I'm Latinx — & I'm Fed Up With Being Called "Exotic"

Like many Latinxs, Luna Diaz, a 21-year-old retail associate in New York, had to learn how to navigate her identity beyond the stereotype portrayed in TV and film — of the cishet, curvaceous woman with dark features and a broken accent. "I've had white folks sexualise my entire existence — asking me to speak Spanish during sex or calling me 'exotic,'" she says. "I hate that fucking word!"
And she's not alone in her experience. In a recent study published in the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, researchers found that of the 100 top-grossing films of 2016, only 3% of roles were occupied by Latinxs — and of that, one-fourth of the women cast were either nude or in sexy attire.
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This damaging form of objectification degrades an individual to a single identifier, drowning individualism and perpetuating fetishism. So eight multi-ethnic women — who all identify as Latinx in some way — are rewriting their narratives. Below they explain, in their own words, who they really are.
Shenny Angeles, 22, Artist
As a child, I remember being confused about my Afro-Dominican identity. I got a lot of questions like, "Why is your grandma so dark?" or, "Why do you have hair like that?" My physical features didn't fit the mould of what Latinas look like — not just in my community, but also on TV. When you watch telenovelas, all the women have light complexions with long, beautiful hair. They played a role that was written, directed, and produced by men — the "sex" role — that I thought I had to emulate. By 12, I was straightening and relaxing my hair, all to feel pretty or to one day be called sexy.
Embracing my Blackness was really hard growing up. My mum is Dominican, but her ancestors are from West Africa. Colonisation manipulated her into hating that part of herself. She is anti-Black, a big Trump supporter. When I was 15, I decided that I was going to celebrate who I am. I went behind my mom's back and cut off five or six inches of my hair, put in blonde highlights, and started rocking this 'fro. I do have empathy for my mum; she just wants me to be accepted. For her, it's about survival. But I do wonder if just one person told my mum she was worthy of being seen in her natural state, would that change her?
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Who I Am: Yo soy Afro-Latina — and I wouldn't change it for anything. If society doesn't accept me, then I don't fucking need them.
Luna Diaz, 21, Retail Associate
I am Costa Rican and Dominican, but I look nothing like my sister or cousins. I am light-skinned, but I am the darkest of both sides of my family. I have been told I am more visibly Dominican because of my nose and body hair. I don't know if that's true, but I used to hate this about myself. When I was younger, I would shave it all off — my back, legs, eyebrows, sideburns, arms. Now I celebrate my hair. I let it all grow.
The first time I ever saw myself in someone else was when I learned about Frida Kahlo as a freshman in college. She had a unibrow like me! She painted like me! She was queer like me! She was a brown, hairy feminist, and I saw parts of me scattered throughout her. I always felt like she was speaking directly to me when she wrote, "I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do." I cried like a baby when I first read that quote. Representation is so important.
Who I Am: I am multi-faceted and intelligent. I am a force to be reckoned with. I am unstoppable like a spaceship that just keeps going up and up, higher and higher.
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Martine Gutierrez, 28, Artist
I am Guatemalan and American. I used to get offended when people asked what I am; I thought it was connected to fetishising how I look, especially if it was a man asking. They think it's a flirty, intimate conversation starter, but it's completely cosmetic and has nothing to do with getting to know me. Usually, I make them guess. I've gotten Middle Eastern, Egyptian, South East Asian, Cambodian — maybe it's because I'm so tall or have dark features.
My dad immigrated here from Guatemala, and is very [machista], so there where very clear delineations of gender roles in our household. As a child, I was always told I wasn't masculine enough. My features and mannerisms were all wildly effeminate. I was teased for being a sissy, or assumed to be a flaming fairy. But after identifying as trans, those "sissy" qualities were socially celebrated among friends, and if anything I've been pressured to abide by the binary — to be this hyper-femme, sexy, girly-girl, even though the gender role I cultivated for myself has never been heteronormative.
My transition has been the most aggravating and slow going with my parents. It wasn't the most shocking reveal, since growing up I ran around the house in dresses and wigs. But it's an ongoing process — physically and emotionally.
Who I Am: I am a video artist, photographer, and musician. I am a muse for myself. By putting myself in front of a mirror or camera, I'm able to better examine who I am.
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Stefa Marín Alarcon, 28, Composer
Both of my parents are Colombian, and I grew up a New Yorker. My first relationship was with a white cis-male, and he had a poster of Jennifer Lopez on his wall. He'd ask me why I didn't look like that or suggest I wear more form-fitting clothes to show off my "curves." Now I cringe at the thought, but at the time, when I was young and struggling with self-acceptance, I'd ask myself the same questions: Why don't I look like J. Lo, the epitome of "Latin" beauty? I'd look at my aunts, mother, and sister, and wonder where we fit in.
Now, with the body positive movement and being in a community that supports queer womxn and femmes in their many facets, I feel like I'm stepping into this next phase of my liberation. I still struggle with insecurities like everyone else, but now I wear whatever the fuck I want and allow myself to feel good because I like it. No one in my life tells me I should be only be wearing skin-tight leggings and crop tops — which sometimes I do. But I also feel just as empowered when I wear baggy jeans, an oversized button up shirt, and big ass hoops. The freedom lies in doing both and not having to explain yourself to anyone.
Who I Am: I am an artist. I am brown. I am a womxn, sister, daughter, and partner. I am always learning and unlearning. I am grateful for my ancestras.
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Julia Mata, 24, Illustrator
I have roots in Central America and Lithuania. When people ask me "What are you?" I respond with, "It's a long story," because it's complicated. My mom is white Jewish and my dad is Salvadoran and Honduran of Lenca and Pipil background. But technically, I'm half-adopted. I grew up with my mom and, when I was five, I was adopted by her second husband, who is also white Jewish. My birth certificate reflects that adoption and my name was legally changed. There was a lot of confusion growing up, being a person of colour, having a very white name, and living in a white community in Southern California.
When I was a little kid, I didn't like a lot of aspects about myself — my hair, the shape of my eyebrows, or just being hairy in general. I didn't think those things were pretty in comparison to white girls. Then, I left my family’s house when I was 18 and reconnected with the other half of my family. Meeting them, seeing brown people who actually looked like me, that's when I was able to see myself and the beauty in how I looked.
Who I Am: I am an illustrator. I've been on an intentional journey of self-discovery for a long time — and I'm still learning to be okay with the complexity of who I am.
Andrea Cruz, 29, Video Editor
I am Mexican. I am also Chicana, because I grew up in America, and I strongly identify with both. I grew up in an inner-city neighbourhood until my parents moved me to a white community in L.A., where I was one of the only brown girls at school. I became aware of my Latinx features in kindergarten, and my first association with it was pain. When I was five, my "friend" would pull on my curly hair in between class. She had beautiful, thick, straight hair and I was so shocked when it happened that I wouldn't move. Thankfully the experience didn't encourage me to cut or tame my hair, but it did create a hyper sense of self-awareness in how others treated me based on my appearance.
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It didn't help that society painted this sexualised Latinx stereotype of a woman with accentuated body parts in tight clothes in movies and TV shows. I've had curves and big, long, curly hair since I was 11 years old. I grew up in a beach town, so our bodies were on full display — there was no hiding my curves. I'm in the beginning stages of learning how to navigate my sexuality and speak up when I feel objectified.
Who I Am: I'm human. At the end of the day, that's always been the root of all this. Not feeling Mexican enough or American enough — there's a humanity that we all share, and that's what matters.
Vianca Lugo, 25, Receptionist
I am Puerto Rican. My parents are Puerto Rican and their parents are Puerto Rican. I grew up with my mother, a single mom. We moved to a predominantly white neighbourhood in upstate New York when I was young. One day, I came home and was like, "Mommy, why don't people here talk like us?" I stopped speaking Spanish after that. It makes me feel like I don't have a way of relating to my own people. I have been called a "fake Puerto Rican" because of it, and that hurts. I definitely feel Latina — I can feel it in my bones.
I identify as white passing to acknowledge my privilege, and I have been praised for my proximity to whiteness. People say things like, "You're not like other Spanish girls," or, "You don't talk like you're from the Bronx." I've noticed throughout my life that even the slightest change — if I'm wearing hoop earrings, if I lay down my baby hairs, if I speak with a slang — affects the way people perceive me.
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I used to try to assert my otherness, to put on a performance to convince others I'm a real Puerto Rican. But these stereotypes of what it means to be Latinx take away my choice, my complexity, my humanity, my queerness. Messages like these are so pervasive that I often wonder how much of my personality is mine, based on what I want versus what's expected of me.
Who I Am: I'm working on figuring that out.
Ximena Izquierdo, 26, Youth Worker
I was born in Lima, so I am Peruvian. But my father's family is from the Amazon and my mother's is from the Andes, and these two cultures (Charapx and Andean) deeply shaped my experience — from the music I love to the food I eat. I grew up in Black and brown neighbourhoods in Miami, so that experience — going to Fritangas, eating pastelitos with my Cuban stepfather at the time, playing Dominos, and dancing to Bachata, Reggaeton, and Southern hip hop — is so much a part of my culture.
With white people, a big misconception is that I want to talk to you in Spanish, dance with you, or that my culture is up for grabs. It's not just our bodies that are fetishised, but also the music, food, aesthetics, and even the struggles. Folks don't often account for the fact that many of those things they think are sexy and cute come from poverty, genocide, slavery, and trauma from dictatorships. Every day I try to learn more, but it's a slow process, as memory is hard to retain and not everyone in my family wants to speak about these things. They're all about the future and not dwelling on the past.
Who I Am: I'm a queer, Afro-Andina Peruvian. I'm an immigrant. I'm an artist and poet. I'm a curator. I am a work in progress.
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