Does “Encanta” lie like “Miss Saigon”? Thoughts on writing and representation

“Miss Saigon Lies” posts from the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon campaign have been making the rounds on Tumblr lately, and this got me thinking about Encanta and whether I am telling lies in my play too.

In particular, it got me thinking about what my responsibilities are when I write a story that represents a group of people I’m not part of. The writers of Miss Saigon were presumably white and wrote a “truthful” and “historically accurate” play about a Vietnamese woman in a relationship with an American soldier. I’m Black and writing an outright fantasy play about Latin@s that is based off of Latin@ cultures in the same what that Avatar: The Last Airbender is based off of Asian cultures.

The tendency I’ve noticed is for people to fall back on their good intentions while characterizing any form of critique as, “You just don’t want anybody to write about anything different!”

Which is bullshit, of course.

So let’s talk about what I was trying to do with this play and the potential pitfalls for representing Latin@s in roles where their Latinidad is neither a focal point of the plot nor a joke about how “Mexicans” don’t speak English, have a bunch of babies with different baby daddies, and don’t know how to act.

Everyone who’s followed this story from its beginning can recall that Encanta started as pretty much an AU Swan Queen fanfic where Emma Swan is Black and Henry is absent. There were also influences from Moonstruck and from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest. But through every incarnation of this play, I wanted magic and romance and sexytimes in a story that did not take place in Yet Another Faux Medieval European Setting and did not focus on The Lives and Times of Cishet White Folks. I wanted LGBTQ people of color front and center in the story.

I also wanted the freedom to be able to invent and imagine a fantasy romance that took place in a world that looked and sounded very different from your typical Tolkien knock-off. At the same time, I didn’t want a generic fantasy romance stripped of all cultural markers. I can’t remember what made me say, “These characters are Latin@.” I’ve always known that Katrina would be Latin@ because in my fantasy where things like money and time are no object, Lana Parrilla would play the fuck out of this role, and it seemed odd to sort of ignore or bypass the fact that being Latin@ is a huge part of her identity. So asking, “What if I centered the story on Latin@ LGBTQ people?” was a natural extension of that process.

But that still opens up a lot of questions about my responsibilities as an artist when portraying a community I’m not part of, even in a work of pure fantasy. Even though the setting of Encanta is completely made up, the play itself was written in the real world by a real person and will require real people to put it on stage. So it got me thinking about things like:

  1. Is Encanta a story that needs to be told? By me? Now? Why?
  2. Am I doing Latin@s a disservice by using a mish-mash of Spanish and English instead of making the play completely in Spanish?
  3. How do I avoid reinforcing the stereotype of oversexed Latinas with while also not playing into the tendency of mainstream arts and entertainment to desexualize LGBTQ people?
  4. If I approach an ethnicity-focused company or festival with this play, should I represent it as a Black play because a Black person wrote it, or a Latin@ play because all the people on stage would be Latin@?
  5. What does it mean when I wouldn’t be asking these questions at all if I just made Encanta all about white people?

What about you? When you’re writing, reading or watching a story about a community that the creator (whether you or someone else) is not part of, what are some things that you ask? What are some things that you look for? How do you react or respond when you find or don’t find certain things?

16 thoughts on “Does “Encanta” lie like “Miss Saigon”? Thoughts on writing and representation

  1. First, I just started reading your blog and I love it. Second, I am a straight Latino male.. so I don’t think I can be of any real help answering your questions other than talking about the Latin community in general. With that, I wanted to comment on this….

    The first thing that came to mind and I admit kind of set me off, was that you went from Latin Community and collapsed right into Mexican Stereotype real quick. Gatta say, that is kind of annoying to a lot of non-Mexican Latinos, cause you know.. we get this way too much in america.

    Latinos is not a group that can be easily categorized. I mean you got all of Latin America to cover and that amount of geography is a sht storm to navigate with tact. Not even fellow Latinos are immune from saying some kind of dumb crap about other Latino countries – especially Americanized Latinos who have internalized racist crap. The thing that I know though.. is that… I know a lot of us hate being smashed into the “Mexican” category. So when you collapse Latino into Mexican as easily as you did, it just set off alarm bells for me. Like.. hey.. we not all Mexican! Fck.. sometimes I wish my own people, Salvadorians, had a Latino stereotypes so I won’t have to deal with being labeled as Mexican when someone is trying to explain bad Latino stereotypes. Meh, I mean I guess this is not easily avoided because Mexicans have a large population in America and have managed to penetrate american culture so successfully.

    I think I wanted to say that naming someone Latino tells you nothing about them or how they will act. You will just end up with a mish mash of stereotypes of famous Latin American countries. If you want to be accurate, and avoid trivializing other peoples cultures, then I say, keep it simple and pick a country. Learn about that specific Latino country’s culture, and then you prolly be aight. As I am sure you know, there are a lot of culture wars within Latino communities as is.. so it would be a bad mistake to forcibly categorize all Latinos into this one characteristic, when in reality that characteristic is probably more found in say, Dominican’s than in Mexicans. I think nuances like that will help you.

    The other thing that set me off was like… okay you went for romance and then you imagined Latina. That is kind of… you know, stereotypical. Latinas and Latinos are almost always fetishized for their like “romance.” I mean, not like we don’t like that sht… It is just kind of been done to death already. I don’t see how you can avoid it unless you like bring it up in the play in an explicit fashion. Where like it makes fun of the oversexualized stereotype even though one of the characters is used for romance. I am sure you figured this out already though.

    For question 2.. Latino Americans talk in spanglish, so I fail to see this as a huge problem. For 4… that is a tricky question! fck if I know! and I assume question 5 is rhetorical.. cause … Sht is obvious.

    As far as someone writing something about Latin communities who is not from a Latin American country….I don’t know what to tell you. I think that other piece on your website hits it up. The one about the film where you like, where the black people at? In that you was not even looking for anything, it just popped out at you. I feel the same.. I don’t look for anything, things just pop out at me.

    Oh and last thing I will say is that… there is a lot of white privilege BS and Clasisim in Latin communities.. be very very careful of that sht. White upper class Latinos are super fcking racist, and a lot of them try and define their countries culture when in reality they are only giving you the view from high up on on social hierarchy ladder. If you looking into a Latin countires culture, make sure you look from the black and brown perspective and look at what the barrios are doing, cause that is where sht goes down. A lot of “classy” Latinos like to ignore that, so make sure you do not get all your information from the white latino perspective, or americanized Latino perspective. This also may be why it would be wise to keep in mind what country you want your characters to originate from – it would make this sort of research easier. If you are just repping Americanized Latinos… then also make you mention that they are Americanized, lot’s of the old folk back home do not like it when people think the ameicanized version of the culture also reflect the culture back home.

    Anyway, I hope this helps a little and I ain’t wasting your time telling you sht you did not already know.

    Peace.

    • Thanks for your commentary. A lot of the things you mention are things I thought about, but I don’t have hard-and-fast answers or responses to them. Which is, I guess, a good thing because it’s when you get absolutist when things go wrong.

      As for the “Mexican” comment, I think my meaning wasn’t clear: I was portraying a thought that other people tend to have about Latin@s, whether they are Mexican or not. Hence, using “Mexican” and not Mexican.

      • oh yeah.. I aint catch that. Then we straight. As far as I am concerned, you look like you ganna be just fine, you got all the basics – the fact that you even thought of asking such questions, to me, indicates that you would be able to handle your writing with tact and understanding.

        To me, it is the people who never bother to ask such questions and the ones who fail to take them seriously are the ones who produce the stuff that we see that ends up trivializing other peoples cultures. Good luck.

        • Exactly. And it always bothers me when people decide they want to do me a favor by making stories about Black folks that makes it clear that the only Black person they ever heard of was Madea. Or, barring that, one of those Eddie Murphy In A Fat Suit roles.

  2. I will preface this with: I am not Latin@, but I am a queer black woman, so I will try my best to speak from that standpoint alone and ‘stay in my lane.’

    I have been following your blog (both personal and meta) for about 2 weeks now, so I haven’t been privy to your processes with Encanta. That aside, it would seem that you are extremely thorough, self-checking, and practice a considerable amount of restraint when working with whatever “world-bias’ ” may have slipped into your work and immediately eradicate them so as to be truthful and inoffensive. I think that alone qualifies you.

    Question1: Because I don’t know the premise of Encanta (aside from the above, and whatever assumptions I can draw from the title), answering the first question would be dumb of me. Though it has been my experience that any piece of writing one incubates to fruition, no matter how seemingly inconsequential or fantastical, has at least one golden nugget of honest-to-god truth, and a parallel lesson aching to be taught. So, I will say, if whatever driving force you have is still driving you to bring this to manifest, do it; Especially if it’s to address such rarely discussed but deeply inrooted topics as the aforementioned. Granted, it ain’t your responsibility to educate anyone, so…

    Question 2: Who do you want to read/ experience this play? As a non-spanish speaking person who isn’t adverse to spending time with a translator or ‘esp. to eng.’ dictionary and has a lot of time on her hands, your writing in both languages would help. But again, it isn’t your responsibility to make this easy for anyone. You make it as accessible as you deem necessary. (I am not above begging. I am so about an awesome piece of writing related to Swan Queen. Please keep it multi- lingual!!)

    Question 3: As with many “normalcies” like sex and sensuality which have been fetishized and bastardized unto a particular people, most want to tread lightly when approaching the stereotypes in order to dispel the various plaguing aspects without sterilizing or causing further damage. This is always tricky when creating a work which you HOPE viewers will understand comes with a disclaimer like, “y’all, imma need you to disregard ALL of the bullshit you’ve come to associate with ALL of the things, plz.” but we all know, thats not going to happen. And, just as one wants to avoid perpetuating a Saartjie Baartman-esq roadshow, you don’t want to actively fall victim to pretense by just covering it up or conforming. I guess what I’m trying to say is, balance is your best bet. If you can coherently confront the stereotypes while simultaneously enforcing that a.) a woman’s body/ sexuality is her own damn business, and that b.) her having an active, healthy or even present sexuality (for purposes other than appeasing men/ child rearing) doesn’t negate from her humanity, or make her any less multi-faceted, you’ve succeeded.

    Question 4: I don’t see why the two are mutually exclusive. Your piece is all of those things, right?

    and

    Ditto on Question 5. You already know. Everything comes up roses when you take all the color out. (Is there an emoji for ‘side-eye’?)

  3. Black and Latin@ are not mutually exclusive categories. It can be a Black play and a Latin@ play. Think about Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic, even the U. S., or any other country where there are Black folks who speak Spanish or Portuguese and have a history of Spanish/Portuguese imperialism. Latin@ is an ethnic marker in a way that makes it about something besides any one race, although most Latinos are mestizo or indigenous. There are even Latin@s who aren’t POC, try as they might to escape their whiteness when cornered (but this doesn’t prevent them from taking advantage of white/light-skin privilege when it’s convenient). I mean, look at the new Pope. Is he Latino? Culturally he IS Latino, but he’s still not a POC.

    • Given that my own ethnic background is not connected to the Latin@ community (and we really need to stop perpetuating that “race is biological so Latin@s–unlike those monolithic Blacks and Asians and Native Americans–are not a race” shit for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere), and the play itself is about Latin@s who are emphatically not white, I’m not sure what the thrust of this comment is.

      • I should’ve kept it shorter and sweeter, to reduce confusion. Nowhere did I say race is biological. Far from it. My main point was that Latinos of African descent exist, that it’s a valid identity. Latinidad is just not limited to people who are indigenous or mestizo. The fact that stereotypes show Latinos as indio and that all the telenovelas show everyone as white doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are neither. There are Latinos of Asian descent as well.

        I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe it really doesn’t matter.

        Is Susana Baca Latina? Is Benny Moré Latino? Maybe not. I would say yes. I can’t ask them. They’re also both black. (Both are also great singers, and have contributed greatly to the culture of Peru and Cuba respectively).

  4. For me, when I write about a marginalized group that I’m not a member of, the first thing I try to do is find out what are the most common tropes or fails that occur when representing said group and understand why they are problematic. I then attempt to portray them with the complexity and nuance that I would want someone to portray my identities. I then try to take feedback and incorporate it.

    Not a fullproof strategy by any stretch but it has worked for me.

  5. So I did a thing and made an all-English verison of “Encanta,” which I may or may not add Spanish to later on, depending on my willingness to make these characters look and sound really stupid.

    I’ve narrowed down the dialects to Puerto Rican Spanish for people native to the island and Dominican Spanish for Penzima, but other than that, I haven’t yet combed through the text to find appropriate places to put in the Spanish in a way that works.

    What I may wind up doing is asking the actors or some other people for help.

  6. I think your idea seems great! A story with Latino characters? Where was a story/play like this when I was growing up?

    I want to add that I hope you include Black Latino/as in your story. I’m a black woman of Cuban descent and the lack of blacks in Latin American media is just as disturbing as North America. Black Latinos(the ones who recognize their blackness and embrace it) have only American media to connect to when it comes to seeing people that look like them, and we all know how scarce that even is!

    I do hope you include Latinos of every race or at least the most common(black, white, mestizo and mulato) We’re left out in even our own culture and sometimes we seek that approval from “black Americans” but don’t get it because we’re seen as something separate, but we’re not!

    Looking forward to your story though! Like to see people acknowledging a need for this

    • Can’t believe I didn’t catch this reply, but one of the main characters is, in my head at least, Afro-Latina.

      And that’s nothing saying that the other named characters (two of which spring to mind right now) cannot be as well.

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