It’s not hip to use Spanish lingo. It’s not exotic to be Hispanic. Not every Hispanic wants to talk about the wall or immigration issues. Playing “Despacito” or “Mi Gente,” singing along to them and absolutely butchering the lyrics nonchalantly doesn’t mean you understand my culture or know about Latin music. Not everyone celebrates Día de los Muertos or Cinco de Mayo. And it’s especially not cool to oversexualize Hispanic women and men.
Hispanic identity is often seen as homogeneous. Not all Hispanic people come from the same country, nor do we all share the same cultural traditions, but the over-stereotyping and fetishizing of Hispanic people has become a norm in American culture.
In 2012, 69 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. said they don’t see a shared cultural identity, according to the Pew Research Center. We all know that we’re Hispanic, but we are also more than just this generic label.
Before you even get to know me, you read my last name — Correa — and probably assume it is Spanish because of the spelling and label me, but my family’s last name is actually of Portuguese origin spelled in a Spanish way. If that doesn’t show how complicated Hispanic culture is, I don’t know what will.
There are several ethnic groups within Latin America — Asians, blacks, whites, mestizos (European and Native American), mulattoes (European and African ancestry) and zambos (Africans and Native Americans). Religion is also an important part of Hispanic culture, and many assume that we’re all Christian.
A Hispanic identity is like a tree, getting increasingly complicated as you move further up. Saying I’m Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Dominican or Sephardic Jewish — which is an ethnoreligious group of people with origins from Spain and Portugal — doesn’t even come close to describing what a Hispanic person is. Each group of people has its own cultural identity and traditions.
The Latin American narrative in Hollywood films tends to default to a struggling immigrant story, in which the person’s poverty leads them to a life of crime. I’ve yet to see a mainstream successful Hollywood film about Caribbean people or other Latin American groups, but even if I were to complain about the lack of diversity of Hispanic film content, there’s lack of representation of Hispanics in Hollywood as a whole. I cannot expect Hollywood to change the content of its films when they’re only using a handful of Hispanic actors.
In 2016, only 2.7 percent of film roles in Hollywood went to Latinos, according to the 2018 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report. And you typically don’t see Hispanics playing the role of the intelligent scientist, the genius writer or the hopeless romantic.
What doesn’t help the matter is how Latin American men and women are portrayed in the media and films. The Hispanic women I see in films, television and the news wear tight-fitting dresses — leaving practically nothing to the imagination — and they act more like dumb trophy wives than independent, strong individuals. If she isn’t a beautiful woman, she’s a poorly dressed maid who speaks broken English and is quite submissive. She is the background character — the joke of the scene.
Late actress Lupe Ontiveros, a Mexican immigrant, played a maid over 150 times in her 35-year career in Hollywood. She said she wanted to play other roles like Hispanic heroines, but those roles weren’t available to her. In a 2002 interview with The New York Times, Ontiveros said she didn’t get the part when she spoke in perfect English. Casting recruiters wanted somebody with a thick accent, playing on one of many Hispanic stereotypes.
The men are usually portrayed as criminals, drug-dealers, goofballs or something to be fantasized about. People praise shows like “Narcos,” a Netflix show about drug dealing in Colombia, and glorify the narrative of criminal activity. It’s sickening to keep casting Hispanics for roles that make us seem like we’re extras or tainted with evil.
I want to see Hispanic characters with more depth to them. I don’t want the women to just breathe, stand around and look pretty, and I don’t want the men to seem violent and savage.
So after you finished binge-watching “Narcos” or just heard another Spanish song on your Spotify playlist, you feel the urge to start using the two Spanish words you know or heard multiple times in the show you’ve been watching or the song you’ve heard. When the song “Mi Gente” plays on your party playlist, you’ll look at me and ask “Do you understand what they’re saying,” and “Can you teach me Spanish?” even though you don’t actually want to learn the language.
There’s a time and place to bring up the few Spanish words you learned in high school that you can barely put into a sentence. People use Spanish lingo all the time, but you shouldn’t have to throw in a couple of Spanish words into the conversation just because a Hispanic person is in the room. Also, telling someone to speak Spanish on the spot when they just want to talk about everyday things doesn’t make them feel welcome. It makes them feel like there’s a barrier, as if you think they’re different.
In my experience, the way people talk to a Hispanic can be inherently sexual on some occasions. When I talk about a guy that I’m attracted to, I don’t want the advice to be to call him “Papi” and show off the goods. Saying that you’re a nice mix is also not a compliment. I’m not a dog. I’m a human being.
Maybe what you said was just a joke that you really didn’t mean, but the problem is that it’s the same joke told over and over by multiple people. When you say these things to a person, you’re confirming the stereotype that a Hispanic woman is “easy” or not worthy of one’s love and respect. You’re objectifying her and confirming to her that she is somebody’s toy to be played with, not somebody who deserves to be cherished.
I hate to break it to you, but Hispanics are not troublemakers. I grew up in a home in which my parents and grandparents encouraged me to be a strong, independent woman with morals, but sometimes I don’t think people understand that. The tough love we get pushes us to strive for more.
Maybe some of this ignorance stems from the lack of education about Hispanic cultures and Spanish history in classrooms. Stop using Spanish words because you think it’s “cute” — Spanish isn’t a trend or a silly language. Stop talking about my people like you know every single thing about them — there are some things you have to experience and you can’t read in a textbook. Stop trying to change how you talk around me. Stop thinking what you see on TV represents every single Hispanic. And stop encouraging me to disrespect myself by telling me to dress like what you think a Hispanic should look like based on the media’s stereotype of what Hispanic is.