The Power of Representation
Updated: May 27, 2022
Growing up surrounded by your own race, you get used to seeing people who look like you. However, that feeling of insignificance that hits you when you're reminded you're a minority is something you never forget.
Having grown up consuming loads of media, I never questioned the lack of Hispanic or Latino representation. It was so normalized that I assumed actors who were Hispanic or Latino were actually white. They were usually lighter in complexion, so it was easy to think they were a bit tan rather than a different race or ethnicity.
When I started college, I saw people who looked like me, but it felt like there were so few of us that they were hard to find. Of course, there were identity-based clubs on campus, but the thought of joining them felt like forcing cultural companionship. I wanted new experiences with all types of people and the comfort of people I could immediately relate to. When I entered the workforce, I was working for white people. Interestingly enough, in all but one of the jobs I've worked, my superior was white.
I learned the importance of representation as an adult, and I advocate for it. Still, I can't say that I've experienced it in a way that felt fulfilling. In movies and tv shows, Hispanics are represented as stereotypes in one way or another. It's hard to say Hispanics in general because most media represents Mexicans. When shown, Puerto Ricans are always loud, lazy, and ghetto, and I've never seen Ecuadorians represented at all. There are always themes of immigration or discrimination. Even great tv shows like One Day at a Time and Gentefied fall into these tropes. Admittedly, these are topics minorities are all too familiar with and are definitely a part of the Hispanic experience, but they are not the only ones. It's hard to find movies or tv shows that are only there to celebrate Hispanic and Latino backgrounds. That is, until recently.
West Side Story (2021), inspired by Romeo and Juliet, tells the story of a white man and a Puerto Rican woman from rival gangs who fall in love. These Puerto Ricans had family dynamics like mine. They not only looked like me; they looked like my family with different complexions varying from light to dark. "America" felt genuine in its portrayal of the propaganda and truth sold by the American Dream. The moment that really made me feel the most seen was watching the Puerto Rican woman, played by Rachel Zegler, sing "I Feel Pretty." A woman with a complexion almost exactly like mine confidently sang about being pretty, stunning, charming, and entrancing. Even when her friends told her how insane she was acting, her confidence did not falter.
Encanto is about a Colombian family with magical abilities. When I watched this movie, I wasn't aware it was based in Colombia; I thought it would be a magical place made up of an amalgamation of Hispanic countries. The cumbia felt immersive in that it's some of the classic music played at every Hispanic party regardless of where they're from. The vocabulary felt realistic where only specific phrases of endearment or anger were said in Spanish. Despite the magic and music, the movie was about family. All those familiar family tropes of the overbearing grandmother, perfect sister, and loving mother were shown through the lens of a Hispanic family.
These two movies captivated me in a way that I've never experienced before. I could finally relate to the characters on a cultural level. I could see people like myself and my family on the big screen. Even having movie critics love the movies made me feel even more validated in my own experiences. Not only did I feel seen, but I felt celebrated and loved by the media, something I've never felt before. It was no longer side characters created for punchlines but stories rooted in truth. That feeling of insignificance was replaced with one of power.