By Evelyn Heis, Film and TV Editor
Moving to the UK at the age of eight was in many ways a good thing. The move enabled me to receive a better education than my parents did, and to grow up in a safer environment, exposed to the vast Welsh countryside and an array of English literature I didn’t have access to at home. Yet, there were also some bad things that came with such a big move, for instance, growing up as the only Spanish-speaking, Latin American kid in the neighbourhood.
I was born in Argentina to a family of eccentric and food-loving Argentines who, consequently, also moved around a lot. My family immigrated to Spain when I was young, in search of a better place to settle down following the socio-political and economic turmoil that riddled Argentina and continues to affect our home to this day. Assimilating into Spain was quite easy for us; we spoke the same language and found that many cultural aspects overlapped.
However, moving to the UK was a different story. I had left my dad and other close family members in Spain, moving to a completely new place with my mum, brother and Welsh stepdad. Having only learnt English two years prior to the big move, I had yet to pick up a more relaxed and fluid way of putting my words together, finding that I had to translate my sentences from Spanish to English in my head every time I spoke. The Spanish twang that stuck to my words and my bronze skin made me stand out a lot, and while most of the time I did feel welcome, I never saw myself represented. I longed to find someone else like me.
During these formative years, the only person I had to look up to was my mum, the most hardworking and resilient woman that I know, but one who couldn't nourish the desire I had for fitting in. We were the only Latin American people in the neighbourhood, and I believe we were the only Spanish-speaking members of the community too. This was something I grew to hate at the time as it made me stand out, refusing to reply to my mum in Spanish whenever she spoke to me in public. It is something I am grateful to be able to share with her today.
Perhaps if I had been exposed to others with similar displaced cultural circumstances to me, even if they weren’t from Latin America, when I was a child, things would’ve been a lot less isolating.
Truth be told, this isn’t something entirely unique to my situation, because the reality is that this sentiment is often shared by those who come from minority groups, who don’t see themselves accurately represented.
For many years the LGBTQ+ community could not escape the HIV/AIDS epidemic, homophobia, or tragic love stories whenever they were portrayed in film and television. While those works do represent a big part of what has affected the community, it was rare to see a happy ending for gay characters - yes, I’m talking about Call Me By Your Name (2017).
In many ways, it has also been the same for the Black community, finding that works which centre Black joy, as opposed to ones that focus on their traumatic, painful past, in film and television were rarely portrayed. This is why works like Black Panther (2018), Hidden Figures (2016), The Woman King (2022), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), and Queen of Katwe (2016) are so powerful, as they reclaim the painful narrative and fill it with celebrations of Black excellence, talent, and inspiring stories that represent the community today.
There were times when I did see Latinos on screen, whenever West Side Story (1961) came on the Sky Family Channel, or Modern Family’s (2009-2020) Gloria (Sofia Vergara) made an appearance. Even within those two works, the readily available representation of the Latinx community was scarce: one was a film where white actors played Latino characters, heavily enforcing stereotypes, and the other was a character who is constantly mocked and looked down on for having a loud voice and thick Colombian accent.
As I got a bit older, I started to see more of us on screen, following the Netflix hit telenovela Jane The Virgin (2014-2019), in which Gina Rodriguez plays Jane, a hard-working Latina who dreams of making it into the literary industry and faces many surprises and melodramatic family dramas (would it be a Latin American show if it wasn’t?); and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), in which Miles Morales is introduced as the first Afro-Latino superhero. The inclusion of Latinx side characters in shows like Orange is the New Black (2013-2019) and Brooklyn 99 (2013-2021) also came about at around the same time.
Representation for the Latinx community is steadily increasing, with my favourite adaptation to date being Lin Manuel Miranda’s upbeat and vibrant musical, In The Heights (2021). I remember first watching it last summer and feeling completely in awe to have seen the Latinx community so accurately represented- even though I’m not Puerto Rican or from the Dominican Republic, there were so many cultural elements that I could simply relate to.
It was super inspiring to see Latinx actors from all backgrounds break into bilingual songs and for there to be a portrayal of different types of members within the community – I only wish I had been able to watch this when I was younger.
The sheer joy I felt from seeing an ounce of representation on screen is something that I often struggle to put into words. Unless you’ve ever felt out of place, it may be hard for you to imagine what it feels like when you see a bit of what you consider to be home, or your identity, accurately represented somewhere.
For those who fit into the monolingual and heteronormative Western canon, representation on screen may be something you’ve never even had to consider, as it has always been readily accessible. But for those who exist out of that, it’s something that directly impacts and is truly essential to the development of your identity.
A few weeks ago, when the cast for the upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid (2023) film was announced, there was an outcry from certain parents and members of the general public about the character of Ariel being played by Halle Bailey, a Black woman.
Whilst their contempt only seemed to focus on Ariel not being played by a white woman, blatantly exposing their racist standpoints, rather than the fact that Disney keeps making live-action remakes of classics instead of producing new content, there were so many little Black girls who were happy to see a mermaid who resembled them on screen. Moments like that reflect purely why representation matters so much.
Representation in film and television enables us to not feel out of place, even if the people around us don’t come from a similar background; positive and accurate representations themselves go as far as providing us with characters to look up to, someone we could aspire to be, and that reminds us we aren’t alone.
While many of us didn’t have access to well-made films or shows that depicted the nuances of our identities, it’s really encouraging to see the surge of empowering works in recent years, with directors actively making these inclusive decisions. I can’t speak for everyone, but seeing such projects has been healing my inner child, and it’s heartening to see the younger children of our generation grow up with this content in our current film and television.
Featured Image: Evelyn Heis
Can you think of a time when you've felt represented?