“You’re a spicy señorita.”
This was one of the first compliments my current (white) partner ever gave me. At least, I’m sure he thought I’d take being called “spicy” as a compliment, just a few hours after we met. The reason? I’m Mexican.
I was born and raised in northern Mexico, and living so close to the U.S. border, my upbringing was filled with both Mexican and American pop culture, ideas and experiences.
As a child, I loved watching old films and idealizing the fancy wardrobes of all the main characters. I spent my time watching Hollywood classics featuring Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly, as well as Cine de Oro Mexicano films featuring María Félix, Pedro Infante and Lupe Vélez.
I was especially affected by Vélez, who ― to my knowledge ― was one of the first Mexican women to make it big both in the Mexican film industry and in Hollywood.
Even at my young age, though, the differences between Vélez’s characters and those of her American counterparts were obvious to me. While American actresses were considered beautiful, ladylike and classy, Vélez was constantly portrayed as a sex bomb, and maybe a little too passionate for her own good. She starred in films like “Hot Pepper” and “Mexican Spitfire,” where her “spicy Mexican” persona wasn’t one of her character traits; it was her only character trait.
Vélez didn’t originate the stereotype of Latina women being overtly sexual, hotheaded, fiery and angry. But she heavily played into it, both on and off-screen. Still, I don’t entirely blame her. Things were very different for women back then, and she did what she had to do in order to succeed and make a name for herself. But the negative effects of her life and work are still with us, sadly.
Today, almost a century after the “spicy Latina” trope was popularized, we’re still seeing it in mainstream culture. There is Sofía Vergara’s Gloria on “Modern Family,” Eva Longoria’s Gabrielle from “Desperate Housewives,” and Catalina, from the popular video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”
While these are all different characters, whose stories and plot lines vary, the main theme in their character arcs (and the thing most people remember about them) is that they are sexy Latina women who sometimes get anger, romance and violence mixed up, blurring the lines of consent because of how “passionate” they are.
I’m not going to lie ― these characters, while some of my favorites, also had a very negative effect on me as a teenager and a young adult. For the longest time, I felt like something was wrong with me for not being like them.
The fact that the media constantly showed Latinas being sexy and loud made my shy, book-loving self feel inadequate, somehow not Latina enough. I was born and raised in Mexico; I spoke Spanish perfectly; I’d known how to make tamales since I was a kid. But I still didn’t feel sexy enough to be a proper Latina.
The “spicy Latina” stereotype also affected my relationships, and how I approached love overall.I felt like I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t as open about my sexuality as the Latinas I saw on TV and in movies. I thought that maybe I wasn’t having successful relationships because I wasn’t being passionate enough, or I didn’t feel comfortable being open about my sexuality and desires. Never mind that my conservative Mexican upbringing had taught me it’s wrong for women even to have those sexual desires.
All of this led to some very toxic attitudes and approaches to relationships. I thought that accepting abusive and controlling demonstrations of “love” was the only way to go. I was used to dating-app matches and (American) ex-boyfriends who “jokingly” told me they’d gladly date me, or even marry me so I could have citizenship ― which I never mentioned, by the way ― but only because they wanted to know what it was like to have sex with a spicy Mexican woman.
I used to laugh at their jokes, if only because at the time I wasn’t quite sure how to react, or if I should even react at all. However, the meaning behind their comments wasn’t lost on me. Much like how Vélez’s characters had “Mexican” as their sole personality trait, these men were reducing me to an outdated, incorrect stereotype, as if I was only there to perform a specific task and fulfill a fantasy of theirs. As if I was not actually there as myself, the person.
It took a while before I was comfortable with the way I show my Mexican heritage. It took even longer for me to be able to stand up for myself when someone made a seemingly innocent comment implying that my flirtiness, my openness about my attraction to them, was directly related to my nationality and heritage, and not to the fact that I am a confident woman who is comfortable telling people when she finds them attractive.
Usually, when I tried to educate people about why I didn’t like to be called “spicy,” “caliente” or “fiery,” their reactions were borderline insulting. They’d try to explain how they only wanted to compliment me, and how I was wrong for being offended. They wouldn’t listen, or try to understand, because they felt like they didn’t have to.
I realized it wasn’t worth arguing about, as these relationships didn’t last long anyway. If my value as a person wasn’t being recognized, I wasn’t going to stay long enough to try and convince them I was more than a stereotype.
When my partner first referred to me as “spicy,” all those months ago, I didn’t say anything. I merely smiled, pretended it hadn’t bothered me, and kept the conversation moving. At the time, I wasn’t sure it was worth even mentioning or getting into that conversation with him.
This summer, while rewatching “Modern Family” for the third time, I came across a few things about Gloria’s character that suddenly bothered me a lot more than before. One was Gloria casually shooting at something to keep her husband from getting his keys. Would this have been a way for the wife to get her point across had the character not been a Latina? The second was Manny, a young Latino man, calling his Colombian mother a “hothead” for being passionate about something.
Since the only way to grow is to have uncomfortable conversations, I realized it was time to bring this up with my partner. I was scared at first, having had bad experiences in the past, but when I talked to him, I felt understood and validated for the first time. He listened carefully and let me explain thoroughly before offering an apology. It felt amazing to finally have someone listen and care enough to understand and acknowledge their mistake.
Sure, there might be some truth to the stereotypes. It’s not uncommon for Mexicans (or most Latinx people, honestly) to be loud ― we like to party and find reasons to celebrate even during the grimmest of times. We’re descendants of warriors, and we’ll fight to defend our beliefs. Our cuisine is a rich mix of spices and ingredients that most foreign people love but can’t tolerate. (Repeat after me: Food can be spicy, people can’t!)
But when people start using these things as a way to disregard our feelings or ignore our individual characteristics, that’s when it becomes problematic.
The “spicy Latina” trope might seem harmless at first glance. But as we dig a little deeper, we can see that it’s detrimental to Latinas everywhere.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.