As a child, luck was a concept I fiercely clung to. I had heard the cautionary tales of my ancestors — all of the horrific misfortunes they endured as a means of survival — and collected them like pennies from a dilapidated fountain. Generations riddled with economic hardship and racial segregation on the way to the so-called American dream paved the way for a future where I would want for nothing.
I took these stories as omens ensuring I'd be protected from the outside world. The silver spoon my ancestors handcrafted kept me fed in many ways. I never had to worry about my basic needs. I had devoted, hard-working parents around me. And I was given all the necessary tools to thrive: integrity, grit and ambition.
Everything began to shift around middle school. These were the years when I first became aware of the fact that I didn't look like my peers and that we didn't share similar upbringings. All of my friends were white, blond and upper-crust. I envied their thin eyebrows and perpetually hairless legs, and how they seemed to grab the attention of every boy in my class.
There seemed to be a hive mind among these girls, one in which they appeared to be transforming both physically and emotionally into the same person — but I was only ever an outside observer. I had bought into the process of assimilation — I told myself that eventually, I would integrate with the dominant culture. But no matter how often I was swallowed by the whale, I always ended up on dry land.
I was the brown stain on an impeccably white shirt — washed and rinsed until I was a faint mark that had to be accepted, but still noticeable under harsh light. Here, the paradox that's been looming over Mexican American women for years began to surface in my own life.
I am not "Latina enough" to understand my grandparents when they speak to me in Spanish, and I must watch the disappointment bloom on their faces when I fail to muster a proper response. I am not "Latina enough" to wear bust-accentuating tops or hip-flattering jeans because my body was not meant to fill their shape. I am not "Latina enough" to wear dark lipstick or decorate with gold jewelry the way my aunts do, as my complexion is much lighter than theirs.
I am, however, "Latina enough" to be criticized for my excess hair — dark, thick patches of black that grow on my body like a pestilent moss. I am "Latina enough" to be interrogated about my background in debates over whether or not one of my parents is white — the answer is no. I am "Latina enough" to know what a quinceañera is, but not "Latina enough" to ever have had one myself.
But whenever I expressed these feelings of detachment, they were often written off as tokens of luck.
I do not know any Spanish because I was lucky to have attended a private school in the middle of white suburbia where I wasn't subjected to any of the "bad kids" and their "negative influence." I'm lucky to be so petite and abnormally skinny because I'm able to eat without consequence — a trait I was told to cherish since I gained the ability to look in the mirror. My olive skin is an ambiguous disguise in a categorical world. I can fly under the radar more subtly than my mother, who is much darker than myself.
I'm lucky to be born with choice, the capacity to choose the parts of my culture at my own accord. I am able to be Latina without the burden of showing it — a discretionary tool I am lucky to have, at least in the eyes of those who raised me.
Many years later, I am still yet to see my good fortune manifest. Somewhere in my girlhood, I was split in half — like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that refuse to mesh, no matter how hard you push them together. There is a poignant twinge of disconnect where the wires of my brain begin to fuse but have not properly combined.
Latina stereotypes and their negativity
Although I felt displaced in my own culture, I was acutely aware that a box designated for Latina women to check themselves into already existed. The perfectly crafted, one-dimensional space I speak of was created to accommodate only one type of Latina — one who, according to a Huffington Post column by Mexican writer Ces Heredia, is “overtly sexual, hotheaded, fiery and angry” — or, for lack of better words, “spicy.”
The Spicy Latina trope has plagued Hispanic women for decades — beginning in the 1940s with the fetishization of Brazilian entertainer Carmen Miranda, and continuing well into the 2000s with actresses like Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek, who dominated Latina roles on the big screen. Like many Latina girls my age, these women were all I had for representation.
I watched as my male peers fell victim to this harmful narrative, expressing their strong attraction to Spicy Latina tropes like "Adam Sandler's wife in 'Grown Ups'"or "that one girl from 'Glee.'" To them, these women were one and the same, lumped into a single version of idyllic beauty every Latina is expected to uphold.
"I've had a guy tell me, 'You look so exotic,' without even knowing anything about me," said Lindsey Montalvo, a freshman studying forensic psychology. "It was just based on physical appearance."
Montalvo, who is both Hispanic and white, is no stranger to the Spicy Latina trope and its pernicious effects. She believes it can promote blatant prejudice.
"Brown hair, brown skin and red lips pop into my head," Montalvo said. "Also being promiscuous or down for whatever."
But these stereotypes rooted in cultural appropriation do not end with such microaggressions — in fact, they are only the beginning.
According to the Women's Media Center, continuous objectification of Latina women not only promotes sexual harassment, but it can also lead to domestic violence.
"In middle school, there was also that stereotype of needing to take care of the house and clean," Montalvo said. "These jokes that were being implemented didn't align with me, and they were mainly from my boy classmates."
Like Montalvo, I too do not identify with these on-screen women. I am soft-spoken when I am expected to be loud-mouthed, and frightfully insecure when I am supposed to be tantalizing. This ongoing dissonance seems to be a staple of Mexican American culture, as the perception of how we should look and act as Latinas is perpetually contradictory, especially between popular media and those around us.
"My grandma from Mexico would tell me, 'You need to dress (a certain way) in public,'" Montalvo said. "She'd say, 'Don’t go out of your way to make a scene, don’t bring attention to yourself.'"
You could proudly check the box, own the thick brown hair, be so evenly and darkly tanned that a passerby could mark you as a dead ringer for Penélope Cruz — and still, you'll disappoint your family for being too aligned with the stereotype.
Minding the gap
It seems, for as long as I can remember, that everyone has known what to do with my culture except for myself. I have watched as trends like "Catholic Mexican Girl" style — girls dressing in white linen dresses and accessorizing with crucifixes — or Hailey Bieber’s "brownie glazed lips" are poached from the hands of Latina women and repackaged as a sensational, new aesthetic to try your hand at.
These harmful representations are a beast that cannot be tamed, and the false, stereotypical depiction of Latina women continues to infiltrate our progress as successful women in society. "These controlling images are salient," said Vera Lopez, a women and gender studies professor at ASU. "And a lot of times, they're not coming from parents."
Lopez, whose background is in educational psychology, has spent years studying Latina girlhood. "People assume that all Latino parents are the same," she said. "They all want their daughters to be very traditional, help in the kitchen sort of thing. But a lot of times, there are economic factors that come into play."
According to Lopez, parents are not solely to blame for Latinas falling in line with the perpetuating stereotype. "When I asked girls if they had a Latina role model to look up to, they couldn't say anybody," she said. "They're not seeing themselves in the larger media in different roles or possibilities."
Lopez recently conducted a project centered around Latina athletes in high school and middle school and found Latina experiences in sports, along with the messages they've received about being Latina, also lacked representation. "A lot of these girls do not fit the traditional stereotype we often hear about," she said. "A big part of my work is combating that salient narrative and sharing girls' experiences."
The "salient narrative" Lopez referred to exists on a solid foundation of controlling images perpetuated by the media. University of Maryland professor emerita and social theorist Patricia Hill Collins first coined the term "controlling image" in her 1990 book "Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment," which served as her cry for intersectionality in American society.
Like Latinas, Black women have also been misrepresented for years, which Collins believes is used to justify the oppression of Black women everywhere. When the false tropes associated with Black women become the dominant narrative, Collins argued they will fuel social injustice until it is normalized.
In Lopez's research, looking at a diverse range of Latino families and the role misrepresentation plays in shaping young Latina girls was a crucial goal. "We don't always want to centralize Latino folk," she said. "There's differences in acculturation, country of origin, socioeconomic status, so we have to look at these factors. But all too often, we're painted with the same brush."
But this is not a plea for sympathy. I don't need pity or commiseration because in case you’ve forgotten, I've got luck.
Sure, I've wished to conform. I've wished to merge, to fall in line with my peers. And yes, I've wished I were a Spicy Latina — because then, at least I'd know where I stand among the rest.
But if I've learned anything from my ancestors, it's that struggle is the catalyst of progress. It's because of them that I’m able to have this platform at all, fueled by my desire to change the narrative — because Latina women deserve better.
I'm lucky to be aware of my multifaceted identity and lucky to share my unwavering voice.
I'm lucky to be so unsatisfied.
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen.
This story is part of The Hot Issue, which was released on Oct. 4, 2023. See the entire publication here.