Cabral: On Percy Jackson and representation

Emilio Cabral, Columnist

I read Rick Riordan’s “The Lightning Thief” for the first time during a fourth-grade field trip to the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land. My friends were shouting about the cool cars we were passing and the 20-story buildings on either side of the street, but I paid attention to none of it. I was too engrossed with Percy Jackson, the series’s sassy protagonist, and the moments that would change his life forever. Sitting on that bus, laughing at Percy’s snarky commentary as he battled monsters straight out of Greek mythology, I could almost pretend I was in his place — I was special too.

As I got older and Riordan wrote more stories about Percy and his adventures, I found myself writing my own stories starring Percy. In seventh grade, I wrote my own version of a chapter from Riordan’s “The Son of Neptune.” Instead of speaking Greek and Latin, I had Percy and his friends speak Spanish. While he was still from New York City, my version of Percy was a Dominican American boy with brown skin. I turned him into what I saw every time I looked in the mirror. But every time I went back to Riordan’s books, I was confronted with the reality that Percy was white. He wasn’t just like me.

If a white man doesn’t like the way he’s portrayed in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” or J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” he can just go to the nearest Barnes & Noble and pick up something more modern, like a copy of Christina Lauren’s “Autoboyography.” As a person of color, I don’t have that option. 

To this day, the only Dominican coming-of-age novel I’ve managed to find is Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” While this book helped me formulate ideas about my identity, my culture and the way they inform my experiences, that doesn’t mean I’m not bitter about the fact that my white peers have hundreds, if not thousands, more depictions of themselves in literature. That also doesn’t mean I’m not bitter about the fact that I’ve sat through unwatchable television like The CW’s “Riverdale” just to get a glimpse of a character of color who only has one line. 

This isn’t to say there isn’t progress being made when it comes to media featuring people of color. Ncuti Gatwa and Yasmin Finney — a Black man and woman, respectively — are set to play the Doctor and Rose Tyler from the hit television series “Doctor Who.” In a full-circle moment for me, Leah Jeffries and Aryan Simhadri — a Black girl and an Indian American boy, respectively — are set to play Annabeth Chase and Grover Underwood in the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series on Disney+.

When I heard the news about the recent casting of Annabeth and Grover, I was terrified Jeffries and Simhadri would be targeted by fans attempting to veil their racism with indignation that the race of the actors did not match their race in the book. Sure enough, on May 10, Riordan released a statement disavowing fans who had been harassing Jeffries. 

You have decided that I couldn’t possibly mean what I have always said,” Riordan said in the statement. “That the true nature of the character lies in their personality. You feel I must have been coerced, brainwashed, bribed, threatened, whatever, or I as a white male author never would have chosen a Black actor for the part of this canonically white girl.”

The racism Jeffries has experienced since her casting as Annabeth is representative of the fact that white people believe only they have a right to stories about love, harrowing adventures and alternate dimensions. 

But why can’t people of color be cast in roles that are not based on their identity? Why can’t people of color tell stories that are joyful? Why can’t people of color be heroes?

My copy of “The Son of Neptune” sits in the middle of the top row of my bookshelf. It used to symbolize my motivation to become a writer who could craft characters as inspiring as Percy, characters that kids wouldn’t have to pretend looked like them. Now, it’s a symbol of that dream becoming reality. A symbol of a generation of kids who will get to see a Doctor, a Rose, a Grover and an Annabeth who look like them.

Emilio Cabral is a Weinberg Sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.