Satisfaction by Sarah Mayberry
Catch-up Reviews: Once in a Lifetime, Bite Me, Rock it, and Love the One You're With

Seeing myself in Romance Novels

In the last day or so there has been some discussion on twitter and Dear Author about a upcoming Kristan Higgins' book that a blogger cited as part of Harlequin's strategy to address the overwhelming whiteness of their books.  The cover features to white-looking protagonists, one who is described as Irish American and another as half-Puerto Rican.  As mother of two half-Puerto Rican children, I am more than happy to count a half-Puerto Rican character as move toward diversity, however I do think the blogger/article author over-stated the impact the book is likely to have and Dear Author commenters are right to point out that there is something very off about having this promoted as in any way ground-breaking.

I don't go out of my way to find Latino/Hispanic characters but I am almost always excited to see them.  Finding Hispanic/Latino characters that feels right is hard can be hard because we are such a complex fluid bunch.  We have immigrant/native Latinos, legal and undocumented, urban and rural, poor and rich, Spanish or Spanglish or English speaking, and that isn't touching the complex brew of racial, national and cultural heritages we carry. An author could be trying to craft complex Latino characters and still get slammed for not crafting one just right.

As Puerto Rican of predominately White European descent, growing up I have often feel the weird outsiderness of people judging me as not Puerto Rican enough, because my skin is not dark enough, or my Spanish accent not strong enough.  One my most painful moments in high school when I had a classmate and rival for exchange student slot, said to me that because I was lighter skinned than he was, I would have a easier to time fitting in at the rural Western NY school we were  doing the exchange with, thus he should be selected the opportunity because he was more Puerto Rican than I was.  In the years since then I have come to appreciate the privilege my white skin and my minimally accented English grant me.   For the most part, unless I tell someone, people don't immediately know I am Latina. I don't wear my culture on my skin, and that is awkward thing in our heavily racially focused American culture.  I have ended up hearing many a bigoted comment from people who don't realize they are talking about my people or had people try to compliment me in weird ways because I don't fit their stereotype. So as result I usually extra glad to see Latino characters with non-stereotypical backgrounds, characters whose racial/cultural identity is more complicated.

Last year I really enjoyed Audra North's One Night in Santiago because the hero  Bruno Komarov, was a Chilean American with Russian ancestors.  He was California born and bred but with strong historical and cultural ties to his parents and grand-parent's Chile.  In Laugh, Mary Ann Rivers' upcoming book the heroine is a first-generation Mexican American, born in the US to migrant worker parents.  Although she is described as having her father's strong Mayan features, and dark hair, she was raised English speaking, and the strongest elements in her identity are not necessary about being Mexican-American but being a daughter of a migrant farm laborer,  her grief and urban farm.  As I read the book I ended up contacting Rivers over Twitter to ask her about Nina's use of the curse word 'joder' un-conjugated as replacement for 'fuck'.  It jarred me when I read it because I am more familiar with the conjugated uses of 'joder'.  Turned out that Mary Ann Rivers had Nina use it that way, because the primarily-English speaking 1st and 2nd Generation Mexican-Americans she recorded speaking as part of her research used it that way.  I loved learning that.  Cursing is so regional in Spanish, and it just added to the building of character that is uniquely themselves and not just a token.

Last year I read most of Serena Bell's "Yours Keep” which featured an undocumented Dominican Spanish tutor, heroine, Ana Travares. While ended up bailing on reading the whole book because some ass-hattery by the love interest Ethan, I thought Bell did a great job crafting a complex Dominican family for Ana.  The book actually touched on some of the complicated racial politics within Latino cultures, where variations in skin shade/hair texture within a family are often commented upon and whiteness often privileged.   I liked having this internal racism acknowledged and getting that detail right gave me confidence that the author had some actual knowledge of the workings of Dominican families.

But sometimes a character can be given all sorts of little details, and still not feel true. I read and enjoyed "A Righteous Kill" by Kerrigan Byrne, even though the hero, Luca Ramirez described as half-Puerto Rican, half-Brazilian, felt off to me.  His mother was supposed to have been a Puerto Rican underage stripper from El Paso, TX who got involved with violent "euro-trash" Brazilian that gave Luca nothing but grief and abuse.  Beyond mentioning their ethnicity, there was little about this back-story that carried into the characterization of Luca.  Maybe it wouldn't have felt that way to others, but I thought, why go to the trouble of giving this character this back-story and not do something with it.  Ramirez was completely disconnected to his family or ancestral cultures and so it was nothing more than window dressing. But maybe I am being unfair, and out there are Puerto Rican/Brazilian Texans for whom Luca feels familiar but I doubt it.  I thought Hero, the heroine's Irish-Russian, Shakespeare spouting spy family received much more development and weight.

One thing that does ring true in all these recent depiction of Latinos is the fact that they are entering into multicultural/interracial relationships.  According to  recent Pew Studies, Latinos and Asians have the highest rates of intermarriage to whites, and some of the highest rates of acceptance of marrying out.  In my family, all my siblings and step-siblings have either married out or involved with people  partners who not Latino (White, Indian-American, Japanese-Brazilian), and all but one of my high school best-friends have also married out.  This is my reality and I certainly want to see more of it in Romance novels I read.


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