wonderful and awesome we are.

Brian: The ::smiling emoji:: — it represents how amazing it is to be part of such an awesome and diverse culture.

Julia: I feel like the ::smiling monster:: is in on the joke and has flipped it on itself — the way I want all of the Latinos to do. The Latino emoji smiley monster is beaming Latinidad in all directions like the sun. And it's a monster nobody wants to even DEAL with, which…well, you know, appropriate.

Adrian: Well, this took a turn.

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