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How Latin identity became fodder for content

With TikTok trends like "copy-paste Latinas", the standard for what a Latinx woman <em>could</em> or <em>should</em> look like is squeezed into a very narrow set of ideals.
Charlotte Gomez for NPR
With TikTok trends like "copy-paste Latinas", the standard for what a Latinx woman could or should look like is squeezed into a very narrow set of ideals.

Silky, long, straight hair and lightly tanned skin. Thin, upturned noses and puffy, pouty lips.

That's what a typical Latina looks like, according to the viral TikTok trend "copy-paste Latinas." This Eurocentric stereotype ignores the diversity of a group composed of every race, body type and hair texture that exists. The trend erupted in popularity in November, with TikTokers volunteering themselves as models for this combination of exoticized facial features and heavy, glamorous makeup — a callback to the "spicy Latina" cliche.

As one of the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S., Latinos are finally solidifying their presence in popular culture. This newfound attention has its downsides: Creators are using tired tropes to ride the wave of relevance — and some are even misrepresenting themselves as Latino for clout.

And although Latinidad is a cultural identity that's uniquely difficult to define, it's being widely appropriated as fodder for content creation. Whether it's the popularization of aesthetics like "little Mexican girl-core" or Bad Bunny declaring "now everyone wants to be Latino," there's plenty of evidence the issue is pervasive.

Such co-opting can start with influencers and celebrities adopting styles associated with Latinidad, like large hoop earrings, or clothes inspired by the Cholo aesthetic derived from Los Angeles Chicano culture. It's a gateway to adopting stereotypical mannerisms, ways of speaking, and attitudes.

While this isn't as brazen as cultural mimicry like Blackfishing or Asianfishing, Latino-fishing — pretending to be Latino — warps what Latin culture is and who gets to create it.

Latinx identity in mainstream music

If you feel you're hearing more music in Spanish than ever before, you are. "Latin music," a category typically associated with genres like reggaeton, dembow and bachata, has seen a surge in popularity since 2015. Revenue and streaming numbers have been climbing steadily, thanks to the commercial success of artists like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Rauw Alejandro, Maluma and Karol G.

Categorizing so many musical styles under one term fails to recognize their variety, individuality and deep historical origins.

"'Latin music' is a term that I really hate. I think that it flattens everything that we are about and allows for Latino-fishing to happen because the umbrella term of Latin music encompasses reggaeton and dembow, and it's mostly misconstrued as [only] that," says Venezuelan-American poet, writer and music journalist E.R. Pulgar.

When commercial entities market "Latin music," they overlook genres that aren't lucrative or well-known. Selecting a handful of sounds to represent an entire ethnicity gives an inaccurate picture of who creates "Latin music," and who listens to it.

"When you take away all of that specificity and take away all of that history, you end up with a European wearing gigantic hoops on the cover of the 'Viva Latino!' Spotify playlist. And no one questions it," says Pulgar.

They're referring to Rosalía, a key name in any discussion of Latino-fishing. The Spanish pop star and producer has gained global success from the genre-mashing music she sings in her native tongue, blending elements of bachata, reggaeton, champeta, neoperreo and other Latin genres.

The end result is the widespread misconception that Rosalía is Latina. It's a narrative she's had plenty of assistance in creating, including her repeated nominations and wins at the Latin Grammys, and her inclusion in Latin music roundups and playlists on streaming services.

Critics point to Rosalía's use of these genres and aesthetics as appropriation, a stark shift away from the flamenco-inspired music that made her famous.

"I don't know how many times I've had to explain to people that Rosalía's not Latina," Pulgar says. "It still shocks me. Do you not hear the accent? I don't know if it's a lack of [understanding of] geography. I don't know if it's the very successful marketing of it all."

In an essay for Refinery29, Michelle Santiago Cortés cites other celebrities who profited from ethnic and cultural ambiguity, like Enrique Iglesias and Penelope Cruz in the late 1990s.

"We could argue that, in their rise to fame, these individuals took advantage of the work of oppressed people responsible for the Latin Explosion and expanded the audience for Spanish-language music. But that assumes that the music and entertainment industries value Black and brown people, which they do not," she writes.

For a more recent example, take Ariana Grande, who's been criticized for cultural appropriation like using African American Vernacular English and sporting misinformed kanji tattoos.

Over the years, these corporate attempts at "coolness" have been more quickly rejected in the mainstream cultural conversation. Now, on uncurated platforms, misunderstandings of identity have become a trend for anyone to partake in on their social media, without a savvy audience willing to call it out.

The social media trickle-down

The imitation or mockery of identity groups for attention has proved to be a consistent hit with social algorithms. With Latinos, this started within the community, with videos centering on "hot Cheeto girls" appearing around 2020. The phenomenon painted Latina teenagers in public schools as loud, obnoxious and ghetto.

Content like this was an easy win, because creators could appeal to anyone who had witnessed this stereotype. Add in trends like "copy-paste Latinas," and you set the stage for the promotion of stereotypes and fetishization.

Since then, such public inside jokes have evolved. On TikTok, where videos and their respective audio tracks can be plucked for use by other users, an increasing number of viral audios have come from reggaeton songs, or are spoken in Spanish, encouraging users to lip sync or dance along.

The popularity of this music gave some users a different idea: Why not make content relating to the songs — like relationships, infidelity, and the well-meme'd concept of being "toxico" in relationships — even if they're not Latino?

Users were especially upset with popular creator Chiara King. Though fluent in Spanish, King is from the U.K. — and made grand statements about Latinas in relationships with hashtags like "latin trend" and "toxica."

In a now-deleted video, King is doing her makeup with the caption "A Latina's mind 24/7," while lip syncing an audio about her boyfriend maybe cheating. In the hashtags she wrote, "I'm not Latina but I relate."

For graduate student and content creator Marlene Ramirez, King's appropriation felt familiar in a very unwelcome way.

"[It was upsetting] to see her, as a white woman, take on these tropes and profit off of them," she says."She was presenting Latinas in a very toxic way. I think that was definitely very triggering for me as someone who has had to conform to certain standards of whiteness, especially in the academic and professional space," Ramirez knows these stereotypes well, but has found them notably more pointed lately.

"People want to look like us, people want to copy our culture, and they reduce us to this 'spicy' [trope], like we're emotionally dysregulated," she adds.

These trends impact how she's perceived offline, too, she says.

"We're very passionate, but there's a historical context to it I feel that's missing. I noticed it in the way that I've been perceived these last two years. I feel like I've been much more fetishized."

For any cultural group, being reduced to a narrow set of misinformed characteristics is an unwelcome shift from being ignored in the cultural zeitgeist.

But for content creators vying for views before their wave of relevance has passed, identity can be merely a costume.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
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