Upon arrival in the United States my wife, Milagros, saw there are many more Latins in my country than there are gringos in hers. Hispanics are the United States’ largest ethnic minority, and there is nowhere you won’t see their footprint. Not only do U.S. citizens comprise some of the world’s most recognized Latinos, they are also some of our most powerful leaders, including one of America’s most significant labor organizers, a Supreme Court justice, and a probable presidential candidate.
So in addition to giving her reading assignments on American history and insightful lectures on everything from domestic politics to regional industry, I want Milagros to learn about Latin Americans’ role. It keeps her away from Caso Cerrado and Telemundo to watch the ample television programming geared toward the American Latino experience. While I prefer the PBS special, Latino Americans, she liked the lighter, cultural narratives in HBO’s growing Latin variety.
One of those shows is the Latino List, which showcases interviews with accomplished Latin Americans.
At the 1:00 mark in the above video, longtime Calvin Klein model, Christy Turlington, talks about being called a “closeted Latina.” In her interview she further explains how, when she first got into modelling, everybody described her as “exotic.” It struck her odd as she had never thought of herself as “exotic.”
Milagros perked up at that word. Gringos had used it to describe her too. Why do people say that?
It’s true. I’d heard at least one family member and one friend call her, “exotic.”
very different, strange, or unusual
of a plant or animal : not living or growing naturally in a particular area : from another part of the world
1: introduced from another country : not native to the place where found <exotic plants>
2: (archaic) foreign, alien
3: strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual <exotic flavors>
This brings us to the point of the article. Are Latinas exotic?
Latin Americans are the largest ethnic minority in the United States (17%) and, with over 50 million, the United States has more Spanish speakers than Spain, Colombia, Argentina, or any country except Mexico. So “very different, strange, or unusual?” Hardly.
Plants and Animals
If treating Latinas as plants or animals, we can use the archaic definition of “not living or growing naturally in a particular area, from another part of the world, introduced from another country, not native to the place where found, foreign, or alien.”
Milagros is obviously from another part of the world. But so are Europeans. If an American is going to call Latinas exotic, he also needs to use that word for British and German women, or “birds” as those strange Brits call them. In terms of distance, everywhere in Europe is further from St. Louis than Peru, and much further than Mexico, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic.
The plants-and-animals definition actually eliminates Latinas from being exotic here: “not native to the place where found.” Christy Turlington was born in California. Obviously from her last name, her father was a gringo. And while her mother came from El Salvador, Latin blood is not necessarily from another part of the world.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. I lived in both Southern Arizona and Southern California, and in each area a Latin chick is about as exotic as a grilled cheese sandwich. In some parts of Texas if somebody who looks like me isn’t wearing a cowboy hat, he would be presumed the foreigner over my Latin wife. Uncle Sam won Puerto Rico and the southwestern states from wars with Spain and Mexico in the 19th century. In that sense, Latin blood is more native to the United States than many gringos’, including mine (late-19th-century English and 20th-century Irish).
But most think of cultural distance, even Latinos who assume Americans and Europeans are all the same. They’re all gringos. They’re mostly white (not Spanish or Italian white, which I guess doesn’t count, but white white, Nordic white). Gringos are all the same in that they’re white white and from rich countries. Poor gringos get fat and obese, while poor Latinos (outside the U.S.) suffer growth stunting and malnutrition. In gringo countries the trains run on time, while a Latin city is rather proud if they even have a train.
But not all those cultural assumptions are completely true. Due to an embrace of the least productive economic model in the history of humanity, Eastern European countries inhabited by white white people are poor, in some ways poorer than Latin poor. And while it’s not quite a rich country, Mexico has surpassed the United States as the world’s most obese.
A lot of what comes out of Western Europe and Scandinavia is more foreign, more alien to heartland Americans like me than Latin culture. Ever had to suffer black metal or British food? I’d prefer vallenato
and Colombian food every day of the week.
We estadounidenses and Canadians have much in common with Latin America that we don’t with Europeans. We share a legacy of colonialism. Our people left Europe for a new, very different life. You can’t tell me there isn’t a disproportionate propensity for risk in the DNA of everyone from Canada to Patagonia.
The Americas are young countries. In Europe, on the other hand, there seems to be less hopefullness and dreaming in societies that are thousands of years old. Where Americans consider themselves optimists, Europeans see naivete.
While the Americas are racially diverse, we’re nowhere near as diverse as Europe culturally. One reason I didn’t consider going expat in Europe was because I didn’t want to learn some strange language they don’t speak anywhere else. Which of these looks more “foreign?” More “alien?”
- Яка мова є більш екзотичним?
- ¿Qué idioma es más exótico?
While you have no idea even how to pronounce the first sentence, you can guess what the second sentence says without speaking Spanish.
Europe is the world’s most secular continent. Outside the Muslim world, the Americas are probably the most religious. A recent survey showed more Americans would vote for a Muslim president than for an atheist.
In this list of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities, a whopping 45 are in the Americas, with four in the United States. In all of Europe, not one. The prevalence of guns is a quirk of Americana that horrifies Europeans. But not Americans. Crime is, for whatever reason, shared across the Americas.
Obviously the United States enjoys the Special Relationship with Britain, and Latin America is tighter with its Iberian forebears. But when considering Scandinavian countries, Slavic Europe, Greece, or even the Krauts, Latins are not that foreign or alien to an American. Not exotic.
Merriam-Webster’s third definition, “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual,” may apply for those gringos trying to be nice, score points, and tell Latinas they’re beautiful.
If that’s you, take it from me, the last thing you should tell a beautiful woman is that she’s beautiful. You think she doesn’t know? That’s the quickest way to lose respect or creep her out. You can tell that to unattractive women if you want, but not beautiful women.
Maybe you think it’s original or less obvious by subbing “exotic” for “beautiful.” If you tell a Latina she’s “exotic,” she won’t hear “beautiful.” She will hear “Indian.” And again, trust me, the vast majority of Latinas do not want to be called Indians.
If you want to make fun of a girl, poke fun, or tear her down, great! But don’t be subtle about it, don’t be weak. Instead, call her “indiacita.”
I do it all the time. I used to do it all the time.
For you gringa women out there, you can’t tell a Latina she’s exotic either. Because then she will realize you’re a dike* and get creeped out, which is ultimately creepier than a harmless nerd trying to tell her she’s beautiful.
* “Dike” is meant with all the respect of the straight ally I am.
Again and at last, Latinas aren’t exotic.
Point of the Story
Latinas are not exotic.
My Non-Exotic Family: