Written by Vanessa Simerskey
In the Spring of 2019, I had the opportunity to take Latinx Short Stories with Professor Garcia. I was eager to take this course because I felt an internal need to explore different authors and experiences within the Latinx community that I am a part of, but haven’t had much exposure with. Throughout the course, the amazing Professor Patricia Garcia asked us to consider what it means for a story to be Latinx. Although we never came to a concrete conclusion, the question remains in my mind: Are Latinx stories deemed so because of the author’s ethnicity? Or because of the story’s content? Although ethnicity-based genres like Latinx self-differentiate art in a world dominated by white authors and their literature, lumping all non-white literature into a broad, ethnicity-based genre creates the idea that all authors from the same ethnic background have the same experiences. The ethnically—and, often, racially—divided genres we know today were essentially constructed to divide literature and art into white and non-white categories, often done in a misguided attempt to celebrate these works. However, these genres built upon ethnicity hurt the creators of these works. Ethnicity-based genres complicate the author’s relationship to their own identity, make assumptions about the authors’ content (and the author themselves), while also shaping how we, the readers, interpret their work.
Racially- and ethnically- divided genres can sometimes reveal a clash between how the creator embraces their identity and how institutions decide which parts of an artist’s identity are relevant to their work. Take museums as an example of institutions that catalog and categorize work. For example, some of the works curated under then the Mexican Art exhibit at the Blanton Museum were created by native Mexicans, while some were produced by non-natives who fled from war-torn Europe during World War II. Despite the artists’ different heritages, the Blanton Museum still curated all their work under the Mexican Art category. In this case, the artists’ work was not only produced in Mexico, but also showcased unique features of day-to-day life of the working class families that focused on agriculture, local vendors and politics in Mexico. Here, the art was categorized into “ethnic” genres based on the content and place of production, with curators deciding that where these artists were originally from wasn’t central to their geographical-based curation process. Though this approach may seem accurate in that it prioritizes similar content over similar origin, it also seems to imply that European artists are able to create “Mexican” art.
The structure of the Blanton’s categories is mainly dependent upon the place where the art was created, raising a troubling question: if European artists can create “Mexican” art, how does this impact the validity of native Mexican artists’ work? On the one hand, the Blanton may have chosen to organize art in this manner because viewers could compare the non-native artists’ interpretations of Mexico with Mexican-born artists’ representations. Here, we might feel like the “Mexican” category adds value to the consuming experience. But before we celebrate, we have to ask ourselves how institutions like museums qualify art as “ethnic” enough to be put into its own category. To follow the Blanton example, could a piece by a Mexican artist be considered not “Mexican enough” to be placed in the Mexican Art collection because a curator deems that their subject matter isn’t about Mexico or the Mexican experience? Intrinsically, this must mean that a piece’s “ethnic-ness” can be put on a scale; one painting can be more ‘ethnic’ than another. Thus, creators and their work can be invalidated by ethnic categories that are established by society and institutions when the styles/genres don’t adhere to outside measurements of what art, made by a specific ethnic group, should look like.
Artists and authors don’t have to cater to the general, whiter audience because their goal isn’t to please everyone —their goal is to give voice to their stories. The main priority of any artist is to express their experiences—experiences which may or may not be related to their ethnic background.
Within academia and other media platforms, it’s critical to look at how esteemed institutions associate ethnicities with artists and authors, and how it impacts the way an audience considers an author (and consequently their work) before even interacting with it. For example, we can examine the difference between calling Toni Morrison a significant African-American author versus just simply calling her a significant author. The first option spotlights Morrison’s ethnic background, which itself could be interpreted two ways: Toni Morrison is a significant author within the African-American community or she is a significant author who is from the African-American community. By saying Morrison is an important author within the African-American community, we imply that her importance is dependent upon her place in her community; when she is outside of that space, it stands to follow that Toni Morrison then loses her importance. Obviously, this is inaccurate and unfair. But if viewed from another angle, including Morrison’s ethnicity to describe her authorship provides the audience with context for when she writes about her experience as a Black woman.
Another intimidating factor about retelling experiences as a non-white author is producing work for a general audience who are not a part of that author’s ethnic or racial group. “Ethnic” authors may wonder if this more general—typically white—audience will care or find something relatable about their work when their subject matter revolves around an experience only a specific group will fully understand. To demonstrate, in Oscar Casares’ short story collection Brownsville, he makes references to specific sites and street names that are familiar to a reader from Brownsville, Texas. While the specificity can establish an intimate connection to the reader, it is possible that the specificity can isolate certain audiences because they are on the outside looking in. In a way, it’s similar to watching two friends tell an inside joke and because you can’t relate, you decide to quit the conversation entirely. Despite this possible alienation, it’s important that creators find validity in their work regardless of whether an audience that can relate to it. Non-white creators are still allowed to hope that their message or narrative will transcend all the barriers and boxes of racialized or ethnicity-based genres that will be imposed on them and connects with the audience on some level. Artists and authors don’t have to cater to the general, whiter audience because their goal isn’t to please everyone—their goal is to give voice to their stories. The main priority of any artist is to express their experiences—experiences which may or may not be related to their ethnic background.
Luckily, there is still some power to be found from categorizing work by race or ethnicity of the creator. Racial or ethnic categories can be a place of empowerment for creators by showcasing authors’ or artists’ work under a category that more accurately reflects themselves and their experiences, while also putting them in conversation with similar artists. For example, Mexican Modernism, Afrofuturism, Native American Renaissance are all specific ethnographic genres of literature that create a niche for authors to celebrate their cultures and write from a place of pride in their identity. Hyper-specific ethnic genres do something that general ethnic genres don’t: they establish a space to uplift creators and their racial or ethnic identities. Race- or ethnicity defined genres greatly shape the way non-white creators establish their own sense of identity and the lens in which we, the readers, interpret their art or literature. The more specific ethnic genres (like Mexican Modernism or Afrofuturism) have reclaimed institutionally imposed racial genres and turned them into an artistic place that highlights particular concepts or trends that are present among an identity group.
However we view it, the clear fact remains that tying ethnicity to authors is only common amongst people of color—a white author would never be marketed with a statement like “#1 Best Selling White Author.” Not including ethnicity or race when promoting or describing the work of non-white creators empowers them because it emphasizes their impact as a writer, without qualifying their work with their identity. When important platforms like publishers and bookstores don’t highlight an author’s ethnicity as a selling point, they allow for the audience to appreciate that author’s significance without othering them—especially when compared against other white authors.
Creators’ ethnicity and race should serve as context for interpreting their pieces, not as boxes to force creators into narrow spaces. However, it’s important to remember that a creator’s ethnicity or race is only a part of what makes up their identity. Just because a creator isn’t white doesn’t, by default, make their ethnicity or race the central focus of all their work. Art and literature should be categorized based on how their content fits into established styles and genres, with their ethnicity used as a sub category that shows how they interpret this style and use it to illustrate their unique perspectives. Using ethnicity can be helpful to analyze literature and art of a particular author, but it has the potential to negatively alter the way audiences interpret the art and literature.
Ethnicity-based genres were established by academic and social institutions to divide literature into white and non-white; these places hold the power to shape how the rest of the world perceives diverse authors and their “ethnic” content. To challenge these institutions and broad ethnicity-based genres gives authors the opportunity to establish their own identity and express themselves without pressure. Instead of Mexican authors or Asian artists, they get to just be creators. This unique short stories class has reminded me of how important it is for authors to discover and make known their identity without the influence of society. I was given a space to appreciate and acknowledge Latinx authors—not just authors who only deemed worthy within their race or ethnicity— it also served as a reminder of pernicious impact of how non-white authors are categorized by institutions.