What Does 'Dress Like a Latina' Even Mean?

What Does 'Dress Like a Latina' Even Mean?
Mariana Atencio at the 2018 White House Correspondents dinner. Image:Getty

Journalist Mariana Atencio recently released Perfectly You: Embracing the Power of Being Real, a book that, according to release her publisher, follows her “journey to discover why celebrating what makes us different becomes the most valuable lesson anyone can learn and share.” The “journey” is code for Atencio’s immigration from Venezuela to the U.S. in an effort to become a journalist, which she has done successfully as a correspondent on MSNBC. But one of the major obstacles she faced came from within her own organization; in Perfectly You, per a tweet by journalist Yashar Ali, Atencio writes that “one of the female managers at the network” asked her whether she was “prepared for such a prestigious gathering,” an open-ended question that obviously houses a darker mandate.

Eventually got to her point: That when Atencio planned what to wear, she writes, the unnamed manager wanted her to get a personal shopper at Saks and dress like Ivanka Trump.

Let’s start with the small: Unless you’re cosplaying as a generic D.C. socialite, advising someone to dress like Ivanka Trump is just bad fashion advice. Secondly, Atencio writes that she already had a personal shopper at Saks because, as a previously an award-winning journalist at Univision, it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone whose job involves regular national and international television appearances to have some assistance in keeping their clothing polished and appropriate. And Atencio was not new to this game, having worked at several networks before joining MSNBC; the assumption that she might know how to present herself is condescending at best.

But also, as with this whole anecdote, the exchange is racist that it’s boring: the concept that a Latina journalist might need help in a “prestigious” situation so as not to disturb the comfortable bigotry of polite white society, or rile a man whose life mission, aside from grifting, seems to be denigrating Latinxs and journalists. Two in one might be too much for him to handle, I suppose, but particularly galling—and, again, so typical and boring a racist stereotype it barely inspires eye-batting—is the idea that there is some particular way to “dress Latina,” a flattening of a huge global population that counts over 600 million people in Latin America alone, and over 50 million in the U.S into a single, streamlined stereotype. There’s no uniform!

The idea that there is some particular way to “dress Latina,” Is a flattening of a huge global population into a single, streamlined stereotype.

Of course, it’s easy enough to imagine what this particular manager had in mind—Carmen Miranda, ay ay ay, caliente, tits out, etc., stereotypes that date back to the very early 20th century. At the very least, the manager was asking Atencio to suppress her cultural identity (an identity that, I assure you, has gained her many more viewers) by wearing, essentially, whiteface???

I suppose we only have our instincts and experience to go on here. But it’s worth mentioning that in a week in which journalists have been pushing back on the way coverage of the El Paso murders decentered Latinxs in the hands of mostly-white newsroom staffs, this is a bare example of why it’s difficult for Latinxs and other people of color to ascend to the level of even attending the White House Correspondents dinner: Because people in charge still expect us to exist within the confines of arcane stereotypes, and beyond that, they are disinterested in (or actively suppressing) anyone who divergess from the archaic status quo.

In an interview with NBC News, Atencio said that she “wanted to tell the anecdote not to harp on the negative, but to remind readers that these things still happen, and we have to call them out and have conversations as adults about how we can get past them.” That would be nice, but for anything to change, the conversation needs to happen both ways. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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