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Can I Be Latina and Not a Playwright of Color?

On a recent playwriting submission, I was asked to check a box, yes or no, am I a playwright of color? I have always struggled with this term because I am a very light-skinned Mexican American. I have no problem checking the box that says: yes, I am Latina. But a playwright of color? Unless you’ve spoken to me about my race, or have met anyone from my mother’s side of the family, chances are you will assume I am white. Most people do. And if we break down the phrase “playwright of color” it seems apparent that the question is only interested in defining a person based on skin color. So it seems an obvious answer: no, my skin is white; therefore, I can’t possibly be a playwright of color. And I understand the utility of such a clear-cut binary. I’d have to be completely ignorant about the world we live in to not understand that my whiteness comes with advantages.

What does it mean, then, if I check the box no and say that I am not a playwright of color? Am I perpetuating the idea that the stories of light-skinned Latinx are not a valid part of the minority experience?

My skin color has allowed me to blend in with the racial majority and I’m not subject to the kind of racial disparity experienced by my fellow Latinos. I don’t ever have to defend the idea that I belong in this country, and I don’t have to provide papers to prove I am an American citizen. And even within our theatre community, there is evidence of huge racial disparity. One doesn’t have to look far to see the statistics on how white people are doing better in terms of positions of leadership and getting their plays produced in the theatre. If you don’t believe me, see articles like “New theatre season once again shows lack of diversity on Broadway and off” and “Why Are There So Few Women Leading Theatre and What Can Be Done About It.” It is for these reasons that I often feel I can’t check the box that I’m a playwright of color. I am not someone that theatres should point to and say that they’re filling their diversity quota because I have not experienced the same kind of racial discrimination that many of these programs are trying to respond to.

But I believe the issue is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no question would have us believe. My stories are a valid part of the Latina/o experience (I prefer using the term Latinx). I know I am not alone in my struggle to reconcile my outward appearance with the culture that is in my blood. And if a theatre truly wants to reflect the varied and diverse stories of the Latinx experience, then showing stories about being a white Latinx is a part of that greater narrative. What does it mean, then, if I check the box no and say that I am not a playwright of color? Am I perpetuating the idea that the stories of light-skinned Latinx are not a valid part of the minority experience?

group photo
Jordan Ramirez Puckett receiving the Christopher Brian Wolk Award with the cast and director of Restore at Abingdon Theatre Company. Photo courtesy of Jordan Ramirez Puckett.

As I grow as a writer, I have been writing more and more what its like to straddle the line between white and Latina. My parents have been divorced almost my whole life and so I’ve always lived in this space between my Mexican family and my white family. I’ve found it easy to compartmentalize them, switching into whatever role necessary depending on the situation. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve struggled with questions of my identity as a whole. And my writing often responds to this desire to reconcile the different parts of me. In this way, much of my work is about the Latinx experience told through this specific lens. To a certain extent, I am happy for my plays to speak for themselves without the need to identify myself as being a playwright of color or not. But the playwright of color question is unavoidable, appearing daily as I send my plays to calls for submissions around the country.

I believe the answer may lie with what the theatre company or program is looking for when they ask such a question. If the goal is to lift up playwrights who are often marginalized in their daily and professional life because of the color of their skin, then no, I am absolutely not a playwright of color. But if the company is searching for to find stories that differ from the standard white narrative and structure, then it’s possible that my plays can fulfill what they are looking for in creating programming with diverse voices.

I bring this forward to the theatre community because this is a question I struggle with on a regular basis as an emerging playwright. I often oscillate between both sides of the argument on whether or not to check the playwright of color box. The only solution I can propose is to ask theatres to get more information from playwrights rather than forcing them to answer an oversimplified question. That way the theatre can decide for themselves if a playwright is appropriate for their programing. And that when companies ask for only playwrights of color to submit to an opportunity, that theatre should define what that term means to them with the submission call. The minority experience is as diverse as the many individuals it encompasses. I don’t think we can hope to do justice to all the stories that need to be told by relying on the color binary created by a yes or no question. 

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Thank you so much for sharing this article. I am a Colombian-American actress who struggles with the same stuff you do. I have very fair skin, and unless people meet my Colombian dad or pay attention to my name, I come across as white. I also wonder which box I should check, and I feel like if I check "color", people will wonder why I, someone with such fair skin, checked that box. It makes me feel better to know that I'm not the only one who has had this problem. I am super proud of my Latino heritage, and this article really helped me feel free to embrace it. Thank you Jordan!!

I really loved reading your article. I am Latina (full blooded Chilena) but my two daughters are of mixed race- my husband is English. One of my daughters is blond and blue eyed. But I like to think that my daughters carry a very big part of me inside of them. I always make sure to teach them about where I am from and why we came to Canada.

I am a huge advocate of inclusivity and equity for "artists of colour' (In Canada, where I live). I founded and was artistic director of one of the only Latin American theatre companies in Canada. I mentored many artists like you- mixed race etc. and one thing they all told me was that after writing about their experience of coming from two or more cultures, they better understood that they could not deny either one. Both played a big part in their identities. Race and culture are about so many things- not just about colour of skin but about something that I heard someone speak about at a panel on diversity in theatre- blood memory. The important thing to know and to honour is that where that blood memory comes from makes up a huge part of your (one's) identity. You are a writer. Don't deny that part of you that is important to the makeup of your identity and write for the many, many generations of artists who will come behind you- we live in a very small world where cultures are meeting and joining in ways we never thought possible. Talk about that. I know my daughters would love to hear about it.

Un abrazo desde Canada,

Marilo Nunez

Thank you for writing this. I live in this strange place as well, and it seems that theatre world hasn't figured out how to deal with us yet. (Incidentally, if I took my mother's maiden name, I'd also be a Ramirez.) I've gotten awards related to being a Latino playwright, but I've also been told that my work is "not Latino enough" for Latino festivals when I've used mixed families as setting and not as conflict. I find it hard to enter into the larger conversation because I feel uncomfortable when conversations about race and representation start with the assumption that you cannot be both Latino and look like me, which is where too often it begins. This assumption reflects the a binary sensibility that you problematize.

Now, while I think I agree with your solution, I can also see the problems emerge (and why companies are less likely to do it) when you ask someone to define "people of color." Do they go by blood? By appearance? I am lighter skinned than my brother -- what does that mean? These open up massive bags of worms. I understand that you're looking for a more nuanced description about the intent of the question when you submit, but isn't it more likely that a company will instead have to make decisions about what constitutes "of color?"

Thank you for sharing your experience with Latinx identity, Brian. I agree that having theatres define the term "people of color" for themselves, has a potential to create more problems and raise more questions. Perhaps the answer lies in finding a better term that does imply inclusion based on skin color. I'm not sure. But I think this is an important conversation that we can't shy away from. I'm open to any and all suggestions of how we as a theatre community can move forward on this question. And hopefully we can change the perspective of theatres who say that a play with a mixed family without conflict is "not Latino enough".

Complicated... Latinidad, always in question.
With Love and respect, My Opinion... My Truth: To set my record straight... I am a woman of color, therefore a playwright of color, founding member of a company of color. Everything I write flows through my lens and lived memory of the stories of my community of color, my legacy, my bloodline. More specifically I am a NuYorican because I was born in NYC, and a 1st generation at that; but a Puerto Rican, because both my Parents are Island born (Lares, PR to be exact) and they could barely speak English when I was born. I learned English in 1st grade. It's funny cause I was born and raised in NY and was never treated as white, even with my light skin and green eyes. Neither was my father and his light skin and green eyes, always struggling to make ends meet. Always discriminated against. We were always referred to as "Hispanic". I was counted as a minority all the way through my higher education and even till this day. It was when I went to Puerto Rico that I was called a "Gringa" and nearly congratulated for what some considered "my fortunate DNA". How unfortunate that internalized racism has so damaged us. Might I have more opportunity because of the color of my skin? Does my skin hold a certain level of privilege in our racist America? Yes. As do the lighter brown skins of Dominicans over Hatians, Light Skinned over dark skinned African Americans, etc, etc, etc.. We've been creating borders even within our identity, from the times of the Crusades and Conquistadores to this day, not realizing that we have been programed to do just that.