3 Reasons Why Latinx Characters Are Underrepresented in Fantasy (and How to Fix it)

When I began my blog, I wanted to focus my analysis of fantasy and young adult literature through issues that affected my life the most; I thought they would be the ones I could write most authentically about. I chose gender and sexuality, mental illness, and Latinx issues because of my personal identity and history.

But while I was easily able to find books to talk about through the lens of gender/sexuality and mental illness, it was harder to come up with topics surrounding Latinx representation in young adult and fantasy. I've been thinking about why that is, and I've realized a few things about the fantasy genre as a whole and about my own reading habits.

The truth is, while stats are improving, there are still very few fantasy books and stories being published about Latinx characters. The fantasy genre, particularly young adult fantasy, is (slowly) becoming much more diverse. Last week, I talked about Children of Blood and Bone by Nigerian-American author Tomi Adeyemi, which, after receiving one of the biggest advances in publishing history and landing a movie deal before even being published, has become incredibly popular. Fantasy novels by authors like Natasha Ngan, Julie C. Dao, and Julie Kagawa have found success, while Sabaa Tahir, Hafsah Faizal, and Nafiza Azad have also written well-received fantasy novels.  But almost no fantasy novels by Latinx authors or starring Latinx characters have entered my radar.

I don't mean to discount the amazing gains other marginalized authors have made in the fantasy genre of late or to suggest in any way that the work there is done—Black, Asian, and other authors and characters of color still need more representation in the fantasy genre. But it got me thinking about the lack of Latinx representation in fantasy and why it has yet to gain that kind of momentum in English-language literature.

So here are three reasons why Latinx characters are underrepresented in fantasy literature.

1. Fantasy has a long history of racism. 

This reason doesn't just apply to the representation of Latinx people, of course, but it applies to them in a particular way. Fantasy fiction as codified in The Lord of the Rings, which has arguably influenced every piece of English-language fantasy since its publication in one way or another, routinely erases real-world people of color in favor of representing a gamut of fantastical "races."

Apart from coding the good guys (elves, dwarves, hobbits) as white and the bad guys (orcs, goblins, dark elves) as dark-skinned, these races, unlike in the real world, are based in biological differences. Dwarves are naturally grumpy and greedy. Elves are naturally graceful and wise. These essentialist distinctions mirror the way racist narratives categorize people of color as inherently lazy, lustful, deceitful, or what have you. Racist pseudoscience has been trying to prove for centuries that there is a biological justification for race.

What's more, in Tolkien's world and in many fantasy worlds since, there is a hierarchy of races ranging from the most noble to the lowest of the low. Other essays have compared this hierarchy to fascist worldviews such as that of Nazi Germany or imperialist Europeans of the nineteenth century. Of course, no one is suggesting that Tolkien was a fascist, but he was a product of his less enlightened times and these undertones persist nonetheless.

This integral part of canonical fantasy texts starting with Tolkien might work to exclude Latinx people in a particular way. During Spanish colonial rule, racial hierarchy was especially rigid and systematic. Art pieces like this one were created in order to make these castes as clear and evident as possible:

Source: Wikipedia

Compare the extensive terminology and pseudoscientific approach to categorizing the people of Latin America with the categorization of the races of Middle Earth and you see some striking similarities. Even within one of the races of Middle Earth, wizards, color plagued by racial undertones plays an integral role: the whiter your cloak, the more powerful you are, whereas gray and brown cloaks denote lesser and lesser power levels.

 

Source: Pinterest.

 

When you compare the "racial" discourse embedded in so much of modern fantasy with the very real and painful legacy of the castas system in Latin America, you can see why Latinx authors and readers might feel especially marginalized fantasy fiction as a genre. You can feel the legacy of Tolkien-esque racial hierarchies even in the contemporary fantasy and paranormal genres—vampires, werewolves, and fairies often fill the same sort of racial roles as dwarves, elves, and orcs.

There is of course the possibility of subversion and reclamation, but unfortunately not much room has been made for this yet. With the way things are going for the representation of other marginalized people in fantasy, though, I have hope that Latinx authors and authors wanting to represent Latinx characters can do so by breaking out of or abandoning the canonical mold that has dominated so much of fantasy literature. You can read my essay here about my own journey with my Latinx identity and how I chose to represent people like me in my current project.

2. What does it mean to be Latinx in a fantasy world? 

Latin America is one of the most diverse places on the planet. Contrary to popular belief in the US, "Hispanic" and "Latinx" are not racial distinctions, but geographic ones. You can be Latinx and Native, Latinx and Black, Latinx and White, Latinx and Asian, Latinx and Middle Eastern. You can be a melting pot unto yourself, tracing your lineage to multiple continents. Latinx people are united (and divided) by language, culture, and history, not by race. If you want to learn more about the different racial identities within Latinx identity, I suggest this beautiful and and concise web comic.

Therefore, if you wanted to include Latinx people in your fantasy novel, it would need to be set either in our own world or in one that’s similar enough to ours that the same series of historical events could have taken place to create what we know as Latin America. This poses a difficulty for writers of epic fantasy or fantasy set in made-up worlds: while you can easily create a world based on medieval Europe that bears only a passing resemblance to Europe but still represents its people, it’s much harder to do the same for Latin America, because Latin America is such a specific historical and cultural development.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, of course. Fantasy authors should have boundless imagination—it’s in the job description, people. And it shouldn’t pose any limitations for paranormal and contemporary fantasy genres set in our world plus magic to add in more Latinx characters.

3. There just aren’t enough Latinx authors.

It’s hard to get solid data, but if you look at the ethnic breakdown of authors who get reviewed by the New York Times, as compiled by Roxanne Gay and her graduate student in 2012, you see some clear disparities.

 

Source: The Rumpus.

 

Look at that: almost 90% of all books reviewed in 2012 were by (I’m assuming non-Hispanic) white authors. Only around 1% were by Hispanic authors, and according to Gay, only one of those authors was a Hispanic woman. Likewise, in a study conducted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that less than 7% of children’s books published in 2018 were about Latinx characters and only about 5% were by Latinx authors.

If Latinx writers don’t get a shot at telling stories about people like themselves, there simply aren’t going to be many stories about Latinx people. This third reason is the simplest, but certainly not the easiest to fix.

That brings me to my conclusions about my own reading habits. Since there aren’t that many Latinx authors out there, especially Latinx fantasy authors, chances are that if you’re not seeking them out, you won’t read them. In the past few years, I’ve made more of an effort to read books by authors of color, women, and LGBTQIA authors, but I haven’t focused specifically on Latinx authors. That’s definitely something I want to change, especially since I’m a Latinx fantasy author myself; I want to focus on Latinx authors of color in particular, because theirs are the voices that need to be uplifted the most. A good place to start might be this Goodreads list of SFF published by Latinx authors in 2019; I encourage you to check it out and see if there’s anything you want to add to your TBR.

Leave a comment!

  • Have you read fantasy by Latinx authors? Any recommendations? :)

  • Why do you think Latinx people and characters are underrepresented in fantasy? Do you agree with my three reasons? Do you think there’s something I missed?

  • Is there something you’d like me to cover in my next blog post?

  • If you’re new to my blog, introduce yourself! I’d love to get to know you better.