This is Una Conexión Hispana, or A Spanish Connection, a letter series we’re running this year in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month for Paste Games. The goal is to accomplish a rare feat in games: have two Hispanic writers in conversation about the state of their representation in the industry and their hopes for the future.
It’s Hispanic/Latine Heritage Month, so for once you and I will be especially visible to folks in this industry and outside of it! It’s a nice gesture and also deeply sad every time it rolls around, because you know that in about a month the spotlight’s going to leave us in the dark again. But while we’ve got it, I thought I’d relish the opportunity you’re being here presents: we are two Hispanic games writers in one place, so let’s have a conversation about our hopes and dreams for this space and contend with the nightmares that exist in it. If folks want to think we’re loud, I say we get a little loud. With that being said, I’ve got an important question for you:
Do you have any Hispanic or Latine heroes in videogames?
I ask because I think I’ve been playing these things for give or take two decades now and can barely conjure a significant list of them, let alone identify one I can say I really admire. From a discussion we’ve already had, I’m pretty sure you’re facing some similar obstacles.
Here’s what I’m working with so far: Miles Morales, which feels like cheating because he’s a comic book character that just so happened to get a great videogame. We mentioned Rico from Just Cause, and I brought up Sean and Daniel from Life is Strange 2. We’ve got Juan from Guacamelee and a GTA IV expansion I never played gave us Luis, who is the closest thing I’ve got to “representation,” since he’s actually Dominican. But I think that’s it, which is telling enough. Something about the games industry has just rendered it incapable of producing more characters that feel, for lack of a better term, real, and if I’m being honest that’s been fucking with me for a long time.
I was an awkward first-generation American-born Dominican. I made my precious few friends (mostly other gamers) and stuck by them, but I grew up disconnected from my culture and yet sheltered from much else by family. I got snippets of it at home, like my brother sharing Spanish music with me, and my parents raising me bilingual. Time with extended family was short though, and my immediate one grew increasingly busy. My brother became his own man and my folks have only had to work harder and longer over the years. Summers in the Dominican Republic felt like simultaneous chances to see family and become reacquainted with my roots. Those roots never really felt mine though, and without reinforcement, my latinhood, or rather my sense of it, constantly slipped away from me. I never quite dropped my “gringo” accent and though I loved salsa music, I developed my own distinctly American tastes and left it behind. Sure I picked things up through school and osmosis, but as I’ve discussed before, my primary vehicle for cultural exposure quickly became my games. Playing them formed my basis for learning about the world around me, meaning the views, language, and mannerisms I picked up through them was at least as influential in my upbringing as any classroom.
I didn’t see myself anywhere in the games I grew up playing though. I still barely do! My time was instead spent occupying countless other fantasies. I became a powerful robotic boy, a remarkably athletic plumber, a superhero or two, some wrestlers, and too many soldiers to count, but scarce few of them were brown and even fewer were Latine. Shoutout to Rey Mysterio for being both and pretty much all I got growing up. While I didn’t know it at the time, I think I was subtly learning that folks like us don’t get to be admirable heroes. That was reserved for people whose names weren’t like mine. Worst of all, rather than resent the spaces and industries that seemed to shut me out or bastardize me, I came to some screwed up understanding with them and looked inward for somewhere to place the blame.
Over time, a sad but regrettably real shift occurred within me: I stopped considering myself Dominican or Latino. That’s something I’ve never really admitted out loud and it’s an admission that pains me a lot to think about these days, not because of how proudly I embody either these days, but because I let anyone take part of me away. But you can only play so many games about a Joel Miller or Nathan Drake or Booker DeWitt or Niko Bellic or Lara Croft or Cole Phelps before you begin naively thinking you’re the problem, not them. At some point in my early teenage years, I began shying away from conversations about my ethnicity. I’d quietly admit where my family was from while loudly following up with something akin to, “But I’m not a real Dominican.” I started joking with my own mother that I wasn’t Dominican because I was born and raised in America. I think that bothered her more than she’s ever let on and it’s a joke that clearly grew to take on one too many uncomfortable dimensions.
Games aren’t the sole guilty party here. A glance at the media, as well as the makeup of who often shapes it, tells that story pretty clearly. But games were my realm and it’s sad to admit the thing you grew up loving let you down and hurt you more than you ever knew. While I wasn’t conscious of the damage, it’s something I struggle to reconcile as I’ve turned a hobby into a passion and career now. It’s certainly shaped how I do this Work™, but at quite the cost. Maybe in time it’ll fade, but my greater hope is that it gets better.
A growing tide of diverse faces in games inspires some hope. I’m sure it gives you some too, but I wonder if you’re also as tired as I am waiting for that time. When is one of us going to hit like a goddamn meteor, you know? When do we get canonized as heroes? Why did it take until now for me to feel like maybe just maybe there’s a place for us? And how, god how, do we combat the images of our people that have dominated this sphere as we slowly but surely become part of a bigger whole?
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.