I am surrounded by Latinas—at the college where I teach and the schools that I visit. They are professors, chiropractors, cleaning ladies, teachers, principals, writers, community organizers, doctors, mothers, artists, and college students. I understand and share many of their struggles and concerns. As part of the Latina community, I recently realized that we have a superpower: invisibility.
You only have to flip on your television or stream a popular series on your computer to confirm this superpower. We are invisible in the fictional worlds of movies, TV shows, and books. When we do appear, our roles are limited for the most part to those given to us in the mental landscapes of producers and authors. We tend to be hot and sexy temptresses or struggling and victimized immigrants (or both). The nation was shocked when Sonia Sotomayor called herself a “wise Latina” during her Supreme Court nomination hearings. We knew what she meant. Those who didn’t were appalled that she had the temerity to step out of the construction that society foisted upon her—and others.
As director of Occidental College’s Community Literacy Center, I have stocked the center’s bookshelves to reflect the vibrant diversity of our community, so as to better connect with the students enrolled. There are stories from everywhere—stories of multiple identities and stories of exploration of identity. The best stories show us facing conflict and surmounting it, which stretches the reader’s horizons. But in the real world, overcoming invisibility is more challenging.
Part of the thrill of reading is finding oneself in a world that is familiar yet different, lifelike yet without the tedium and monotony of real life. It is through books that we are able to live hundreds of different lives. Reading fiction is said to expand our cognitive ability and enhance our compassion.
I get tired of avoiding movies and TV shows because I can’t adjust my lens to fit those of the producers. I find myself devouring books in an effort to quell the qualms within and the worries without, and to delight in someone else’s fascinating world. As I read (and this applies particularly to contemporary fiction—I forgive past authors for the blinders of their time), I keep track of who is included in these novels, and whether the multihues of my Southern California are there. Are contemporary Latinas included as complex characters or are they thrown in for their fiery accents? For their pitiable positions? For their potential as dramatic devices?
Which is worse: to be invisible or to be made into a cardboard construct? We Latinas read books, write books, and buy books. I wish I could buy more! Very often, instead of finding a vibrant tapestry—similar to the neighborhoods where I live and work in—on the page, I find a monochromatic world, not very different from that already displayed in television and the movies. It is more than disheartening that my demographic—which was present in so many states before statehood, and is today the dominant ethnic group in California and the emerging dominant group in the country—remains invisible. It is infuriating and enraging. It fills me with so much anger that I become inarticulate. Then I take a deep breath and start writing.
My novel The Amado Women explores the lives of four very different Latinas, each with her own struggles, successes, and secrets. These women are professionals; they include a teacher, a financial advisor, and an artist. They are wives and mothers, yet individuals, too. For we Latinas are as diverse, as shallow, and as deep as our dominant-culture counterparts. Our stories of immigration and oppression are gripping, but they are not our only stories to tell. Our stories are as wide and as varied as the hues we come in. Our stories span all income brackets and genres. Our stories are deep, silly, and deeply silly. We—like you—contain multitudes.
I can have little impact on media, except to turn off the TV or laptop when the white blaze is too blinding. What I do have control over is the reading selections at the literacy center that I run, as well as the content of my writing. I strive to change the mental landscape. Invisibility is a power I am willing to renounce.