I grew up on the United States-Mexico border, so I had seen as many shades of brown as there are grains of sand in the Chihuahuan Desert by the time I could speak. And when I learned to do that, I learned not just my “first” language, English, but also Spanish from my friends at school, who often spoke it exclusively at home and mixed it in on the playground. My own cultural upbringing was a combination of my maternal grandmother’s Mexican and my maternal grandfather’s “American.” For the most part, this blend of untameable tongues and the cultures they represented were simply aspects of my identity that I was proud to inherit but also not necessarily anything that set me apart in any special way. It was all I knew: people who happened to be Mexican (and lots of other things) going about their daily lives, all with our own hopes and dreams, fears and problems.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. It should be, but as it turns out diversity has different levels, including the “casual diversity” that graced the first 21 years of my life before I moved to Boston. My own role in it is further complicated by my mixed ethnicities as well as the various forms of privileges and marginalizations I happen to have been born with and acquired. Thanks to my grandfather, I can pass for white, especially after five New England winters. Thanks to my mom I received a great education, a solid roof, an always-full belly, and lots of love. Thanks to my dad, I’ve travelled the world and know how to interact with a variety of people. My fiance was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, so thanks to him I am learning and embracing a third language and culture; when we have one, our child will be able to speak at least four languages between us. I might be a nearsighted Latina woman with anxiety who has struggled with depression, but I’m also cisgender, heterosexual, and am able to (begrudgingly) pay for healthcare in a state with a world renowned healthcare infrastructure, even though I only work part time. I was born in a country that grants me the right to add “begrudgingly” as a qualifier of protest with little consequence, at least while the Constitution holds.
These are all important for me (and anyone trying to incorporate or advocate for diversity in their community) to hold when writing because while I do write about race, gender, class, and other “issues,” that my characters and I sometimes struggle with, that’s not the only thing I want to portray. Vulnerable groups aren’t just their vulnerabilities and because I have the authority to speak as a member of only some of those groups, I have the obligation to take extra care when I bring a character who is different than me to life, or even try to portray my own background. In other words, when someone reads one of my stories, even one that is explicitly about a Chicanx experience, I don’t want it to be exemplary of what that means for all Chicanx people (another very historied word for folks who specifically identify as Mexican-American), or as the case sometimes is all Latinx people at once (as in using Mexico as synonymous with all Central and South America). After all, no one watches a show like Friends, and thinks “Gee, every New Yorker must have a giant apartment like that, how cool!” or even more exaggeratedly “Wow! American people are so funny!” And yet, sometimes that’s what ends up happening with shows in particular, but in any media that have casts that are partly or entirely people of color: if the creators aren’t careful in the portrayal of the characters, they’ll end up getting lost in the stereotypes or reduced to their struggles. The idea of casual diversity, which makes it perhaps the ultimate form of diversity, is that it becomes another piece of the wide, varied normal. We need casual diversity in every kind of media because it helps viewers of every identity imagine a world that is accessible and possible for everyone, but the creation and process by which we achieve it must be anything but casual.
Zyanya Avila Louis received her MFA in Fiction from Emerson College and now teaches in their First Year Writing Program. In her time working with students at Emerson, she as developed a passion for working with international students, multilingual students, and other diverse student populations, which is born from being bilingual herself. She loves writing and reading fiction and non-fiction, and occasionally enjoys poetry. Zyanya was born and raised in El Paso, TX and now lives in Quincy, MA with her fiance and her growing library of books.