Conceptualizing Latinx Identity In Speculative Fiction
When the Star Wars comic featuring Poe Dameron’s family premiered, I remembered a sense of joy in the Latinx community. Despite its tragic end, Star Wars: Shattered Empire featured people of color from Yavin 4, a setting that had been previously filmed in Ecuador. Poe Dameron, played by Guatamalan-Cuban actor and everyone’s movie husband Oscar Isaac, was now canonically Latino. A win for Latinx in science fiction and fantasy!
…But was he really, though? There is nothing more necessary in speculative fiction than having in prominent people of color front and center, being able to tell stories with nuance and self-actualization. This is especially true when those people look like that.
My issue is one of (pardon my language) semantics. In particular, when those semantics end up erasing a set of experiences by a largely disadvantaged people. This is due to the fact that Latinx and Hispanic (1) identities are dependent on their history. Leading to the possibility that when we remove that history from a context in speculative fiction, we end up erasing that identity. Instead we only get a character of color from a jungle planet.
A Quick and Dirty History of Latin America
We start before the 1400s where indigenous civilizations exist in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Pacific islands. These include people such as the Arawak cultures, Mayans, Chinu and empires, like the Inca and Aztec and more. The age of the explorers brought the Conquistadors (literally Conquerors) from Spain as well as from Portugal to the new world. Plus other Europeans hitched a ride—Italian, French, and English in large part.
They subjugated, raped, murdered, and enslaved the Native populations. Along with them, they brought slaves from Africa, and labor and trade from Asia. It’s also worth mentioning that the Iberian peninsula experienced its own mixed-cultural heritage, especially with diasporas from Northern Europe and Conquest from North Africa.
What that does is make Latin America a multi-cultural, multi-racial Colonial empire. With revolutionary movements, these cultures split into different countries. If it sounds familiar, it’s because this is akin to the history of the United States.
People in Latin America divide themselves up by other identifiers, including national and indigenous identities, racial identities, languages and heritages. Especially while residing in those respective countries.
Made in America
What I’m about to write is going to sound controversial, but Latinx and Hispanic identities only really exist in a concept of diaspora. In part because, outside of Latin America, people consider categories such as Latinx and Hispanic to be Racial identifiers rather than regional or ethnic. In other words, they’ve painted Latinx identities into a singular brown brush, instead of the many multi-ethnic and racial groups that occupy the numerous countries in the Caribbean, South and Central America.
Before you throw a zapato at the screen, let me clarify. I know a bunch of you are sitting there going “everyone knows that, it’s even different on the census!” Then let me tell you that no, Americans don’t know those are two different things. It’s something I can say with confidence living as a white-passing Latina. If I had a dollar for every time I had to explain that no, we don’t all look like Jennifer Lopez, I could have bought passage for all my family members from Cuba and Chile.
The racial flattening of these categories also ignores the very real racial politics that exist in Latin America, creating an imagined homogenized society. Latin Americans comprise todo los colores, from Amara La Negra to Paulina Rubio. Those differing identities are not equitably handled in their own contexts. Black, Indigenous, and Asian people still face discrimination and violence in Latinx countries, not to mention a history of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
To flatten those various identities into a prototype Latinx set of characteristics does a large disservice to the multitudes of racial, religious, and ethnic groups.
Pero Like, What is a Latinx Then?
The difficulty ends up being in showing a Latinx character without context. Our identities aren’t defined in the same ways other minority identities are. Context matters. History matters. Culture matters. To remove a Latinx person out of the interwoven history is to paint us as stereotypes, and it is often how we end up with brown faced white people (I’m looking at you Al Pachino), “spicy” Latinas, and cholos being our only sources of representation.
We’re more than that. We are entire histories of movement, of cultural appropriation and mixing. We have the blood of the colonized and the colonizers in many of our veins, and we have been struggling for identity both in home countries and in migration. Those traumas and victories are interwoven in our traditions and our sense of self.
¿Y EStar Guars?
While it is getting better, in the realm of speculative fiction, in particular science fiction and fantasy, we’re still largely missing. It’s easier for science fiction and fantasy that is set in our universe because, well, we already exist.
But can a Latinx person exist outside of this universe? Are we a set of people without our history?
A lot of science fiction and fantasy deals with the very real Latinx issues. Science Fiction with space travel and Fantasy with discussions of conquest especially so. Themes of diaspora, colonialism, indigenous subjugation and hybrid cultures can paint a picture of the Latinx experience. The solution then may be to connect those themes more explicitly to the Latinx people and communities. Then, when those characters end up on screen, to cast a wider racial set of performers.
Looking back at something like Star Wars, with its cross-cultural societies, the implications of migrations and conquest, an implied set of colonial history across planets, also speaks to a Latinx history. Maybe then Poe Dameron isn’t the only Latino in space, because they all are.
Well, everyone but Grand Moff Tarkin, Palpatine, and General Hux. Those guys are definitely just white.
(1) While “Hispanic” and “Latino/a/x” are often used interchangeably, my preference here is to use Latinx.