But You Don't Look Latino...

A few weeks back, I was having lunch with a friend at my favorite Chelsea haunt, discussing the issue about Latino self-identification. I then pointed out, “Everyone here could be Latino.” Intrigued, my friend patiently waited to hear my logic.

This logic will, hopefully, become evident as we delve a bit deeper into the idea of self-identification. The great melting pot that is America has grappled with this issue after people from different countries began to immigrate here. After a few generations, they were no longer just German, Italian, Russian or Irish, but now German-Italian and Russian-Irish. Latin American countries faced the same changes.

After the conquistas of Latin America, mostly from Spain and Portugal, three types of individuals now lived in those lands: the native Indians, the Spanish or Portuguese and a new breed of mixed ethnicities, Spanish-Indian or Portuguese-Indian. By the late 1800s, we saw those individuals who no longer identified with their respective countries, but with their new homeland. Along with other variations, we saw Frenchmen and Italians become Argentines and Venezuelans and Spaniards, and Germans became Mexicans and Columbians.



I was told once, “Where you relate is where you belong.” I often tell those seeking insight into my heritage because of my Middle-Eastern name that, “if you have a Mexican mother, you’re a Mexican, no matter where your father is from.” Of course, that may only be true in my case since this is not a rule across the board. In my opinion, if there was a rule that helped clarified the confusion, it’s the one of self-identification. A now-famous quote by Mitt Romney stating, "My dad was born in Mexico of American parents," takes aim squarely at the issue of self-,identification. He has never said, “My father is Mexican.” Understandably so since his father identified as an American, having returned to the U.S. as a child.

Like most big brands, Disney is looking to get a bigger slice of the Latino market. Its most recent animated production, “Sofia the First,” has caused quite a stir about just how “Latina” she looks. The brown-skinned Latino camp argues she’s not dark enough to be representative of Latinos, while the light-skinned Latino camp argues that Latinos comes in all shades; brown, black and light-skinned, blue-eyed blondes. Disney’s official stance, according to executive producer Jamie Mitchell, is that “she is Latina.”

But here’s where I think the Latina angle to this story starts to unravel. If our fair princess is to successfully convince anyone that she dreams of Chipotle and not Chuck E. Cheese, we’ll need a plausible backstory. Sadly, none is offered in the animated trailer. We are to take Disney at face value, and since Sofia’s mother is a shade darker than all the other characters, she’s clearly Latina. The expected flurry of comments on the trailer’s website has those lamenting that she can’t represent the minority if she looks like the majority or the flip-side argument that white Latinos with colored eyes are not like unicorns, they exist aplenty so Sofia looks exactly as she should.

Would a stereotyped Latina princess à la Sofia Vergara or Salma Hayek have appeased the critics? Maybe. But in our quest to embrace and integrate diversity, a credible backstory goes a long way towards better understanding how Latinos see themselves. (Hayek, incidentally, is of Lebanese descent who identifies as Mexican.)

It breaks down like this: it doesn’t matter if they’re dark skinned, light skinned, blue eyed or brown eyed; if they identify as Latino, that’s who they are.

5 comments about "But You Don't Look Latino... ".
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  1. Carol Pinto from Sony, October 22, 2012 at 9:44 a.m.

    The country is Colombia, not Columbia

  2. Janet Grueter from Northlich, October 22, 2012 at 9:50 a.m.

    Being Colombian, I identify with the country of Colombia, with an O.

  3. Jackie Bird from Redbean Society, LLC, October 22, 2012 at 2:30 p.m.

    Having been the recipient of "but you dont look Puertorican" too many times, I can totally identify with this post, Ali. A background story into her life would have allowed us to better understand Sofia so that skin color or stereotype looks would not be the only means of ID'ing her. Research confirms that we don't self-identify as Latinos or Hispanics, but rather as of our country of origin. So that if Sofia was born in the US, she is likely to self-identify as such. But that's not the only other thing that makes her Latina either, is it? If she could only tell us herself...So if skin color and language are not determining factors, then what makes a Latino, Latino? The answer is not monolithic, much less monochromatic. We are bound by our cultural identity, again, if so self-defined. By the history and influence of over 500 years of Spanish domination; by spirituality and beliefs primarily of the Catholic faith; by the interpersonal relationships we engage with and the importance of unity among the extended family; and lastly, by our perception of space and time, where future is better than now. This is far more profound than a mere "she's Latina", with all due respect.

  4. Erik Carrion from Self-employed, October 25, 2012 at 12:46 p.m.

    Ali, this is not the first time the issue of Latino vs Hispanic identity has been addressed in our industry. We have spent the last 30 years trying to educate clients about it, but Disney seems to be clueless this time. Perhaps they never intended for Sofia to be "Latina". Sofia's "backstory" didn't come out until advocacy groups complained about her appearance. I'm also a non-Latino-looking Latino. My ancestors are Corsican, Spanish and Italian, but I'm 100% Puerto Rican. However, culturally I'm a caribeƱo. Latino identity is very complex.

    One note. You are missing one major group of people living in Latin America after Spanish and Portuguese colonialism ended: Africans slaves and their descendants. In fact, there were more Black people in Latin America than in the United States. That's why the number of Latinos who self-identify as Black south of the border is about 50 million.

    I think this issue also sheds some light on how Latinos view ourselves as a race even though we are not. We are an ethnic group comprised of many races and cultures. We are the original melting pot of the Americas.

  5. Milton C from Self-employed, November 11, 2012 at 12:43 p.m.

    While I agree with the last statement, "if they identify as Latino they are", I don't agree with the Disney princess analogy; this country has a history of Europinizing the world which includes the biggests use of it all media.
    This princess will let out little girls know and want them to think that in order to be beautiful they need to have light skin and brown hair. I am not saying that the Disney princess Sofia shouldn't be European-like all I am saying is that considering this is the first Latina princess, and there are no other princesses she should be made a couple shades darker.

    I mean just look at Sofia Vergara on Modern Family without the self-tanner she is as Caucasian as a girl living in sunny California. With her blonde high-lights and light brown hair, she doesn't resemble any Latinas I know.

    What could occur from making Sofia (the princess) European like is that we are once again, as Latinos saying "yes, the more European you look the more beautiful you are" and I certainly don't agree with that, as a brown skinned guy, I think my skin color is beautiful and we need more brown skinned color beauties in the media not just whites.

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