DiversifYA: Kristina Pérez

KristinaFor today’s interview, I’m so excited to welcome Kristina Pérez to the blog! Kristina writes YA, holds a PhD in Medieval Literature from the University of Cambridge (medievalists represent!), and is the author of THE MYTH OF MORGAN LA FEY (Palgrave Macmillan) and A HEDONIST’S GUIDE TO BEIJING.

Most of all, she has a lot of insightful things to say about diversity! So check out her website and find her on Twitter.

1. How do you identify yourself?

This is how I describe myself: an Arge-wegian native New Yorker married to an Englishman living in Asia. What’s an Arge-wegian, you may ask? It’s a term my parents coined for me when I was a kid since my dad is from Argentina and my mom is from Norway. The U.S. Census calls me Hispanic, but that’s not how I identify myself. I’m an in-betweener: half Spanish and half Nordic.

The ethnonym “Hispanic” or “Latino” is defined by the Census as: “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race” (source) and the term was first introduced in 1970. Let’s talk about what this means. Essentially one bureaucratic categorization is being used to comprise an entire continent’s worth of cultures, histories and languages.

Recent studies show most Spanish-speakers of Spanish or Latin American heritage aren’t fond of either designation. (source) We prefer to be identified by our country of origin. In other words, I didn’t grow up Hispanic. I grew up Arge-wegian and I’m proud of it.

2. What did it feel like growing up “Arge-wegian”?

As I was mulling over this question, another Third Culture kid friend of mine sent me an article about the existence of a World Passport. (source) (3CKs are global nomads like me who have parents from two different countries who meet in yet another country where they are raised.) Although not accepted in most countries yet, the World Passport has been around since the 1950s and bases its legitimacy on Article 13, Section 2, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The idea is that everyone is entitled to a neutral and apolitical travel identity document.

I really like this concept because as an “Arge-wegian” it’s how I see myself and growing up I think I felt most at home with other Third Culture kids––of which there are quite a few in New York City. I guess what we’re talking about here is really nationality as opposed to ethnicity and the United States is a country where one doesn’t necessarily correspond with the other; however, there are certain “core values” that are seen as being American and as a Third Culture kid I don’t always share them. I left the US when I was 17 and I’ve now spent just about as long living in Europe and Asia as I ever did in my “home” country. If you dropped me in the middle of Idaho I would be more culturally lost than in the Sichuan province. Which means, I guess, that as a “Arge-wegian” I don’t always feel like I come from somewhere but I can usually make myself belong anywhere.

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

Being brought up in New York City, I was lucky to be surrounded by people of all ethnicities, races and nationalities. Still, as a teenager I didn’t know whether I should see myself as “white” or “Hispanic,” which seemed to be the only two options available to me at the time. I can’t tell you how often I would sign a receipt and the cashier (no matter his/her background) would say, “You don’t look Hispanic.” Nowadays people often assume it’s my husband’s surname, but I didn’t change my name when I got married partially because my Argentine heritage is a big part of who I am and I didn’t want it to get lost.

At 14 or 15, however, those comments made me question whether or not I had the right to identify as Hispanic if I so desired. I’m a natural blonde with blue eyes who goes Caspar-white in the winter, which means I get a lot of “You must take after your mom.” But, guess what? My dad has blue eyes, pale skin and was a blonde baby, too, because his parents emigrated from northern Spain to Argentina.

On the other hand, when it came time for college applications, my guidance counselor told me to definitely tick the “Hispanic” box. Being “ethnic” was suddenly seen as an advantage. I felt very much torn between the duality of my heritage in school before realizing that I identified as neither, and both.

In my parents’ house, I grew up speaking three languages and spent my vacations with cousins in Europe and South America. This background fostered my lifelong love of learning languages and living all over the globe (nine countries so far!) I love that my immediate family has our very own dialect that incorporates Norwegian, English and Spanish words. There were many phrases that I didn’t even realize weren’t English until I started school and they’re still part of my everyday vocabulary. Both my grandmothers were also awesome cooks and I can still taste their empanadas and vaffler (heart-shaped waffles spiced with cardamom). Celebrating two other cultures’ holidays in addition to the American ones also definitely has it perks, and I get to cheer for three teams in the World Cup.

4. What do you wish people knew about being Arge-wegian?

This is a tough one. There are lots of things I enjoy sharing with people about being Argentine and Norwegian. I suppose, especially when I go back to visit the US, I wish people were more cognizant of the histories of the different South and Central American countries and how this informs individual identities. Cubans and Brazilians are as different from each other as the French and the Italians. You wouldn’t think you knew all about Europeans because you were familiar with one nationality, and the same goes for Latin Americans.

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

When I think about the stereotypes regarding Spanish-speaking peoples floating around the pop culture ether, what upsets me the most is the implication that we’re all involved in narcotrafficking or have what border on superstitious religious beliefs. Gender role stereotypes such as the overly macho Don Juan or the scheming Lady Macbeth who uses a brand of Virgin/Whore complex to get ahead also makes me fume (think: Savages or Traffic). First of all, on my Argentine side of the family I have relatives who are both Catholic and Protestant; a lot of them are very devout, of course, but I feel that too often the media presents caricatures of grieving widows clutching their rosaries following some kind of cartel-related death. Case in point, one time when I was a kid my dad was bringing back a piñata from South America for my birthday party and it was confiscated by U.S. Customs because of who he was and where he was coming from. I hope they enjoyed the candy!

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

Here’s what I’d like to see in YA with regards to diversity. I want to see characters––especially protagonists––of mixed heritage. And yes, I’d like them to explore all the exciting avenues that this background opens up for them, but I don’t want it to be the sole focus of their plot, subplot or character arc.

All teenagers (and most adults!) are preoccupied with figuring out who they are, where they fit in, and what they want out of life. (It’s why we’re writers, right?!) Ethnicity, race and sexuality are backdrops for this soul searching but they are not the be-all and end-all of someone’s identity. It should not define your character because no one trait should ever brand a person.

To make the “mainstream” YA market more diverse, we need to write “non-mainstream” characters doing whatever protagonists in your genre normally do (invent a time machine, solve a crime, fight dragons etc.) without being relegated to exceptionalism.

6 Responses to DiversifYA: Kristina Pérez

  1. That’s cool that you have a ship name for where you’re from. I’m a third culture kid, too! Go us!

    Btw, I like your advice (-:

  2. Great interview! I love the last paragraph, and your suggestion that we should write ‘non-mainstream’ characters doing whatever protagonists in their genre normally do. I’ve tried expressing that sentiment before, but you summed it up perfectly!

  3. I loved this post, I too have fallen victim for the American census to define me.

    I consider myself African American, why because racially I am of African descent, my parents are however from Cuba so by American standards i am encouraged to consider myself Latina as well.

    It was hard growing up in CT( where i spent a large percentage of my childhood) because the latin identity was something i wasn’t. 1. I was black 2. I wasn’t bilingual at the time . I was often accused of being a fake latina because i couldn’t converse in spanish. But at home i felt very Cuban american because I was raised to be “Cuban”.

    A lot of of came from people not being educated on Latin identity. You mentioned that people claim that you don’t look latina and i must add that there is no real way to look Latina.

    Argentina is filled with people who migrated from Spain, Germany, Italy(many Argentines i know speak with somewhat of a hybrid italian-spanish accent)and many other European nations so in essence that would make them Caucasian.

    The USA is one of the few countries that considers Latino/Hispanic it’s own race, so the Latin identity is more so a blend of cultures(just like American culture).

    I’m delighted to read this blog and so happy i stumbled across it!

    guinandlibertadtomas.blogspot.com

    • You’re totally right. There is no one way to look Latina. I wish the media would do a better job of representing that! Thanks for stopping by! Kristina

  4. Thanks so much for inviting me to take part in such an awesome project!

  5. I’d never heard the term ‘Arge-wegian’ before – took me a while to figure it out.
    America is such a melting pot. I am from Poland, of Polish and Jewish ancestry, and came to the USA when I was 9. More than 50 years ago.