What does it mean to be Latinx in comics?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now. Growing up snatching up whatever scraps of Latinx representation I could even if it meant settling for stereotypes, whitewashing, secondary character status (if lucky), and their stories ending in death. This is a plight many fans of color and other marginalized peoples can relate to. In comics, Latinx characters are often Latinx in name only, Spanish characters being positioned or promoted as Latinx characters, whitewashed, or having their Latinx identities erased.
All these problems with Latinx representation in comics comes down the the ignorance surrounding the Latinx identity. Comics as a medium don’t appear to have a clue what being Latinx is or how to represent Latinx people. To understand how to depict Latinxs in comics, we have to begin understanding the difference in what Hispanic and Latinx mean — what an ethnicity is — and how being Latinx and/or Hispanic is a racialized one.
To begin, it is a common misconception that Latinx and Hispanic peoples are one and the same. People who are Hispanic are people who descend where a country’s language is primarily Spanish-speaking and have ancestry that can be traced back to the Iberian Peninsula or Hispania. This includes Spaniards, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans, but it wouldn’t include Brazilians as the primary language spoken is Portuguese. Latinx identifies people from Latin countries, and have ancestry from Latin America (both south and central). So Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians, and Brazilians. These differences are all due to a history of colonization at the hands of European countries such as Spain and Portugal.
You can be Hispanic but not Latinx, just as you can be Latinx but not Hispanic, and you can even identify as both. But no matter which a person may identify with, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re a person of color. Latinx or Hispanic both are an ethnicity not a race. You can be Hispanic and white, or Latinx and white. You can also be Latinx and a person of color or Hispanic and a person of color.
For example, Penelope Cruz is often mistaken for being Latina, but she is a Spaniard, making her Hispanic and at least part white (she may or may not have Romani ancestry). Another example is probably one of the most well known Hispanic actors to date, Antonio Banderas. However Banderas is another European Spaniard man, which makes him white. He is a white Hispanic actor.
Unlike Latina actress Rosie Perez who is an indigenous Boricua (Puerto Rican) woman. Or Salma Hayek whose father was Lebanese, and whose mother was native Mexican and Spanish making her both Latina and Hispanic and a woman of color. This is a lot of information at once, and it can be difficult to understand if we don’t understand what an ethnicity actually is.
An ethnicity is being apart of a specific social group that shares a similar culture, ancestry, and other cultural factors. To put it simply, race is determined by biology or genetics, while ethnicity is defined by culture.
Common ethnicities Americans are familiar with are Greek, French, English, Irish, and German. But it is also known that these ethnicities are primary made of white Europeans (not to say there aren’t Greek, Italian, English, etc. who are also people of color). Other common ethnicities are: Latino/Hispanic, Arab, Jewish, and Romani. The aspect these specific ethnicities have in common is that they are racialized.
Latinx people are not a race, but still face discrimination in a similar form to racism. This goes for Jewish, Romani, and Arab individuals. There are plenty of racialized (or ethnic) stereotypes in our western media that paint a negative image of these individual groups. Arab people are terrorists, Jewish people are greedy and evil, Romani people are thieves, and Latinos are exotic or lazy. Though none of these groups are a specific race, their ethnicity has been racialized through a history of negative propaganda, fear, dehumanization, and purposeful negative misinformation. They’ve also been given exaggerated ethnic features to differentiate them from white Europeans or those of white European descent.
Spaniards are white. They are not Latinx. The indigenous Latinx populations in Central and South America were colonized by Spaniards, suffering similar inhuman injustices that Native Americans faced at the hands of the British when coming to North America.
So what does any of this have to do with comics? It goes back to the confusion between what race is, what ethnicity is, the stereotypes that face racialized ethnicities and how they reflect back into our media. For example, characters such as Carlos Javier (an alternate universe version of Charles Xavier) are considered Latinx and therefore people of color by default. Even though Carlos Javier is Spanish, and therefore a white European man.
This is the type of ignorance that surrounds the portrayal of Latinx characters in comics. Take characters such as: Lady Rawhide/Anita Rodriguez, Sam Alexander/Nova, Bane, Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern, Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and others who have had their Latinx identities erased, or so heavily whitewashed readers, fans, and critics are unlikely to know they were Latinx without extension comic knowledge. Then there’s Latinx characters that have been essentially whitewashed such as Sunspot or Armando Muñoz who are both Afro-Latino characters but their designs have been heavily whitewashed so they appear more white or alien (in Armando’s case).
In the case of Sam Alexander, Kyle Rayner, or Selina Kyle, without extensive knowledge into their comic histories, a reader most likely wouldn’t even know off-hand they were of Latinx descent.
Selina’s origin was changed post-Crisis where it was revealed in Catwoman #81 and then reaffirmed in Catwoman #89 by Harley Quinn, that Selina’s mother is Cuban or of some other Latinx origin. Selina’s mother in the flashbacks is a brown Latina, drawn and colored much darker than Selina herself.
Similarly, Sam’s mother is also drawn much darker than he is, speaks fluent Spanish, and has been depicted practicing her native Mexican traditions. In Nova #3 Sam’s mother confronts him in Spanish which he can’t understand. In Nova #18 she builds a shrine to the Nova Corps, both scenes are used to emphasize that she’s Latina — specifically Mexican — and Sam is mestizo (mixed-raced).
However, they’re two scenes in his continuously growing comic history. Overall, given how white-passing Sam is, and his disconnection with his Mexican culture he comes off as white to many readers and fans. Though there are real Latinx people who don’t speak Spanish fluently, and are white-passing, these creative decisions and characters don’t exist within a vacuum. There’s a history of white Hispanics and white-passing Latinx characters being pushed to the forefront of Latinx media representation.
There are brown Latinxs, Black Latinxs, Asian Latinxs and so on. Their stories deserve to be told as well. Their stories deserve to be represented. They deserve to be represented. Being Latinx is a culture, and comics appear to either confuse that culture with stereotypes, unsure of how to connect their character to their culture (so they avoid doing so), or make them as white seeming as possible. The latter comforts white fans, and alleviates the worry about losing potential profit, while also winning brownie points with the general press for attempting to diversify.
Take the case of Sunspot aka Roberto da Costa who is Afro-Latino. Representation in comics and the larger spectrum don’t often include is Afro-Latinxs. So given that Sunspot is more prominent now than ever this should be something to celebrate. However, it’s been discussed and showcased that Sunspot has been severely whitewashed.
In his original appearances Sunspot was a Black Latino man, however in New Avengers and U.S.Avengers he’s drawn as a white-passing Latino man. Again, while there are white-passing Latinxs and even Afro-Latinxs, these decisions do not exist within a vacuum. To take a clearly Afro-Latino character, who has black skin and kinky/curly hair, only to significantly lighten his skin and give him straight hair, is racist. The whitewashing of brown and black Latinx peoples continues to perpetrate a lie that all Latinx peoples are light-skinned or white. It also erases the identities of black and brown Latinxs, and contributes to the notion that brown/black Latinxs are bad, while white/light skinned Latinx peoples are good. To push Sunspot into a position of prominence (while also ranking in the praise of having a prominent Latinx character) but only when he’s not longer “obviously” Afro-Latino, is racist.
You can’t accept representation points while also catering to racist practices such as colorism and whitewashing. You can’t say a character is Afro-Latinx, depict them as such, then slowly make them appear whiter and whiter as the years go on. You can’t introduce a bit of backstory that states a character is Latinx, only to ignore it for the rest of that character’s history while wanting the continued support of Latinx readers. You can’t prioritize white passing Latinx characters, characteristics, and features, and want the praise for including Latinx characters. You can’t create a Latinx character only to deny them their cultural identity and call it positive Latinx representation.
This isn’t to say there aren’t good Latinx characters in comics. Tuya from Monstress, Renee Montoya from DC Comics, Anya Corazon from Marvel, are all great characters, though supporting in most capacities (Renee and Anya did have their own solos for a bit but have since been relegated to supporting characters).
Other characters are much more prominent such as America Chavez, Miles Morales, and Jessica Cruz, all of which are Latinx and both drawn and colored with darker features and either have their own solo titles, or play prominent roles in a team book. But there’s three drops of water in a vast sea of white comic characters. They are three characters in a pond of white-passing, or ethnically whitewashed Latinx comic characters.
Comics have shown that in the hands of a Latinx writer, a brilliant character can emerge that respects the Latinx identity and is a powerful tool for representation. For those wondering, the character’s name is La Borinqueña, a character created by Puerto Rican writer Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez who also brought Latinx representation to Marvel and DMC Comics.
The difference between La Borinqueña aka Marisol Rios De La Luz and Leticia Lebron, aka LAK6 the Puerto Rican hero of Miranda-Rodriguez’s other book and Sam Alexander or Kyle Rayner is staggering. All of these characters are superheroes, but the way their culture is depicted couldn’t be more different. For La Borinquena, she’s a symbol of Boricua pride, and for LAK6, there are constant reminders of her Latina culture. Their Latinx culture — specifically their Puerto Rican culture — isn’t an afterthought, it’s a part of their fabric as a characters. Their Latinx identities aren’t exotic additions or press headlines, they’re genuine aspects of their characters.
It is important that we — as both fans, critics, writers, artists, and readers — understand what being Latinx is, and how we can better represent the Latinx community in comics. We need positive Latinx representation in comics. This doesn’t stop at the page, representation should continue behind them as well. Having Latinx voices behind the scenes as creators, artists, and as part of the editorial process is just as — if not more — important than seeing it on page. It is important to see our Latinx culture and identities in comics, not erased, but embraced. There are many Latinx creators, artists, fans, and readers; we deserve to be heard, respected, and represented.