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I’ve heard people complain that calls for diversity are all about forcing quotas on stories, which strikes me as odd.

Isabel Schechter mentions the number of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. (almost five million), and in New York alone. I think back to things like Friends, which was ostensibly set in New York. And I don’t think we’re talking about clumsily or artificially inserting diversity into stories so much as we’re pointing out how so many of our stories have clumsily and artificially stripped that diversity away…

When I was young, I became obsessed with reading. I read everything I could find. I especially loved mythology, fantasy, and Choose Your Own Adventure books. They taught me that gods were blond, magicians were powerful, and boys could be astronauts. Oh, and everyone in the future was White.

When I was older, I read comics and novels. Women could now be superheroes, but everyone was still White. Except Storm from the X-Men. Storm was a beautiful Black woman in a flowing cape and tall boots. What was there not to love? It never occurred to me that my connection to her might have been rooted in the fact that neither of us was White. Until Storm, it had never occurred to me that I could be a superhero. I wasn’t White, blonde, or tall, and I wasn’t ever going to have boobs like that. Sadly, I never questioned why those were the criteria for being a superhero.

It wasn’t until I attended a feminist sf convention that I was exposed to strong, powerful women who were not all White. Some were Black, and every now and then, there was a Mexican. It was more representative of the world I lived in, but I never saw a Puerto Rican in sf. Given how many of us there are in the US, (hell, in New York alone!), I would think we could have at least one Puerto Rican character somewhere in the genre. If that character could have been a woman, too, that would have been even better, but hey, I was a desperate woman. I would settle for what I could get.

From that desperation came excitement when the TV show Heroes first started. A diverse cast! A Latino artist! Finally, a show that would include people of color as main characters and not just in the background, and they would even have superpowers! It turned out to be too good to be true. The list of fail in that show is far too long to go into detail, but my particular sore spot was the Latino representation. The Latino artist could only paint while high on heroin, and the brother and sister duo were illegal aliens. For bonus points, the sister happened to bring the plague with her, and of course, seduced one of the male Heroes in a particularly hot, passionate fashion. Because, you know, that’s how Latinas roll. Ugh.

The SparrowIn contrast to Heroes, The Sparrow, a novel by Mary Doria Russell, has as its protagonist Father Emilio Sandoz, a brilliant Puerto Rican linguist who is of Taino and Spanish background. The Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite books, and Emilio Sandoz is one of my favorite characters, and one with whom I identify closely. Not to take away from the novel, which I think tells an incredible story, but the fact that the portion of the novel that takes place on Earth takes place in Puerto Rico, and that the main character is Puerto Rican is part of why I love it so much. Finally, someone who looks like me. Someone who lived in the same place my mother grew up, where her parents came from, a place that I was connected to.

Puerto Rico is a place where people look like me, where we’re the majority, not the Other. When I went to Puerto Rico with my mother a few years ago, I saw the house she grew up in and I went to Arecibo to see the telescope there. Most people can understand why I would want to see my mother’s hometown, but wouldn’t have guessed that I went to Arecibo because the telescope plays an important part in The Sparrow. I even drove by La Perla, the slum where Emilio grew up, and which is an important part of what makes him who he is, because I wanted to see if it was as awful as he described, so I could understand him a little better.

When I found out that Brad Pitt’s production company had optioned the movie rights to The Sparrow, I was terrified. What if they got it wrong (as most adaptations do)? What if they cast someone who wasn’t Puerto Rican (let me guess—a Mexican)? Hold on, this was Hollywood, what if they cast a White guy? What am I talking about? This is Hollywood—of course they would cast a White guy. Because, you know, all the good guys and heroes are White guys. I mean, Jake Gyllenhall was the perfect actor to play the Prince of Persia, right? And changing the entire cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender (except for the villain, of course) to White people made total sense given the source material. And hey, Scarlett Johansen’s acting ability makes her the obvious choice for Ghost in the Shell, doncha think?

Sure enough, Brad wanted to cast himself as Emilio. Shocking, I know. Or not. But seriously, how could he possibly think he was the right actor for that role? Emilio Sandoz is the only character in sf I can think of who is Puerto Rican, and yet again, some White guy was going to whitewash a great POC character and erase that which made him who he was. Hollywood was going to take from me the only character I could identify with, the only Puerto Rican in all of sf. As if the real Emilio never existed. As if I never existed.

Rather than have that happen, I would have settled for any other Latino actor to play the part-Mexican, Columbian, Dominican, Guatemalan, Cuban, insert-any-Central-or-Southern-American-or-Caribbean country-here, just please, please, please, not a White guy! Thankfully, the film option expired and my beloved novel and only Puerto Rican character were safe, and I could stop living in fear. For now.

I know that given the dismal shortage of representation of any kind of people of color in sf, I should be grateful for any Latino characters, and I am, but it’s precisely because Emilio is the only Puerto Rican that it’s important to me that he stays Puerto Rican. It’s precisely because in the future everyone is some mysterious monolithic “Hispanic” that I want the world to know that “Hispanic” isn’t enough. It’s not enough in real life, and it shouldn’t be enough in our literature and media.

There are all kinds of Latinos in the real world, and there should be kinds of Latinos in sf. All of us should be represented, and faithfully so. We don’t all come from one country—no Virginia, Latin America is not one country. We don’t all look alike-yes, really, some of us are blonde. We don’t all dance salsa—some of us prefer Bachata. We don’t all eat tacos—pupusas are delicious, you should try them. We are not all Catholics—the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere are in Latin America. I could go on, and on, and on, but my point is that each of our cultures is unique, and everyone should get to see that. Just as not all White people insert-stupid-stereotype-here, not all Latinos insert-stupid-stereotype-here.

The number of myths and misconceptions about “Hispanics” is both hurtful and depressing. For a genre that is supposed to explore the universe, yet somehow can’t manage to explore the people living right here, right now, science fiction fails, time and time again, to be forward thinking. I am tired of never seeing myself represented. I am tired of reading about or seeing characters who are one-dimensional stereotypes. I am tired of White people trying to make it seem like they’re the only ones that do anything, and none of the rest of us even exist except in the background or as villains. I am tired of it all. And I demand better. You want to write whitewashed, one-dimensional crap? Feel free, just don’t expect me to spend my time or money on helping you push your agenda.

Isabel has been a fan since childhood and active in fandom for almost 20 years. She is Latina by birth, Jewish by choice, vegetarian by conscience, and uppity as necessary. As an event manager for a science museum, she is free to reveal her geekiness at work and not suffer any consequences. Isabel and her husband recently relocated to sunny California and so far, she has resisted the urge to go on Facebook and post pictures of herself wearing summer clothing in February while her friends back in Chicago are experiencing the Polar Vortex.

Isabel Schechter

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 12th, 2015 01:11 pm (UTC)
Also loved the Sparrow, and while I like Brad Pitt, I'm glad he didn't play Father Sandoz. There are some wonderful Puerto Rican actors and actresses out there. Jimmy Smits would make a good Father Sandoz.
Mar. 12th, 2015 01:24 pm (UTC)
Hmm. As a Hispanic who spends large amounts of time in the US and also large amounts of time reading information about other Hispanics in the US (I work for the largest independent US Hispanic media company and my job essentially means I have to be an expert on this to be able to function), I'll limit myself to saying that this in no way, shape or form represents what most Hispanics think.
Mar. 12th, 2015 04:05 pm (UTC)
Isn't it enough that some want it?
Mar. 12th, 2015 04:43 pm (UTC)
IMO, absolutely not. I've been following this discussion and others for quite a while, and the pattern seems to be that small groups become incensed at something and go out to change it in extremely aggressive ways even though most people are happy with the way things are and would prefer it didn't change - even among the supposed "victims".

We seem to live in an era in which a single person being offended by something means that it has to change, and that any means are justifiable (including emotional violence) to achieve these goals. I disagree with the methods and with this attitude, even if I am occasionally in agreement with the original anger that triggers the explosion.

So, no. One person feeling that way is completely insufficient, and acting as if it is won't lead to good things, even if the intentions are good.

My opinion, but the more I observe these discussions, the more convinced I am that we need to be a little less enthusiastic to embrace every single diversity cause.
Mar. 12th, 2015 06:25 pm (UTC)
Have you ever read Uncle Tom's Cabin? Just because a change would be beneficial doesn't mean people want it.

I'm not comparing fewer minorities in fiction to slavery, just using a story that has slavery in it as an example.

And about your claims of emotional violence? Goodness, don't you know that fighting back is good and right... Sometimes, people get attacked, and it's right for them to contest that. Some of the most powerful advocacy I've seen is someone forcefully demanding that other people take a walk in their shoes. Their disabled abuse victim shoes. That was right. It was searing, but fire is a purifier. Better verbal fire than gunfire or forest fire, or... well, you get the point.
Mar. 12th, 2015 06:37 pm (UTC)
Fighting back is fine, of course. I've done it myself.

But in many of these cases we're not talking about a real attack. Others, obviously ARE real, as in your uncle Tom example (and yes, I understand that you used an extreme example to make a point).

The line is a fine one, and I feel that it's one that isn't examined often enough. It looks to me as though the simple act of one person saying "this is wrong, I am offended" is enough to put all sorts of wheels in motion, without critically examining whether it makes any sense.

Is one person enough? The answer is always going to be "maybe". It depends on what we're talking about, and whether the change is actually for the good - or even worth the effort. A LOT of people are offended by the teaching of evolution in schools, and feel excluded because they believe otherwise... should we drop everything and pander to them because they are "offended". I don't think so - but I think the same sort of critical thinking that keeps me from taking that position should be applied to the "diversity" discussion. But it isn't - in that case, one is expected to follow the accepted dogma.
Mar. 12th, 2015 07:13 pm (UTC)
As a writer and a reader, I say that, yes, we do need more diversity in stories. It's worth a lot to me, that I have something to follow in, and improve on as someone who loves and wants a diverse cast.

Edited at 2015-03-12 07:15 pm (UTC)
Mar. 12th, 2015 07:29 pm (UTC)
I absolutely respect that.

If the marketplace agrees with you, there will definitely be more diversity. If the market doesn't, it won't, and you will continue to need to look hard for that diversity. Of course, it will always be available if you search for it, even if it's a niche and it doesn't take hold in Hollywood blockbusters.

What I don't think is that quotas should be established, or any legislation put into effect - after all, the studios need to produce what sells, as do publishers.
Mar. 13th, 2015 06:02 am (UTC)
The problem is that, without diversity in the first place, you won't have product to buy to prove that there is a market (or market segment) worth catering to. Not to mention, the ideas and ideology that drives most corporate marketing are toxic to racial, sexual, and class diversity.

This is, of course, why crowdfunding and indie publishing are important; there IS a market, and I see it succeed all the time. It's unfortunate that people with literal billions to spend just don't bother to pursue it.
Mar. 13th, 2015 01:05 pm (UTC)
It's possible you are correct about a market existing, and if so, the future will be much more diverse entertainment-wise. The thing about the market is that corporate cynicism is mainly a myth - corporations will embrace whatever brings them a profit, and they're always looking for the next trend. So if any of the crowdfunded initiatives make even the smallest splash (outside the people who are already reading diversity for the sake of diversity), the big companies will take notice. They are neither dumb nor do they have an anti-diversity agenda to push.

I work at a company that does media and advertising for Hispanics in the US and LATAM, and we are seeing how the big companies have adapted to account for the economic importance of the segment, speaking to them in their language (whether that language be Spanish, English or both) and on their terms, culturally speaking.

Four years ago, the part of the company I work for was a tiny startup - then we grew relentlessly until a really big conglomerate snapped us up (with much happiness among those of us who had stock). The thing is we were Hispanic-focused in a traditionally WASP business, and we were extremely successful because the market existed.

Also, did you know that Hispanics are the majority (not just the smallest minority) in New Mexico and California? Companies that don't adapt to that are going the way of the dodo - but I still think the market should decide how things look, not the activists.
Mar. 13th, 2015 01:32 pm (UTC)
I'm not going to get into this back-and-forth, but I wanted to point out that "Just trust the market" relies on the false assumption of a level playing field.
Mar. 13th, 2015 01:42 pm (UTC)
Perhaps (that is a whole other discussion, and we will disagree anyway). But when we're asking private individuals and corporations to invest their own money, the levelness of the playing field is irrelevant. What matters is the return on that investment, and IMO, it is unfair to ask people to risk their money in any but the way they feel most likely to maximize their return.

So if diversity doesn't sell, I'm happy to leave it to niche players and non-profit organizations to create it, and to let the people who care about it consume the product - in my view, Hollywood cannot be lambasted for making the best decisions they can to protect their investment, especially if the people complaining are isolated individuals and groups who are not materially harmed by it.

If I had that kind of money and was forced to create for that niche as opposed to what works, I would simply invest in something else, possibly in a country with a less restrictive regulatory climate.
Mar. 13th, 2015 04:51 pm (UTC)
That assumes that people with that kind of money only have the goal of making more money. (If I had that kind of money, I'd be more inclined towards projects that might have non-monetary compensation, not less.) Bill Gates doesn't donate money to stop malaria because he hopes that the people he protects will become Microsoft customers (I assume), he does so because he has the goal of stopping malaria.

I'd say there's an intermediate for 'solely profit-driven' and 'solely charitable' -- one can seek different amounts of both. Especially if the latter is not independent of the former: there's a reason movie studios (or actors) do both the sort of films that are Oscar bait and the big dumb action movies.

Then add in that some of the disinterest is because it doesn't exist or is assumed to be niche. Maybe boys would watch shows about girls if they were marketed the same as shows about boys, and not assumed that boys won't watch girl shows, but girls will watch boy shows. Maybe more folks of color would read SF if they saw that the future had places for people like them and wasn't some weird alternate reality where anyone important was white.
Mar. 13th, 2015 05:07 pm (UTC)
Again, you may be right - it isn't happening, so I can't point to evidence that shows you are wrong.

But... I DO know that show and film concepts are test-marketed first. This generally involves sitting down with the target consumers and showing them stuff about the final product. The marketing plan is designed around this and other research, not around someone's opinion regarding what would work and what wouldn't.

In my experience, the bigger the company, the bigger the research budget, and the smarter the people doing the analysis.

If any company thought that it could effectively double its consumer base by marketing differently, it would jump at the opportunity.

The underlying assumptions here seem to be that companies are trying to perpetuate a power structure and that they are run by morons. Neither is true - they are run by intelligent people with access to a heck of a whole lot of market research. It's safe to say that a company like P&G knows more about behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and habits of American consumers than any cutting-edge sociology department in the world.

As for Bill Gates, he can do whatever he wants with his own money, but his companies are aimed at making money and optimizing return on investment within the boundaries of the law. Anything else would be irresponsible on his part as a manager - he owes that much to both stockholders and employees.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 12th, 2015 02:01 pm (UTC)
Wait, you really read a generic "If you want to write..." as a personal accusation that you,
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Wait, you really read a generic "If you want to write..." as a personal accusation that you, <ljuser="dickgloucester">, that you write whitewashed, one-dimensional crap?

The only time I've seen check-boxes, ticky-boxes, quotas, and the rest brought up is in knee-jerk defensive responses to some of these essays. Not one of the guest posts has suggested a check-box authors need to fill out when writing their stories.

"So, I'm guessing that you would prefer to see me get you and your people completely wrong in what I write, as long as I tick the box?"

That's a heck of a leap from anything said or suggested here. A better guess might be that she would prefer to see herself represented respectfully in SF/F stories. Which doesn't seem like a lot to ask for.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 12th, 2015 02:12 pm (UTC)
As another white person attempting to write SF&F, I'm in that same category. All I can suggest is that you read her essay again some time when you're not feeling as defensive. I think you might get a lot more out of it.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 12th, 2015 02:25 pm (UTC)
"How am I, or the great many like me, supposed to correct that misrepresentation by writing about something we don't know?"

We all have areas of ignorance. For me, when I realize I'm ignorant about something important, I figure I should work to fix that ignorance. In a case like this, by reading and listening and seeking out more information about people I'm ignorant of.

I would also argue that writing exclusively and narrowly often *does* perpetuate a misrepresentation of the world.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 12th, 2015 02:44 pm (UTC)
I am trying to understand what you're saying. I've also been trying to avoid having to get into the tone argument, but much of your complaint seems to be that she's too "aggressive," "impolite," and "intemperate."

I'm not patronizing you. But I really think you need to walk away and come back when you're not feeling so defensive about this.
Mar. 12th, 2015 02:47 pm (UTC)
Walking away, as requested.
Mar. 12th, 2015 03:07 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this. And thanks to Isabel, because now I've added The Sparrow to my reading list.
Mar. 12th, 2015 04:53 pm (UTC)
My sister-in-law has alternated between telling me I should read The Sparrow because it's brilliant and saying that I shouldn't read it because it's incredibly creepy and disturbing (on purpose, of course). Now I'll have to read it.

Also, this is kind of funny--I was just fleshing out a Puerto Rican future JBC (her girlfriend is Sephardi) in a novel I'm writing. I'm kind of a JBC myself: I went through a full Reform conversion, but that was mostly because I wasn't raised Jewish; I was halakhically Jewish even without one.
Mar. 12th, 2015 05:28 pm (UTC)
This post has interacted in my brain with something I read yesterday about the experience of "cosplaying while black", and I need some advice.

I fully agree that ethnic characters in movies and TV shows should be played by actors of the same ethnicity if at all possible. And I just know that sooner or later I'm going to run into some asshole arguing that "if you can complain about white actors playing non-white characters, why can't I complain about non-white people cosplaying white characters, see you're being the REAL racist here!" I'd like to have some kind of rebuttal on tap that won't come across as being a version of "but that's DIFFERENT!"

My most immediate response is to say that it's apples and oranges -- Hollywood actors are professionals being paid to play that part, while fans are doing it for love and who am I to say they can't, and who the hell died and made YOU god anyhow? Which would probably be counterproductive because assholes are assholes.

So... anybody have some other good counter-arguments?
Mar. 13th, 2015 12:57 am (UTC)
My response is 'If Anne has two cookies and Bob has fifty, giving one of Bob's cookies to Anne is different from giving one of Anne's cookies to Bob. Because of the context: Anne had a 50% reduction/gain of cookie and Bob has only a 2% reduction/gain.'

Or you can use money. $20 for a college student can mean the difference between ramen and more nutritious food, while $20 to someone making six figures isn't that important.
Mar. 16th, 2015 03:12 am (UTC)
Alternately, you could just ignore race entirely for a bit in certain circumstances where it isn't central to the story. See the example of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which tends to cast rather brilliant nonwhite actors in plays that don't specify certain things—like the Shakespearean plays that aren't Othello, for instance. (Last year's production of The Tempest did have a POC as Caliban, though it was played so as to give him some dignity at the end. This year, that actor is the title role in Pericles.) It's obviously not losing them money, as I have yet to be to a show that wasn't 95% + sold.

So every time I see Hollywood complaining that they can't cast nonwhite actors because [REASONS (but we're not racist)], I want to call them the BS masters that they are. There's a group up the coast in an arguably historically racist area that has no problem whatsoever finding great talents that aren't white and showcasing them to appreciative audiences.
Mar. 13th, 2015 01:19 am (UTC)
*nods* One of my friends at work is Puerto Rican by way of Chicago. She is very clear that Puerto Rican is NOT the same as Mexican. Or Spanish. Or whatever other country of origin.
I'd known this intellectually. before, but hadn't actually *thought* that much about it until she pointed this out
Mar. 13th, 2015 03:46 pm (UTC)
I'm confused.

This writes about a situation involving representation that involves stereotypes. It does so with the same level of personal examination and personal explanation as any of the others. Why the response that seem so vehemently upset by it?

I'm genuinely confused by that.

Personally I hear echoes of all the other essays, the conversations I've had, the talks I've given, the writing I've done. And it's a voice saying "I'm not what you keep saying I'm supposed to be, in fact you got your ideas about this wrong." Not "shutup, vile evil people, die die die". It's request for a correction. Representation. I'm utterly baffled by a few of the responses.
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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