I’ve always joked that I have a switch that controls whether or not I want to be Hispanic. I can turn it on when I want to channel my inner Cuban from Miami or turn it off when I try to fit in with every other quarter-zip-wearing, Nantucket golden child, leaf-peeping, blueprint Northeastern girl.
It’s a funny thing to activate or deactivate your ethnicity—but doing just that has been my default for a long time. However, I’ve realized I almost always use this switch when I want to achieve something like fulfilling the “diversity” quota, or pandering to the male gaze as it specifically manifests itself towards Latina women. The switch always seemed to be on in front of men I craved. They were aroused by the exoticism of my accent, my hips, and my forwardness. I was the break in the middle of their long history of hooking up with white, blonde, sorority girls; something to spice it up. In other words, I was being fetishized.
Why are Latina women continuously fetishized by men at Yale and beyond? And, more importantly, should we keep flicking that switch back and forth? The following describes many of my and my Latina friends’ experiences with this phenomenon. These are some of the most egregious things white boys somehow find the audacity to say:
“Speak Spanish for me, baby.”
I get it—Spanish is a romantic language. But I’ll no longer stoop so low as to say, “Hola, cómo estás, mi corazón?” for the mere satisfaction of turning you on. Somehow my native language has been designated by men at Yale as a top-five kind of foreplay. Is it my Cuban accent or the rolling of my r’s that gets you going?
Though the request to use my mother tongue (for both of their minds—the empty one and the stiff excited one) may seem innocent at first, on closer inspection it’s offensively objectifying; I don’t have to prove to these boys that I’m the “big booty Latina” they’ve heard myths about in songs by Bad Bunny or Tyga.
Oh, but, like, you’re white.
So I’m Latina enough to be fetishized, but not Latina enough to not be “white”? Coming back from summer break with a deep tan always seems to invite an abundance of male attention. Having darker skin—often because of having spent long months in our places of origin—can serve to validate my ethnic identity. But should the source of that validation really be the white man who’s paler than paper? We have the ability to shapeshift, or so it seems, from ethnicity to ethnicity, simply based on whether we sit in the sun for two hours or not.
“Pepas” to get into our pants.
We’ve all heard and seen the masses shriek and jump up and down uncontrollably at the overplayed intro of “Pepas.” At Woads it’s impossible not to get excited when the infamous “Síguelo, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh” rises like a tsunami among the crowd. But when this happened a couple weeks ago, a close friend experienced an act of frat-boy atrocity: some guy approached her while she was dancing and started grabbing her. When she backed away, he got mad and said, “Why’d we even put this song on then? Aren’t Latinas supposed to be into this?” She told me she felt that this man had a specific expectation of what he would gain from her and what she liked. I’ve rejected many men at parties who have then reverted to the overdramatic Latina stereotype to shore up their shattered egos: “should’ve known you’d have anger issues, bitch.” Little did they know they are not entitled to our bodies just because they see hypersexualized Latinas on TV! As my friend put it as we reflected on this experience together, “It feels like white women innately have a certain degree of autonomy that we have to earn.”
But if changing this deeply rooted stereotype will take multiple generations, then what is stopping Latinas from flipping the switch on our own narrative and using it to our advantage?
By choosing to flip the switch, we can take control of what was always ours. Sure, Latin culture is heavily sensual, emotional, and physical. The difference here is that in Latin culture, women are choosing to use their bodies to express their culture or themselves, in a sexual manner or not. The agency has always been ours. Through time, however, others have seen us expressing our culture, and manipulated these observations to sexualize Latina women. But we have the power to choose how we want to represent our physical selves. It is time to shirk off the male gaze that has controlled us for so long, and give in to ourselves—our distinctly Latina selves.
Maybe the switch needs to keep being flipped. We have the agency to choose who we want to be at any given moment. We don’t need to gain respect from others—we can cultivate this respect for ourselves. Why don’t we keep the switch on “Latina” and make that mean whatever we want it to mean?