Saturday, August 08, 2015

Stereotypes, tropes, dignifying Latino fiction

Writing fiction about Latinos brings up questions about stereotyping, even for this Chicano author. Will this fictional family be poor, working class, or prosperous? Are the parents' careers working class or professional? What about secondary characters, the house your characters live in and the roles they play in the household?

I'll give examples from a just-completed, middle-grade fantasy story of mine. Examples where I try to avoid stereotyping, with the intention of enriching the Chicano characters in a novel. Whether I made the best choices is not as important as deliberately attempting to dignify the portrayals. If you're an aspiring writer, perhaps my explanations will give you ideas for presenting your stories in a different light, one more realistic, but also innovative. These are examples from A Cradle for Abuelo:

The nagual spirit enjoyed running alongside the bulldog while they both barked at the mail woman.
I might've automatically written, the mailman. But my mail is sometimes delivered by a female, and my sister-in-law also delivers mail. This is the only mention of the mail woman, so it's almost insignificant. Still, it's a distinct point.

• "You'll think of something." she said, drying and hanging his skillet on a hook.
In this family, the husband is the cook, which is not highly unusual. When he's busy elsewhere, the wife warms up leftovers. I could've fallen into the wife being the cook and dishwasher, and I'm not off the hook for making her the dishwasher. I simply did what I could to not fall into the regular patriarchal family.

• "You helped so many kids when you taught elementary." He nodded toward the piano in her den.
The husband worked as a manual laborer, and the wife was a music teacher. Both are not uncommon ideas or careers in a Chicano family. We do have Latino teachers, just not enough great ones. I could've just made her a housewife, but in the story, music is important and she provided avenues for including it. Also note that the den is hers, a nice touch, I thought.

• "They would understand," he said, looking out the skylight.
The man is in his workshop making a neo-azteca cradle for his first grandkid. The story didn't need a skylight, but many homes have them. Even some that belong to Chicanos. We raza are not all stuck back in the 19th Century with simple adobe. Nor are all our homes plain old boxes.

• The nagual zoomed across the land until he spotted the house's solar panels.
Did I go too far with the tech? Possibly. But there are mexicanos, Chicanos, etc. that have solar. If I could afford installation, I would.

• The old couple could've bought almost anything for breakfast, but they were making their favorites--barbacoa tacos, fruit salad and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
There are more mentions in the story indicating this family is secure and can buy nearly anything they want or need. They just aren't into consumerism. My one concern is, did I make the family too well-off for many readers to identify with them.
Nutritional note: no foods were harmfully fried in the making of this story; only grilled, or served fresh.

• "We never found any good cocineras for the house. Their meals never tasted as deliciosos as ours." … The invisible nagual giggled because he'd played some tricks on those cooks, to make them quit.
Here I might agree I went too far in making the couple prosperous enough to hire a cook. However, I needed to introduce the mischievous nagual. At the same time, could a family with a hired cook serve as a role model of what saving money might mean in retirement? Possibly.

• "I wanted to give a gift more unique than a metal or plastic toy." [And later:] He rubbed in an oil made of juniper sap and the fruit-juice of nuts. He only used natural stains; toxic manmade chemicals would've harmed the grandkid's health.
Is this environmental preaching? Maybe, but I'm not the only woodworker who avoids nails and screw, to the extent I can. And there are millions of parents concerned about their children's environment.

• He peered at the white door where he kept his demon imprisoned.
The words liquor, alcohol and whiskey are never used; only the word, bottle. The man "had been born in another country and suffered from horrible memories that brought on his demon-sickness." The appropriateness of that sickness in a children's won't be discussed here. My example above concerns the color of the door holding the evil. I didn't go the lazy route of using classic black to denote bad. Instead, I used white. Like many of the evils in real life. The color of the door is a minor point, but how frequently do even Latino writers resort to the color black, when they don't need to?

• She had an idea, but she didn't like telling anybody what to do. Besides, pushy people made for lousy friends.
The wife is intelligent and often knows the answers to her husband's problems. But she's also confident enough to choose when to interfere. And for good reason. Is this anti-bullying propaganda? I don't know.

• "There's people outside driving by slowly." … "They admiring your beautiful landscaping and rosas, again?" … "Rosas, schmosas. They're pointing at the lawn furniture and at the artsy way you decorated la casa." … "Please don't run out and tell them anything," he said, winking. She could spend half an hour explaining his woodwork to strangers.
There's a lot here, but the passage primarily shows that this Chicano couple's home is not just a plain house. It's skillfully crafted and landscaped enough for strangers to slow down and look. Yes, in fact, some people of color have modest homes that are that attractive.

There are other examples in this story and in others, including in those written by other Latinos. And Latinas. Whatever your opinion of my attempts to diversify the story elements, I hope I at least provided material for thought about what you might do in your own stories. For that matter, experienced authors probably know more than me, and you can see in their writings other techniques for dignifying and raising the bar of how Latinos are portrayed.

Remember though, describing mexicanos, Chicanos, puertoriqueños, domicanos, etceteranos involves more than any literary tricks. It's about other worldviews, values, morals and beliefs. To know those, is to know our people.

Es todo, hoy,
RudyG, a.k.a. Chicano fantasy author, Rudy Ch. Garcia, holding a hot manuscript that's itching for a publisher.


Kenny Chaffin said...

Nice article! I liked this very much,

"He peered at the white door where he kept his demon imprisoned."


My grandmother used always ask me why I don't write about the family. My reason was that Anglo editors wouldn't believe in us. If you don't use stereotypes editors -- and readers -- still tend to get confused. "How do these people know all these things you have them talking about? I thought they were supposed to be Hispanics." It helps to be writing somekinda spec fic. My one attempt at a "mainstream" novel about a Chicano remains unpublished, "too weird for New York," I was told. I've always thought that if you carried around a recorder at a large Chicano gathering, then dutifully transcribed it, no one would believe it, or they'd think is was an avant-garde literary experiment.

Ruth de Jauregui said...

Very nice!

And Ernest, don't let publishers hold you back! Self publish!!


Ruth, I've been there and done that with my first three books. It actually takes a time and money, and I'm doing so much. Maybe someday . . .

Unknown said...

Terrific post thanks!

Sylvia Riojas said...

I get your meaning, Ernest! My poems often spring from my Mexican-American heritage, but Rudy's right-- we have a lot of highly educated, professional people in the family, but I write about what's different -- my father's coffee colored skin, my grandfather's ability to make a piñata dance, how my godfather excelled at menudo. Chanclas, bolsas, raspas, things important to the family when we got together, and low riding with my cousin's friend!