I’m Not a Jalapeno

Photo by Sam Lee

I’m Not a Jalapeno
Nayleth Lopez
Sophomore Speech Finalists

As the annual sophomore speech finals have come to a close, Denebola got the opportunity to obtain each finalist’s transcription and recording of their speech. Sophomore Nayleth Lopez’s speech entitled “I’m Not a Jalapeno” enabled her to reach these finals. Read and watch Lopez’s speech below:

Sriracha. Jalapenos. Latinas. What do these things have in common? Well, mainly, all of these things are known as “spicy”. One of these is obviously different than the others. You’ve all seen this Latina in movies and TV: the devious maid, the loud, passionate spitfire, the sex bomb with the irresistible accent. Hell, if you’ve ever seen the Chiquita Banana logo, you know what I’m talking about. The “spicy” Latina stereotype is too often the character of choice for writers when thinking of a Latina character. This adjective coupled with old tropes ignores the immense diversity in the Latinx population, and puts Latina women’s identity in question if they don’t meet expectations. With that in mind, it is imperative that more Latino writers in the studios tell some of the many, compelling Latino stories that exist.

Modern shows like “Jane the Virgin,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Superstore” do have Latin@ characters who do not conform to the typical stereotypes we see. Yet, these characters unfortunately continue to be the exception, not the norm. Many of you might be thinking, “What’s the problem with being regarded as beautiful passionate women, great cooks, and great dancers? Shouldn’t you be flattered??!” Yes, these traits are all positive on their own, but let’s take a look at some facts: in a 2010 study of how minorities were portrayed in the media, it was seen that 64% of Latinos on television had a heavy accent, 0% were the most articulate character, and they were the least likely group of people to be respected (Mock-Turner). When these are the defining statistics of Latino characters in prime-time television, it is incredibly damaging for the aspirations Latinas think they can have when this stereotype is constantly being thrown in their face.

The numbers are even worse for Latinx representation in movies: according to online sources, while 1 in 6 Americans identify as Latino, “Hollywood made the same amount of movies about Monkeys as Latinos in 2015” (Kaufman).

To begin to understand why these “positive” stereotypes are a problem, we must first examine where this portrayal and specific use of “spicy” came from. Once upon a time, in the United States not too long ago, there was a period of intense racism against Latinos, specifically Mexicans, during the Mexican-American War from 1848 and 1928. In an effort to reconcile, FDR made The Good Neighbor Agreement, and from this new acceptance of no more “harmful” stereotypes as a part of the agreement, came tropicalism and Carmen Miranda, who embodied the spicy, exotic Latina we see today. Carmen was a Brazilian entertainer who popularized the idea that Latinas as a whole lived in tight-fitting clothing, had accents, and were friendly foreigners. In a study done of the top-grossing films from 2007-2013, Latinas were the largest group of people to be shown partially or fully naked (mitu video). In her roles, Carmen created a cartoon character that erased the different cultures of South America. There is no way anybody else can represent 21 countries, 21 cultures in one character.

Today, the spicy latina is very much alive, with 9.1% of Latinas playing this role as of 2013 (mitu video). But the root of the problem is not that these people like these characters don’t exist. The root of the problem is when these are the only roles available for Latinas to play, as a Cosmopolitan article states when they say why Sofia Vergara is “not afraid of playing a stereotype… least of all a Latina woman stereotype… My mother and aunt behave like Latin women” (Nunez). This does not lessen their Latinidad; they are just one of multiple types of Latinas, who are as complex and nuanced as any other human.

If I don’t meet expectations for what people think a Latina should look like/act like, I feel insecure about my identity and put into question whether I am Latina enough and whether I’m representing my culture. But then I think, “this is actually so messed up! Some people don’t even know what Venezuela is!” and this is because the typical Latina has exactly one, homogenized look. The curvy sexy woman with “cafe con leche” skin (have you notice how often we’re compared to food?) and straight black hair is not what every single Latina looks like! From Zoe Saldana to Alexis Bledel we come in all sorts of looks and personalities! But Light-skin/dark-skin Latinas are not offered Latina roles, so the audiences never get to see this truth: that the Latino community is diverse.

Now, how can we actually fix this issue that has persisted in the media since the late 1800s?? Latinos gotta get our people in the writing room, telling their stories, people who can do this accurately and without any incredulity at the roles Latin@ actors have proposed. It is not enough to just be represented. It foolish to think that a character’s race will not affect their personality, so colorblind roles aren’t really the end goal. I want more Latina doctors. I want more Latina lawyers. I want more April Ludgates and Jane Villanuevas. I want just one Latina physicist, because why the hell not? I want these to be real, fleshed out Latina characters who know their roots but are not placed in a mold. If actors feel limited by their choices, like Gina Rodriguez did when presented with an offer to star in Devious Maids, then hopefully they will feel able to turn it down, because she knew she didn’t see herself or the rest of her Latino family/culture represented (Kimble). With great power comes great responsibility, and Latina actresses have the power to influence how media-consuming Americans and Latinos themselves see Latinas and the Latinx population with the roles they play.

Representation is so important. As a little girl, whenever I saw a Latina character, my pride and excitement about whatever I was watching would grow 10X bigger! Because I could see myself in these Latina actresses. But honestly, I don’t remember ever thinking, “I wanna be like her when I grow up.” Young latina girls need realistic role models on the screens they’re always looking at. I do not want my or anyone else’s Latinidad put into question by people who don’t know what it means to be Latino but think they do because all they have ever known are stereotypes. SO, let’s please reserve the use of the word “spicy” to food only? I’m not a jalapeno.