Cabral: Latinx representation in books

Emilio Cabral, Columnist

When I picked up Casey McQuiston’s debut novel, “Red, White & Royal Blue,” from the League City, Texas, Barnes & Noble in the summer of 2019, I knew it was going to be one of my favorite books.

It wasn’t the first commercial fiction novel with a Latinx main character I’d ever read — that honor goes to Rick Riordan’s “The Lost Hero” — but it was the first time I was old enough to understand the significance of reading a book that centered around the experiences of a person who looked like me.

But even though Alex Claremont-Diaz — the book’s main character — is widely praised as  charming and nuanced, people still find things to criticize.

This spring, one of my best friends showed me a few TikToks discussing the lack of depth dedicated to Alex’s Latinx heritage. The TikTtoks claimed the lack of pages spent unraveling the complexities of Alex’s relationship with his Latinx identity was insulting considering that, in the real world, his status as a queer person who is also Latinx would undoubtedly shape his experiences.

But after rereading “Red, White & Royal Blue” over the weekend, I disagree with the claims that Alex’s Latinidad isn’t explained in depth. Throughout the book, he seasons ribs with traditional Mexican spices, points out the way his mother’s political opponents use his and his sister’s racial identity to run smear campaigns against her and wonders if his liberal father will still be able to set aside his machismo when his son is the one coming out to him. Every aspect of Alex’s identity is treated with the care it deserves.

In April 2021, McQuiston sat down with the Wellesley Book Club and discussed the process of crafting Alex’s character and his story. Not only did McQuiston talk to different Texan Mexican friends about their specific experiences, but they also watched videos from various Texan Mexican bloggers who discuss confronting racial identity as a Latinx person. Additionally, before putting the finishing touches on her manuscript, McQuiston hired an authenticity reader to ensure Alex was an accurate portrayal of a Mexican American young adult.

I believe the criticisms of the way “Red, White & Royal Blue” handles Alex’s ethnic and racial identity stem from the fact that many readers believe a book has to dedicate a certain number of pages to a Latinx character’s struggle with Latinidad to be considered an accurate portrayal.

There are various books that do this and do it well — Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s book “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” immediately comes to mind — but ranking books with Latinx characters in this way implies there is one universal Latinx experience.

Some Latinx people will relate to Ben Alejo from “What If It’s Us” by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli — a story about a young Puerto Rican boy who feels removed from his heritage because he doesn’t speak Spanish. Others might find themselves better represented in Julian Winters’ novel, “Right Where I Left You,” which spotlights Isaac Martin — an Afro-Latinx teenager — as he bridges the gap between both sides of his family. And “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L. Sánchez is a warm hug for all Latinx teenagers straining beneath the weight of their parents’ expectations.

Not only is it unfair to rank Latinx characters and novels based on how closely they align with your specific experiences or view, but using it as the sole measure of a book also reinforces the idea that all Latinx stories must somehow be overtly tied to identity.

We are not a monolith. Because our stories are not the same, the stories written about us should not be, either. Books like “Red, White & Royal Blue” aren’t written to be so generic that they encompass the experiences of every single person who reads them. They are written to evoke specific emotions based on the very specific world contained within their pages. 

Harmful caricatures of Latinx people in books are so abundant that it would take me more than 700 words to list them all. But there is a difference between a caricature and a character who simply does not fit your view of what it means to be Latinx. While you as a reader are free to operate at your discretion when it comes to the books you read, I ask you to consider the fact that declaring Latinx representation in books “harmful” or “lacking’ because it doesn’t meet your criteria stems from a caricature of Latinx people you have created in your own mind.

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.