This post was written by Pablo Cartaya, author of Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish.
I loved books and movies and TV shows as a kid. The problem I had was that so many shows had characters that looked nothing like me. It wasn’t until I went to the premier of the “Super Mario Bros” movie that I realized I could become an artist of some kind. I know, I know, you’re saying, “Super Mario Bros”??? Are you kidding me??? I get it, you were expecting something more profound to serve as an inspiration to my career as a writer but my twelve-year-old self would have it no other way.
You see, I saw John Leguizamo playing Luigi and got to meet him after the movie. We talked for a brief moment. But in that conversation we code-switched between English and Spanish and we laughed and he told me that whatever I decide to do in my life, to do it fully. I suddenly felt seen. Those sorts of encounters with people that look and sound like you can be transformative. They will also be challenged. To be a person claiming two cultures, as I do in Cuban and American is to be constantly tested about who you are.
I went on to pursue acting and had some success but I was often typecast into one role or another. I was encouraged to change my name, to hide away parts of my identity in order to work more. I’d like to think that I would have been brave and staked my identity unapologetically, to demand a greater share of roles that I was perfectly capable of taking on. But it would not be so. And it would almost break me.
As much as I’d like to say I made a choice to not allow someone to place me in a cultural box, the reality is, we are more often than not Tuesday morning quarterbacks ruminating on what we should have said.
This is why I turned to books and why writing the types of books I now write is so important to me. Because they give me the voice I wished I had my whole life. The characters in my books speak up. They stand up for injustices and eventually claim every part of themselves. I struggled with that internally my whole life and it came to a head when a casting director told me to my face that I wasn’t enough of what I claimed to be. The young people in my book are the voice I wanted to have when I felt I was on the outside looking in of my own identity.
It’s been difficult at times, which is why kids are connecting to the stories I write. I’ve spoken to them around the country and they get it. They get that I understand them.
I am the child of two cultures. The hyphen. The in-between that has no discernible accent in either language. That can blend and move between cultures. I’ve seen those kids. They just want to be left to claim themselves as individuals, which is all I ever wanted. To be defined by the things I do in this world and not by someone’s perception of what we should be.
The phrase “you pass” feels like a dagger in my veins every time somebody says that to me. I write to give voice to that rage. Which is what Mr. Leguizamo may have been wishing for my twelve-year-old self. To do it fully.