I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a while, but I didn’t want to sound ANGRY. I want to make it clear that I appreciate how difficult it must be for authors to write about ethnic characters who are from a different cultural or ethnic group. No amount of research can provide the complete picture of what it’s like to grow up black, Latino, Asian, Native American, etc. Many writers try to mitigate the Otherness of a character by making them half-white/half-minority, which is fine (I’m all for multiculturalism), but those who go for fully developed — let’s Latino (since that’s what I am) character — should be aware that it’s really obvious when you have no clue. Here are three observations I’ve made from reading more than 250 Young Adult books in the past couple of years:
1. Spanglish Schpanglish: Spanglish (and I assume Chinglish and any other kind of mix of English and another language) doesn’t mean Latino teens substitute every other English word for a Spanish one. So while the sentences “Que pasa, girls” or “What’s up, mi amor?” both sound fine (that’s a specific phrase or term of endearment), saying “I need to brush my pelo with this cepillo, dude!” or “Yo, you need to fix your carro. But first let’s buy gasolina” sound inauthentic, because bilingual characters would have no reason to use them (hair, brush, car, gasoline) in Spanish. Spanglish can sound random to non Spanish speakers, but it’s usually done for a reason: a word you can’t easily translate, like malcriada (which literally translate to ill-bred/raised but can also mean spoiled, self-entitled, uncouth, ill-mannered, even slutty or sass-mouthed), a phrase that just sounds better or means more to you in one language or the other, or a word you can’t remember how to say in the other language. I’ve noticed that some authors just pepper their dialogue with so many random Spanish words that it sounds unbelievable. Latino adolescents who were born and bred in the U.S. just don’t speak that way!
Someone who does it extraordinarily well but isn’t Latina: Susan Beth Pfeffer in “The Dead and the Gone” and “The World We Live In” (Alex Morales is an extremely believable Nuyorican!).
2. Catholics and Caramel? Not all Latinos are Catholic or live with their grandparents or know how to make empanadas. We don’t all have criminals in our families or are the first to go to college. And our skin color? It’s not all tan, caramel, cafe au lait, creme brulee, burnt sienna or whatever other euphemism you want to call it. People “of color” can still be extremely fair skinned (I have Asian, African American and Latino friends) or dark skinned or anything in between. And just a tip — if you want to make it clear your character is not Caucasian or white just say what their ethnic or racial makeup is somehow, otherwise readers (especially white ones) will think all those euphemisms mean your character is just a white person with a suntan — not because they’re necessarily racist, but because they just don’t gloss people as being minorities unless it’s clearly spelled out for them.
3. The Minority Redshirt: This is especially noticeable in dystopian or paranormal books where characters are injured or killed on a regular basis, but in a couple of books I won’t mention, the body count starts with the nonwhite supporting characters in as obvious a way as it does in a stereotypical horror movie. I’m not being overly sensitive, for example, when I say that in the undeserving “Red Dawn” remake, every single adolescent character who was black or Latino died. It was almost laughable.
I guess the question should be brought up whether it’s better to have a book with multicultural characters, even imperfectly drawn ones, than a book that is noticeably absent any nonwhite characters. I’m going to say that true diversity isn’t tokenism. It’s featuring characters who are pivotal to the storyline with real backstories and a real purpose beyond signifying diversity. To put it in TV terms: we need more “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” and “Grey’s Anatomy” treatments of diversity.