On writing non-stereotypical Latinxs
A short guide on Latinx stereotypes and how to create respectful and multifaceted Latinx characters for non-Latinx writers and creators.
As creators, we aim to be as inclusive and socially aware as possible, but often fall prey to misconceptions and stereotypes that we’ve absorbed from the media we consume, and our attempts at diversity and respectful representation end up being offensive or stereotypical. Of course, research is the first big step we need to take when creating a character whose lived experience doesn’t match ours, but researching something as broad and diverse as Latinidad can be a challenge for non-Latinxs.
The first thing you need to know before starting the creation of your Latinx character is, of course, what Latinx means. This post will take an approach to Latinidad based on the stereotypes usually presented on non-Latinx anglosaxon media, but you can find a more in-depth explanation of Latinidad in my post “What is Latinx?”. Because the stereotypes that surround the collective imagery of Latinidad are mostly propagated by USAmerican, we’ll start from there.
Stereotype: Latinxs are all from Mexico.
Though, according to official statistics, a little above 60% of the United States’ Latinx population is of Mexican origin, there’s still around 10% from Puerto Rico, with the rest distributed along Central America and South America.
Remember: Latin America (and thus the Latinx identity) includes Puerto Rico, Mexico and all countries South of them that were colonized by European countries of Latin roots (meaning Portugal, Spain and France). It does not include the European countries that colonized us.
Stereotype: Latinxs are all of an indefinite, brown-ish ancestry; with light brown skin, full lips and dark wavy hair.
Because Latinx is an ethnicity that includes any person born in Latin America and their descendants, Latinxs can be of any race and look any kind of way. Latinxs can be Indigenous, Black, Asian, Rromani, Arab, white, etc.
Mexico, the country that is usually “represented” in white American media, has over 60% of mestizx population (mostly Spaniard with a fraction of Indigenous ancestry), around 30% population of mostly Indigenous ancestry, and around 10% of white population. There’s a small percentage, around 5%, of population that actively identifies as Black, as well as small Middle Eastern and Asian populations.
These demographics are not continent-wide. Peru has a small but thriving Japanese population, Brazil has the biggest Black population of any country outside of Africa, nearly 70% of Bolivia is still of mostly Indigenous ancestry, and the Indigenous nations across the continent are not all the same.
Stereotype: All Latinxs speak Spanish.
Though Spanish is the most widespread language across Latin America, Portuguese and French are also official languages in some Latin American countries, like Brazil and Haiti. There’s also the Indigenous languages of the many Aboriginal cultures across the continent, as well as the languages of immigrant groups.
Also, diasporic Latinxs who weren’t born in Latin America may not speak other language than English or the language of their current country of residence, and that doesn’t make them any less Latinx.
Stereotype: All Latinxs are devout catholics.
Though Catholicism is one of the most widespread religions across Latin America due to the christianizing mission of Spanish colonizers, it is not the only religion in the continent, nor is Apostolic Roman Catholicism the only branch of Christianity practiced among Latinxs.
There are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist Latinxs, etc.; Latinxs who follow Indigenous religions and African religions; as well as other branches of Christianity and even Latin American takes on Christianity that mix Indigenous and African practices with it. And there are, of course, atheist Latinxs, like there are atheists everywhere.
Stereotype: All Latinxs are highly superstitious.
Latin America has a rich and diverse local mythology that stems both from our local religions as it does from tradition, tales and stories passed from generation to generation. There’s the Gauchito Gil in Argentina, the gualichos across South America, macumbas in Brazil, la Santa Muerte and el Chupacabra in Mexico, Vodoo in Haiti, brujas and santeras all across the continent.
These mythologies and traditions are very important to many Latinxs and should not be devalued, but that does not mean that every Latinx out there is a die-hard believer in spirits and curses.
Negative stereotypes that are usually associated with Latinxs.
Latinxs are usually associated with violence and crime, sex, backwards and regressive ideas, laziness or addiction. In white anglosaxon media, you’ll find that Latinxs are represented as…
Criminals (gangbangers, drug dealers, pimps, mules).
Violent (angry, loud, foul-mouthed, abusive to their kids or romantic partners).
Backwards (sexist, homophobic, racist to other non-white groups).
Patriarchal (overbearing mothers, overprotective and sexist brothers and fathers, everyone in the family responds to the father).
Hypersexual and promiscuous (the Latin Lover/Spicy Latina).
Bad workers (lazy, unmotivated, rude to customers, careless).
There is also an image of Latinxs as coming from broken families (single mothers, absent fathers, usually loads of siblings), as being addicts/alcoholics, and Latinas being sex workers. This is not an attack on real Latinx whose experience match the stereotype (nor saying that sex work is wrong, it isn’t), but they are ways in which white anglosaxons demonizes Latinxs.
Similarly, the “Latinx Immigrant” stereotype (low class, undocumented immigrants who don’t speak English or speak with a strong accent; and work jobs such as gardener, maid or construction worker) doesn’t mean that real Latinx immigrants are less than, the issue is with narratives that insist in fitting all Latinxs inside the same box.
Another good resource to find common tropes so you’ll know to avoid them is the TVTropes page on Latin America, which lists tropes by country and goes deeper in their context and origin.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can never write an immigrant, poor, Spanish-speaking, brown-skinned Latinx character. Many white authors, in an attempt to avoid any and all harmful stereotypes, end up writing Latinx characters that are only Latinx in name. There needs to be a balance between writing harmful stereotypes and writing light-skinned Latinxs who are perfectly assimilated to Anglosaxon culture.
The first way to avoid a “stereotypical” Latinx character coming off as racist is, simply, to not make them the only Latinx in your story. For example, in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain we have Gus Elizalde (Mexican-American ex-con, has an accent, overall religious) and Nora Martinez(Argentinian expat, biochemist, renowned investigator). Both have their own arcs, personalities and stories that go beyond their latinidad; but the fact that they are Latinx informs their narratives. Most importantly, the things that could come off as stereotypical in one character are balanced out in the other.
The important thing when creating a Latinx character is that you don’t just say “okay, this character will be Latinx”, pick a couple tropes that your potential audience might associate with Latinidad and leave it at that. Latinxs have nationalities and races and heritages outside of just being “Latinx”. Grab a map, pick a country, research the demographics. See if what you’re writing makes sense.
You could have a Latinx of any race, but it’ll make more sense for them to be Black in Brazil, visibly Indigenous in Bolivia, light-skinned mestizx in Mexico or white in Uruguay. South America has big Asian diasporas, each with their respective stories of immigration. Indigenous nations are different from country to country. Even white Latinxs are different, depending on the immigration waves that brought Italians, Russians, Germans and many more into the continent.
When you write a white gringx character they’re rarely just “white”. They have a country of origin and a familiar story. Latinxs do too. Are your Latinxs immigrants? Second generation? Do they come directly from Latin America or did their family live elsewhere too?
Most important, make sure your characters are tridimensional. That they aren’t the way they are just because it’s something “Latinxs do”. For example, if you want your character to sprinkle Spanish, Portuguese or French in their speech, that means that they grew speaking it, or around people who speak it. (And, of course, check that the slang you’re using for your bilingual character makes sense, as there are hundreds of Spanish dialects in the continent and a handful of Portuguese variations in Brazil!)
Like I said before, a Hispanic name and brown skin doesn’t make a Latinx. If they have no ties to their ancestors’ language, traditions or history, why is that? There are Latinxs that have no connection to their Latinidad, like transracial adoptees or diasporic Latinxs who weren’t allowed to remain close to their heritage due to their family’s fear of racism and xenophobia.
The important thing when creating a Latinx character is that you know (and your audiences can know) why the character is the way they are, and that the takeaway isn’t “this is simply the way Latinxs are”. Create your Latinx characters with just as much care and attention to detail as any other character. Do your research, and always keep in mind that Latinxs don’t look, act or speak all the same way.