Not All Latinas Look Like J.LoGrasie Mercedes

I hate checking boxes. Here’s the deal. I am Dominican-American. My mother and father were both born in the Dominican Republic. I was born in New York City. I am Latina. I’m also an Actress.

Here’s the problem. America (and most of the world) has trouble accepting someone who looks like me, as Latin. In their eyes, Latin women look like Jennifer Lopez, Latin men look like Mario Lopez and all Latin people have the last name Lopez (or Garcia, Hernandez, etc).

Here’s the reality. Latinos are the most diverse looking group of people in the world. We come in all skin colors, eye colors and hair textures. We do not all look like the Latinos you see on TV and in films.

Here’s what’s frustrating. As a Latina of color, I have to constantly explain what I am. And as an Actress, I never really know the right answer. At every commercial audition there is the following sign-in sheet you must fill out.

Note the ETHNICITY section and explanation key below it. Now, yes I could just leave this section blank, but most people don’t and depending on how I’m feeling that day, I usually don’t either. It never fails though, I take an extra 10-15 seconds thinking… Do they want LATINO, BLACK or my personal favorite, ETHNICALLY AMBIGUOUS? Then I check accordingly. This seems silly, no? But what I’ve learned from past auditions is that you are to them what you say you are, regardless of what you really are. Make sense?

If they want a Black girl for the part and I say I’m Black, then viola! They see me that way. If they want a Latino girl and I say I’m Latino, then viola! Oh you are…great! If they want a girl of Mixed race and I check more than one box, viola again! I guess this means I’m diverse, which is a good thing? Now, if it were up to me… they would cast me based on my talent alone and not the color of my skin but come on, that’s just a silly notion. I am aware.

Here’s the story. I am so proud to be Latina and love my culture and all that comes with it, but I am a little sick of giving history lessons every time someone is dumbfounded at the fact that I can have black skin and still be 100% LATINA. Oh really, I thought you were mixed, like half black and half white. Well, you know what, you are not exactly wrong there. Let’s Wiki it, shall we…

The ethnic composition of the Dominican population is 73% multiracial, 16% white, and 11% black. The multiracial population is primarily a mixture of European and African, but there is as well a significant Taíno element in the population; recent research has shown that at least 15% of Dominicans have Taíno ancestry. 

So to recap (and this is the case with other Latin islands in the Caribbean, too), Dominicans are historically and presently a mixed race that speaks Spanish and has a Latin culture and identity. Because of this, we do not ALL look like a Lopez. Some of us have black skin, some white, some olive and everything in between. It’s a beautiful thing.

Here’s my wish. That Hollywood and the world will open their eyes to the beauty that exists in our cultural and physical differences. That we stop stereotyping what someone should look like or act like based on where they’re from. (I’m guilty of it too). That we question people about their backgrounds out of curiosity, not out of judgement.

That’s all. Not too bad, right? Thanks for listening.

Photos of Zoe Saldana, LaLa Anthony, Christina Milian & Lauren Valez via WireImage 

Commercial Sign-In Form via SAG

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  1. I think this article kind of touches upon the question of POC with racial privilege. A Latina girl who has very dark skin and nappy hair can check Latina on the chart and when people see her they are still going to see “black,” not “mixed,” or “Latina.” Only light skinned Latinas are asked about their background; dark skinned Latinas don’t have that luxury. You can change your identity to benefit you professionally. Alexis Bledel is of Mexican and Danish and Argentinian ancestry, but she is usually cast as a white US American, (which she is) and there are more roles both in terms of number and diversity for her. Some people do not have that choice. When people say “not Latina enough” they are being offensive and rather ignorant, but they are also acknowledging that light-skinned folks have the opportunity to bypass some of the racism that dark-skinned folks cannot. I don’t think racial labeling is completely pointless. Sometimes it can be quite empowering, to say you are black and be proud of it. There are people out there who have to work towards that. Also, indigenous is not a race, it is an ethnicity because it pertains to culture, language, ancestry, and history and not only to skin color.

  2. It was the same thing for me when i was in australia, I’m from Chile and aside from the fact that many people in australia didn’t even know where Chile was, they couldn’t believe that i could speak english without an accent. They all believed i was french or italian and that i was joking about my background. I particularly remember one time i was so bored of explaining myself that when this guy asked me if i was american, i said ” I am american, because i am from the continent called america, now if you’re asking if I am from the states then no i am not but I am Latin american instead”
    I have to say that you are absolutely right, to me it’s sad to see how the latin american culture has been stereotyped by the media in general.

  3. though i am not an actress, it was very frustrating for me filling out standardized testing forms and college apps when it came to the ethnicity section. i am half caucasian, half asian. and in that half asian, i am filipino and indonesian. so i had a couple complaints:

    1. often, the forms only allow you to choose the ONE ethnicity you most identify with. haha what? you want me to choose between the two halves of me? i don’t feel predominantly white or predominantly asian…so what do i do? my dad always told me to choose “other,” which still doesn’t seem to fit right. i have two ethnicities so LET ME PICK TWO.

    2. the option for asians was always Asian/Pacific Islander. this is a very misleading category. i am also from hawaii so i am aware of how different asian is from being pacific islander. a chinese person is very different from a samoan person. and like you said about latino/as being the most diverse group, asians are very diverse too. a filipino person is very different from an indian.

    i am proud of being a mix of different ethnicities. and i just wish i could share that accurately somehow.

  4. this is so crazy, I’m black and Zimbabwean and i was fortunate enough to go to an international school where i met different looking Latinos. I have also been fortunate enough to travel to Brazil, Argentina, Columbia and Mexico. But i feel like even if i hadn’t i wouldn’t have so many pre-concieved racial notions about people. I have a cousin who is lighter than me and has blue eyes and people always ask if he is biracial (he isn’t, he’s just a genetic anomoly). I long for the day when people won’t care enough to ask these mind numbing questions and just see people as people.

  5. I totally relate to this article. My mom’s indian and my dad’s scottish and irish and i feel like almost every single person I have ever met has asked me what I am.. leading into what feels like a background check. I’m starting to think i should take a page out of Vin Diesel’s book and respond by saying I’m “ambiguous” .

  6. OMG! I know. For whatever reason, when I hear about “Latinos” its all the same women, Jennifer Lopez, Penelope Cruz, Selma Hayek. Light skinned or olive skinned women. Whatever! Others represent too! Thanks for this article.

  7. Great article Grasie!! I’m a hazel eyed and fair skinned Mexican. When people hear I was born in Mexico, they have a hard time believing it because I don’t speak with an accent. I just hate explaining to people that ask why I’m not “dark enough to be Mexican” because my great-great-grandfather was Spaniard that some of my family are fair skinned and some are dark skinned.

  8. I’m so glad you posted this article! I’m a fair-skinned, green eyed Puerto Rican. I have “Caucasian features” and I don’t have an accent so I really get put in the “American” box all the time, especially by locals. I work in an “ethnic” restaurant, and so many people, both tourists and locals, have questioned i’s authenticity based on the color of my skin, my eyes or my ability to speak English. Did everyone forget the history of the western world and all of the cultures that encompass it? We’re diverse, I don’t understand the need of imagining us all as the same color with the same features.

  9. Cheers to this article! While I’m not Latina, I am bi-racial (my dad is black and my mom is white) but my name is Jasmine and I have brown skin so people automatically assume I am from India. Instead of straight asking me if I am Indian, they ask me “where are you from?’ to which I reply ‘Indiana” (confusing more people because they assume I said India). If they didn’t get too mixed up with the whole Indiana-India deal they ask where my parents are from and my response is “Indiana and North Carolina” and they still look confused. I know exactly what they are trying to ask me and exactly what answer will satisfy it, but until they ask me the right question I refuse to give them the right answer. *Oh and they ask me if I’m Hindu as well. Um…I’m pretty sure you can be any race/ethnicity and be Hindu. Come on America.

    • ha! come on america! thanks for sharing jasmine! xo

      Grasie Mercedes | 9/16/2011 05:09 pm
  10. Grasie you just became my shero. Many people don’t realize how diverse “Latino” cultures can be. Last year, I had a Spanish teacher who thought Colombia (along with the rest of Central/South America) was in MExico. That really pissed me off. And then one other time she asked me if my parents knew any English whatsoever, when I had previously mentioned that they had gone to college in Utah and Florida. I feel really bad, but I wanted to punch her. Thanks for posting this… it really is one of my favorite posts ever!!!

  11. I am a light-skinned Latina with dark hair and eyes. It gets really old having to tell people, “No, really. My family is from Mexico and Puerto Rico.” What’s worse is this confusion also sometimes comes from other Latinos (who should know better), who sometimes even suggest that I am “not Latina enough.” I think it would have been good to include a light-haired, light-eyed Latina’s photo. Thank you for this article!

    • it’s true “white” latinos experience the same thing! i didn’t include that angle bc i was writing about my personal experience as a “black” latino. but thank you for sharing your story! xoxo :)

      Grasie Mercedes | 9/16/2011 05:09 pm
  12. I totally get this article! People from the U.S. oftenly get confused by my looks. I have a black person’s nose, my eyes are light-coloured, my skin is white and my body type is definitely latina. I guess we have a lot of diversity around here and it’s wonderful!!

  13. My husband is Mexican-American. He speaks Spanish, but is pale skinned, 3 of his grandparents were born in the U.S., he & his parents are all college-educated, & he works as an accountant. This totally confused people in the small Texas town we lived in for 5 years. The white people would forget he wasn’t “one of them” & make racist comments (mostly about Mexican immigrants) & the Mexican folks would stare in shock when ge spoke Spanish & explained his family was from Mexico. It’s so frustrating that people still hold to these stereotypes. I was so offended at all of the racist comments I would hear–that people thought it was “safe” to say things like that in front of me because I’m white. Even if my last name wasn’t Lopez, I would still be disgusted! And someday, our 2 year old son will be faced with similar forms asking him to define who he is & I’m not sure what to tell him.

    • ugh, sorry to hear that Hannah! thank you for sharing. i hope things will be better for your son. i think our future generations will be more open-minded…at least that’s what i wish for. i giggled when i saw your last name was Lopez :)

      Grasie Mercedes | 9/16/2011 05:09 pm
  14. I’m also Dominican, also born in the NYC but on the paler side of the spectrum. I’m probably about as pale as Zooey herself. I was also blonde for my first year of life before my hair got darker which would probably really confuse people when I told them my nationality. People usually think I’m Puerto Rican, French (which is also because of my last name), or White American of some type of European background on rare occasions. The fact that we have to be confused as to what to call ourselves is why racial labeling is completely pointless.

  15. Check out this link, the end of the classic “Mexican Americans” Cheech and Chong anthem is totally priceless: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pedro+flores+mexican+americans&aq=f

    p.s. I’m definitely one of those Mexican girls that looks Asian, my grandpa even calls me “Korita” which translates to “Little Korean Girl”

  16. I agree to not stereotyping which people of every race does to me! I am Mexican, but every time I tell someone that, they are shocked because they think I am Indian. People also assume I speak Spanish when I don’t and are very disappointed at me when they find this out. I think people need to become open-minded and realize that EVERYONE is different and we need to embrace this.

    • yeah, i think because Latinos are still a young group immigration wise vs Italian, Irish, etc people expect you to speak Spanish. like it’s a requirement to be Latin. thanks for commenting! xo

      Grasie Mercedes | 9/16/2011 10:09 am
  17. I remember filling out a job application and one of the questions was “Black, Latino or White, Latino” like based on skin color. I found that really strange… I left the answer blank by the way and just put “other.”

  18. Yes, yes, yes a hundred times yes. I’m a full-time masters student but I also waitress on the weekend and it never fails that at least once a shift I’m asked, point-blank, “what are you?” WHAT KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT ANYWAY? #Rudemuch?

    • haha! RIGHT?! umm i’m human! though like i mentioned…im guilty of it too. sometimes im curious about where someone comes from. but there’s definitely a different tone when someone asks out of interest vs out of judgement.

      Grasie Mercedes | 9/16/2011 10:09 am
  19. I have the same problem. Because of my facial features, most people think that I’m East Asian when I am, in fact, a blend of Lebanese and French. I have to put up with so many assumptions and stereotypical Asian jokes from people I know, and I am 1. appalled that they just assume things about me based on how I look and 2. appalled at how many people can say horrible things about different ethnicities/races when they think you’re their friend and it’s “okay.”

  20. It is too bad people feel the need to put labels on everything and everyone. People are people, regardless of color, size, religion, etc. Maybe if people could get that through their thick skulls the world would be a nicer place. I am the whitest white girl I know but I still have a diverse background. Making assumptions by the way people look just makes an ass out of you. I say it doesn’t matter what box you check, you are beautiful and smart and I applaud you for being you. We should all celebrate our individuality.

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