When I first began watching anime in elementary school and noticing that the story always took place in Japan, I figured I wouldn’t see characters from other countries very often. Series were set in places like Shibuya and Tokyo and used aspects of Japanese folklore, history, and modern life.
But then I did see a tan character. A tan Latinx.
You’d think it would have made me happy to see somebody who looked like me in my favorite entertainment medium, but it was the opposite. Every time I saw someone in an anime who was even somewhat similar to me or any of the other Latinx I knew, I cringed. They weren’t whole characters. They weren’t even slightly likable. Instead, those characters highlighted people like me as a caricature. It was painful that I had to see that on television, in a lot of Hollywood movies, and now in anime, too.
It wasn’t only Latinx characters, either, but also Black characters who were annoyingly dumbed down and stereotyped as too loud and too brutish. One of the most insulting things about those depictions is that they really don’t get how complex, multi-racial, and multicultural Latin America is—from Afrocentric communities, to the descendants of European colonizers, to indigenous people whose bloodlines and cultures have survived colonialism. Dumbing them down meant not looking at all the potential storylines and character development that could easily fit into all kinds of anime genres.
What made it even more frustrating was knowing so many other people of color around me who’d fallen in love with anime and found ways to incorporate it into their identity. There are anime fans and comic cons in Latin America. We make up a growing part of anime audiences, which makes it so much more disappointing to see us negatively stereotyped in series.
But thanks to both library searches and a steady access to the internet, I began to find characters from other cultures who were a part of some of these stories. I shouldn’t have had to hunt so hard, but I did end up finding Latinx characters I related to, at last. Throughout my ever-growing love for all things manga and anime, there have been a lot of pretty good and some downright horrible portrayals of Latinx people.
One of the first series that I read and watched in its entirety was School Rumble. I thought it was a funny story and loved seeing the hilarious love triangles and juvenile misunderstandings between friends and classmates. It reminded me of an exaggerated version of what high school was like. I was really getting into the series until the character Lala Rodriguez was introduced.
She was a Mexican exchange student who was shown as a sexualized, tan, loud, and somewhat stupid student. I made it through reading and watching School Rumble, but I had a bad taste in my mouth about Lala’s character and how her classmates, especially the boys, treated her. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I had the vocabulary to really understand why it was so problematic to have a Latina portrayed that way: she wasn’t a multidimensional character, but a caricature based on stereotypes I’d heard people say about Latinx women.
I knew stereotypes were bad, but once I learned more about why they’re hurtful to people of color in the long run, and how they shape our perception of ourselves, I was determined to watch series that didn’t need outdated notions to form a character or story line.
Dealing with portrayals like Lala made me try to avoid certain series. In high school, I’d seen a clip of Excel Saga and decided not to watch it specifically because of how annoyingly stereotypical it depicted Pedro Domingo, a South American immigrant to Japan. It was great to see another Latinx anime character that wasn’t a Brazilian or Mexican, but he hit a lot of stereotypes that I’ve been trying to shake off myself. He’s loud, a bit dumb, has a “sexy” wife who gets with his neighbor after he dies (a common lusty, promiscuous Latina gag), and he works in construction. It reminded me too much of shows and movies in the United States where most Latinxs are only manual labor or maids.
I avoided movies like that all the time, so I didn’t want to watch an anime with the same kind of storyline. Portrayals like Pedro’s have caused awkward moments when I’ve met people who only know about Latinxs from media. I’ve had to explain that we aren’t inherently oversexed, dumb, and that we don’t all work in construction. I don’t expect the ethnic or geographic group I identify with to suddenly be lauded as heroes all over the world, but I’d like to see more creativity at least.
Thanks to Domingo and Lala, I cringed when Bleach introduced Yasutora “Chad” Sado, a tall, muscular, and stoic teenager of Mexican and Japanese descent. I decided to hang in there because I was interested in the other characters and their stories, but I braced myself for the worst. I waited for a really stupid plotline that involved tacos and wrestling.
The thing is, the worst never came. He wasn’t another Lala or Domingo. He was just himself. Chad was a well-rounded character with a unique history, and his silence was portrayed as strength. It meant a lot to me to see that a Latinx character could have his own storylines and his own personality. I liked that his silence was also paired with his intelligence and ability to be a loyal friend. I knew people of all colors and creeds who were just like that. He reminded me of them. He was a person, his own person, who just happened to be multicultural and Latinx.
Having characters like Chad raised the bar for me when finding other anime series. That’s why I was so excited when I heard about Leo de la Iglesia from Yuri!!! on ICE. I saw a Hispanic/Latinx-seeming name paired with a tan character and immediately looked him up. It turned out that he was a friendly Mexican-American figure skater participating in a tournament alongside Yuri. He was a regular teen with his own personality and skating style.
Leo joked around, prepared to skate, hung out, and had a social media presence. Not only that, he choreographed his own routines, which made him even more unique because a lot of the other skaters had their routines made by others. Leo was a character with talent and energy who talked about wanting to fill the world with things he liked. Even if he wasn’t in every single episode, he wasn’t an afterthought either. Leo showed me that anime teams can get it right. And when they do, I love the series so much more.
Like Leo, another recent character that just happens to be Latinx is Maria from A Silent Voice. She’s the protagonist’s half-Brazilian, half-Japanese niece. Also like Leo, she isn’t depicted as outlandish and boorish. She’s a part of the story, not to fit a stereotype or as a gag, but as someone connected to the other characters. I loved seeing scenes with her in them. It reminded me that movies where people of color can have a personality and be a part of the story, without getting dragged, really do exist.
When her father is shown very quickly towards the end, he speaks with an accent because he’s from Brazil (which wasn’t the worst, but it was still kind of annoying that it’s one of the few Latinx countries I see in anime). But neither of them were drawn or voiced as caricatures and their darker skin isn’t portrayed as uglier or weird. It’s just a part of them, not unlike how Leo was just an ice skater who happened to be Latinx.
When I watched A Silent Voice, I hadn’t expected to see any sort of Latinx character at all. I just wanted to see the movie because I’d heard so many good things about it. And it really was a great film and even touched on another kind of diversity: hard of hearing or deaf people in society. It was great to learn more about sign language in addition to seeing a depiction of a half-Latinx character who fit in with everyone in her family. It didn’t erase Latinx identities, it just folded them in as part of the recipe, which I prefer so much more to colorblindness in media and real life.
Most of the people with whom I attend anime cons or speak to about anime are in fact Latinx from all over Central America, South America, and the Caribbean like me. As anime continues to gain worldwide popularity and momentum, I hope that creators will take into consideration that people all over the world are watching or reading their work and include characters who reflect that diversity.
They don’t have to be overtly sensitive portrayals, either. There can be Latinx villains—in fact, that’d be awesome if there were! I just don’t want to see characters who are horrible stereotypes based on what the author thinks it means to be Latinidad. Latinx characters deserve to have the same amount of backstory or development as any other character.
Thankfully, based on recent series like Yuri on Ice and A Silent Voice, it seems that at least some creators feel the same way I do. I began reading manga and watching anime from a very young age, and I’ve remained a fan because I’ve seen so much improvement in how other cultures are depicted on-screen. I love that a creator can have respect for other people and want to include someone like me or my friends in a series. It means so much to find well-rounded Latinx representation coming from the other side of the world. Hopefully, these more recent portrayals will help more Latinx kids get into anime too, and we can all enjoy seeing more Leos and Marias in the coming years.