Telling a story about ourselves through the lens of culture can be wildly challenging because it involves not just vulnerability but also the courage to present a raw, honest version of your experiences to the world. When I think of strong Latinx representation, movies such as “Coco” come to mind for their beautiful specificity, proving that there are a thousand branches that extend from the broader concept of “being Mexican.”
Here’s the thing about being a cultural griot — whether it involves telling bedtime stories to a toddler or translating folklore into film — specificity is everything. Our experience as Mexican Americans involves not just adversity and family bonds but everything else on the spectrum of human emotion. But what does this specificity look like when you’re presenting it to the world? As I’m learning, there’s a fine line between telling stories that reflect the nuance of being Mexican American and the ones that isolate aspects of our culture and exploit them for a non-Latino audience.
Alex Zaragoza has always been a storyteller, a gift she first embodied as a theater geek in high school and later through her experience as a culture editor at Vice. Though her journalistic writing is evidence enough of her penchant for comedy, her peers tell me she was likely born being able to make people gut-laugh without trying. There’s an ease to her humor that appears to come from simply observing herself and the world and being honest about what she sees.
Zaragoza was destined to one day take her vibrant cultural commentary to the screen. She did, after all, grow up in the ’90s, raised by the late-night lulls of MTV. Now a TV writer living between New York and Los Angeles, Zaragoza most recently finished a stint writing for “Lopez vs. Lopez,” a new series created by another Latina, Salvadoran American Debby Wolfe, that began airing on NBC on Nov. 4. The show, another iteration of Mexican American storytelling, portrays a fictionalized version of George Lopez’s complicated yet solid relationship with his daughter, Mayan Lopez, approaching topics, such as addiction, mental health and identity, with levity.
If you’re Mexican or even just a Hispanic person who lives in America, you probably grew up on George Lopez. In the early 2000s, there were not a lot of Mexicans delivering punchlines (we were often, instead, the subject of them) who also spoke English in the accents of our parents. He made cable TV feel welcoming; The staccato of a cowbell still evokes the intro to War’s “Low Rider,” which in turn conjures nights with the familia huddled around a screen.
Zaragoza is helping usher in the next chapter of George Lopez’s legacy, this time through a show that doesn’t shy away from the messier parts of what it means to be Latino. “Lopez vs. Lopez” is a quintessentially Latinx story and yet our identities are not what they were in the early 2000s, when Lopez could get away with being a stand-in for all of us.
If we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that “Latino” is as fragmented as an identity can get. There are “Abolish ICE” Latinos and also “Latinos for Trump” (up to 32% of our vote went to him in 2020). There are Latinos who are white, Indigenous, Black, Asian, and an amalgamation of many other races. There are poor Latinos and rich Latinos, gay Latinos and Latinos who would throw a chancla at any mention of homosexuality. Given this newly realized reality, what the hell does it actually mean to tell a “Latino story”?
This is a question that Zaragoza often grapples with, especially when she considers her own relationship to Latinidad. She was born in Chula Vista, a city south of San Diego, but spent her teenage years in Tijuana. She’d drive across the border to the U.S. side just to attend school, riding past posters for wanted cartel members and norteño groups playing in town and watching ”Dawson’s Creek,” all in the same day.
Zaragoza doesn’t love the term “Hispanic,” because it’s way too broad, describing anyone who speaks Spanish, including someone from, say, Madrid. As someone who is also Latinx, I can relate to her lack of identification with the term. I’m half Chinese and half Mexican, and oftentimes other Latinos are surprised that I speak Spanish at all, a fact I used to passionately resent. So for now, Latinx is an imperfect label that will do for now.
Zaragoza prefers to identify as Mexican American, or even Mexican and American. But there’s a more specific term that most accurately describes her: fronteriza, or someone who is of the border — a subcategory that identifies the thousands of people who live liminal lives between Mexico and the U.S. — not just culturally and linguistically, but physically and politically, too.
After “Lopez vs. Lopez,” the story Zaragoza wants to tell is her own. She already has a development deal for a show she’s writing about a teenage girl who grows up along the U.S.-Mexico border in the early 2000s — one who is fighting the limitations of what everyone around her thinks she can be. When I ask her (admittedly as devil’s advocate) if she believes that in the U.S., where most people can name only one Mexican American actor, is ready for a story about a Latinx person with such an intricately blended identity, she questions the premise of the question. “I can’t make ‘Are white people ready?’ my concern,” she says. “My concern is to tell the best story that I can, the most honest story.” And she returns to that specificity as her vehicle for making each story transcendent.
“I always tell people: Unburden yourself from the need to explain your existence,” Zaragoza says. The context is crucial here. For her entire young life, Zaragoza had to literally articulate herself to a Border Patrol agent every morning: who she was, why she was here, why she should be let in. She’s done that work already. Now she belongs wherever she decides to stand.
I belong here, too — and so does any Mexican American storyteller who has spent too many hours unnerved about how to explain their identity and experiences.
For many of us, George Lopez’s was once the sole Latino story we saw on TV. Now we’ll have a reincarnation of his comedy in conjunction with the existing Latinx explosion — there’s Bad Bunny and Kali Uchis and Alexa Demie, too. There’s room for us to express our individual perspective within the Latinidad.
And perhaps in the near future, telling our stories won’t be about claiming to capture the experiences of millions of people who share little in common but more about embracing the fact that there is no such thing as a “Latino story” at all — that the act of telling our truths as specifically as we can tell them, no matter how uncomfortable they might make others, is the best we can do.