DiversifYA: Amparo Ortiz

AmparoToday, we’re delighted to have Amparo Ortiz join us at the DiversifYA HQ! Amparo is a) awesome, b) a Potterhead, Whedonite, Marshmallow, Sherlockian, Supernaturalist, and a Whovian-in-progress. (If that isn’t an awesome collection of fandoms, I don’t know what is!)

She is one of the founders of the Operation Awesome blog, studies towards a Master’s degree in Literature, and writes amazing-sounding YA fantasy! You can find her on Twitter and you can read her blog here.

1. How do you identify yourself?

Puerto Rican. Specifically, I’m a Puerto Rican fangirl of many, many things (because geek life = best life). I’m an eater of lots of food (Nutella and Twizzlers, mostly). I’m currently wrapping up my Master’s in English, specializing in British Literature. I also write and read and travel and hope. Oh, and pop culture completes me.

2. What did it feel like growing up Puerto Rican?

Confusing. When I was a wee lass, I genuinely believed I was from the States (I’ve never lived outside of Puerto Rico, though). My parents would let me watch The Wizard of Oz and The Lion King and The Little Mermaid and Little Giants and Aladdin over and over again, so I learned English by watching movies obsessively. I would speak and think in English at home all the time. But when I stepped outside, Spanish Spanish Spanish. At school. My friends. Extended family. I remember wondering why they wouldn’t start conversations in English. Both my parents are fluent, so I would switch from language to language with them often. In my naive little mind, I thought everyone could do it, too.

Cut to my teen years. MTV ruled my life, as did every other channel that wasn’t local. My friends would tell me about national superstars and I would have no clue who they were talking about (other than the REALLY famous ones). I was more invested in TV shows/films/music/news that concerned either the States or England. Whenever I sat down to write stories or songs, they would come out in English. Once I fell in love with reading at age 14 (thanks, J.K. Rowling!), I picked up books in English and would roll my eyes at the translated editions, as if I was somehow better than others simply because I could understand another language.

Yes, it’s great to learn other languages, but I was alienating myself from my culture. I relied on my peers to inform me of what was politically and socially relevant in my country because I was too busy focusing on another one. I didn’t seek that information on my own. I became this sort of leech that had no idea how ignorance stifled my personal growth as both a Hispanic woman in general and a Puerto Rican woman in particular. It wasn’t until I went to college that I started caring about the goings-on in my country for real. I still kept an eye on All Things Outside PR, but I learned to cherish what my (super awesome) country has to offer.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

In terms of challenges, I feel like I have something to prove all the time, not just to foreigners, but to other Puerto Ricans as well. The recent exodus of professionals looking for jobs in the U.S. and elsewhere has been well documented in the past few years. I can’t look at a newspaper’s front page without learning of either the latest government official breaking the law or the latest murder (in fact, the biggest news of the week is a gruesome hate crime that claimed the life of an openly gay volleyball player). Sexism is something I deal with on a daily basis during my commute to work, as well as in local programming. It’s not easy living on this island, but that doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless endeavor. I’m surrounded by the most hard-working, resilient people you could imagine. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be the best version of myself because of their influence on me. I need to succeed and push myself because they’ve taught me that there are things worth fighting for, no matter how bleak the world seems.

As for quirks/perks, my absolute favorite one is THE FOOD. I don’t think I could ever permanently move to another country because THE FOOD is perfect here. I live about fifteen minutes away from a beach-side area filled with low-key seafood/Puerto Rican cuisine restaurants called Piñones. Knowing that I can eat mofongos and bacalaítos and alcapurrias whenever I want? Yes, please. Also, growing up in a country where I can spend my weekends strolling through Old San Juan and reminding myself that I live thisclose to El Yunque = priceless. These are the things that remind how fortunate I am.

4. What do you wish people knew about being Puerto Rican?

That it’s just as complex as being Finnish or Japanese or Colombian or anything else. There is no one way of being Puerto Rican. Our heritage is rich and filled with different traditions from different parts of the world, and I think our lifestyles and attitudes reflect that diversity.

Also, I already mentioned this, but THE FOOD. It is the best of all time. Period. (sorry, Italy!).

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Puerto Ricans all look the same: tan/dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes. I remember butting into a conversation on Twitter once because of this misconception. A person I follow was going off about how it was impossible for Ben Affleck to play a Hispanic man. She thought it was hilarious that he played one in Argo. I told her there are tons of fair-skinned Hispanic men. Some are fair-skinned AND blue-eyed. In fact, I’m one of the few dark-skinned students in my graduate program. Some folks don’t know (or forget) that being Puerto Rican means having African, taíno, and Spanish blood. I know people who represent each ethnicity on its own in their physical appearance quite prominently, and I know people whose physical appearance combines all three.

Another stereotype is that, if you’re fluent in English, some people will ask you if you’ve lived outside of Puerto Rico. Apparently, the only way to get a good education is to leave the country. *sigh*

Oh, and we’re all excellent dancers and know how to cook and we’re passionate about everything and always dress in revealing clothes and speak English with a sexy accent and have at least one gangster in our family. Sure.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

Know your stuff. A character’s personality is one of the first things that pops into my mind, but I also have to think about where they come from and what they’re going through in order to fully understand them. Respect your characters and your audience by doing your research. This isn’t to say that you can’t do what fits your book best. There’s no need to be exhaustive to the point of putting authenticity before story. You’re not writing a how-to manual, after all. But I think it’s important to infuse as much truth into what makes your character different from the majority of those out there. 

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