As I reflect on this past week, I am reminded of two significant dates that always pop up in early May, back-to-back. The first is May the 4th (…be with you). Anyone who knows my near-obsession with all things Luke, Han and Leia knows that I try not to let a Star Wars Day go by without doing something, and although this year all I managed was some Millennium Falcon sugar cookies, I am still putting that one in the win column. As for the following day, May 5, most people who know me also know that despite my Mexican roots, Cinco de Mayo is a day I largely ignore. To me the holiday is more about selling beer to college kids than celebrating anything resembling Mexican heritage.
So what did I do for Star Wars day? I worked late and then came home and fell asleep on the couch. What did I do for Cinco de Mayo? I watched The Force Awakens. Yet again. It’s not my favorite Star Wars movie, but it’s my favorite in a very long time. When I saw it for the first time in the theater, there was a lot for me to love. I loved Rey: lonely, charismatic and fierce. I love Finn: lost but courageous. I loved General Hux and how much he and Kylo Ren really hated each other – that was fun. I wanted my own BB-8. But most of all, I loved Poe Dameron, he was awesome! Walking out of the theater, I remember talking to my wife and telling her, “I don’t know what it was, but man, I love me some Poe Dameron!”
Her response was, “Of course you do. He’s the only Gen X character. Hanging out with a bunch of millennials and baby boomers.”
Oooh. That is so true. He’s got our trademark mix of sarcasm, responsibility and pluck. But there’s something else, too. Something I just realized. Poe doesn’t just represent me, the Gen X-er. He is one of the first characters I can even remember who represents me: the Latino geek. And since I have spent a lifetime struggling to understand what being Latino is to me, that actually means a lot.
Now, Oscar Isaac isn’t Mexican. He’s Guatemalan-American. so, I have no idea what he did for Cinco de Mayo. But what he’s done for me lately, is fulfill a young Pete’s Star Wars wish…
Since I was a kid, race, ethnicity and culture have always been a complicated mix. I am a Latino of Mexican descent with the last name Robertson. I was adopted and raised by white parents (funny, kind and awesome people and the only Mom and Dad I have ever known). I speak no Spanish; and as an Army brat and Navy vet, I have never lived anyplace long enough to develop a regional identity (or accent). So, I almost never know or have any control over what people actually see when they look at me – or how they will react. As a kid, I remember just trying to get a handle on the fact that every brownish person wasn’t also Mexican like me, including Hawaiians, Native Americans and, y’know, people who tan really well. Understanding where I actually fit in the world was not easy. No place was this more true as a kid, than when trying to find a character to identify with in the arenas of pop culture I loved the most: science fiction, fantasy and Saturday morning cartoons.
As it turns out, the 80s were the golden age of tropes for characters. And as an 80s kid, I can tell you, there was a pretty specific formula to a character roster. There was the light-haired white guy, the dark-haired white guy, the chunky white guy, the “girl”, the black guy, the bearded mentor, the kid, the robot, a funny monkey, a sentient cat and a talking mop. Around season two, you’d get new characters like the Russian guy with a Mohawk, the dark-haired “bad girl,” one of the white guys’ country cousins, Talking Mop’s wife … and then, oh yeah, occasionally the “ethnic dude.” Sometimes he was somewhat Asian. Sometimes he was vaguely Hispanic.
I don’t know if this ethnicky dude was supposed to appeal to me. While a character that sent animators scrambling for that tube of tan ink seemed like someone I should at least give a chance to, I didn’t often bite. To be fair, he wasn’t always a terrible character; but his action figure was definitely the one sold alongside an accessory pack, or came free with a vehicle or playset. (“Look kids, it’s that guy with the handlebar mustache who says ‘ay caramba’ a lot!”) He was definitely the figure still hanging on a Walgreens shelf six months later. I didn’t buy that character and I didn’t buy into him, because just like everyone else, dammit, I wanted to be the hero. Not a sidekick.
So, I did what a lot of people of color end up doing all too often. I picked a character I identified with on a personal level and I never looked back. With Star Wars, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker: headstrong, noble and idealistic. No cool Han Solo for me. Nope! Nerdy-ass Luke, will do, thanks! It was Luke I imagined myself as while I ran around the neighborhood with an X-wing made from mix-matched Lego sets, skimming just above the ground and making laser noises with my mouth.
With other franchises, I would just choose the dark-haired dude. That was easy. Michael Knight, Luke Duke, Maverick, Keith from Voltron, The Fonz — come to think of it, being the dark-haired dude kind of kicked ass. We’ve got Han. We’ve got Wolverine, Will Riker and Superman. That rules. Right up until some kid tells you that no, you can’t play him because you’re not white. You have to play someone else. (Something, by the way, that cosplayers are still hearing) I’m 40, now. I can laugh that off. When I was 10, I really had no idea how to deal with that shit. Like, none whatsoever. I just stood there, hoping the ground would swallow me up.
Despite that, though, I know I had it easier than most. I can’t even imagine what it was like for the girls I grew up with- or my wife: a fellow geek. “Here you go, young ladies. Here’s Smurfette. Here’s the pink Care Bear. The pink Snork. The pink Voltron pilot. Here’s the pink lady Transformers robot!” I finally understand why so many women I know grew up gravitating to She-Ra and Jem and the Holograms. Because there was more than one kick-ass character – and color ensemble – to choose from.
But there’s a funny thing that happens when we try to have conversations about inclusion and diversity in geek culture. Those words can’t even leave our mouths before the eye rolling starts, and exasperated, angry hands fly up and the lecturing begins. “Why make this about race?” “Why does a character have to look like you for that character to be relatable?”
Oh, stop it. Those are easy questions to ask when you have way more options than someone else. Sure, you can be white and like Storm. You can like Lando. You can tell me Spirit and Quick Kick were actually your favorite GI Joes (Liar!). But don’t lose sight that you also have a whole bunch of people who look like you to choose from. Even now, I could name more redheaded characters in just the Marvel Universe than Hispanic characters in all of comics ever. Scratch that. I can name more Marvel characters with green hair than I can Hispanic characters. Just like any other fan, I have great affection for characters who don’t happen to look anything like me; but more than once I have thought to myself “It would still be nice to just have one who did.”
I’m not the first or the best to say it. Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, in her graceful 2015 Golden Globes acceptance speech, hit the nail on the head when she said, “This award is so much more than myself; it represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” That’s it. Right there.
I have been lucky enough in my lifetime to see an increase of characters and actors who better represent the people I know, including many who look like me. Still, even now, representation feels weirdly restricted. There may be fewer outright stereotypes, but too many roles are still defined by that stereotype; as they must play against it, or else lean into it. For that reason, I still don’t know how to feel about Sofia Vergara on Modern Family or the umpteenth Fred Armisen caricature. Latin characters can never seem to just be regular people. They have to be attached to someone else’s monolithic idea of culture and identity. Surprisingly, it’s female characters who have been getting the chance to break free of that lately: April Ludgate on Parks and Rec, Rosa Diaz and Amy Santiago on Brooklyn 99, and pretty much anything America Ferrera does.
One of the few places I often do find that kind of baggage-free representation is science fiction. Seeing Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica was great. (I probably should have finished the series) Not having to endure references to space quinceañeras, galactic tacos, or “fiery Latin blood” was even better. He’s just a dude in space! Running shit. Now, if only my favorite franchise had one of those characters …
Enter, Poe Dameron.
There’s a lot I already liked, right away. For one, Poe – the inheritor of the brash pilot character previously occupied by Han Solo – is no anti-hero in need of conversion. There’s moment where Poe must ditch his roguish ways and take a stand. He is all in. Committed to a cause, upbeat even in the face of danger (or torture), and a charismatic leader for his pilots. I’m a Luke guy, and Poe speaks our language. Poe is a hero. Not a sidekick. And there he is. Someone who looks like me –a fitter, slightly younger me, but at the very least, someone my 10-year-old self would have been able to identify with on first glance. Unencumbered by someone’s need to limit or define his character by his ethnicity, Poe is free to be someone that anyone can identify with. He gets to just be a dude in space! Kicking ass. He can be anyone’s favorite. Skimming at breakneck speeds just above the surface of Takodana to rescue Han, Chewie and Finn, and cheering like a kid on a rollercoaster while blasting TIE fighters out of the sky. He’s the living embodiment of little me running as fast as I could down the gravel road of a trailer park, makeshift X-wing in hand. Dark skin and jet black hair included.
Honestly, I didn’t know I needed that. I didn’t even know that there was something I’d been missing. I grew up with Star Wars. For nearly 40 years, I’d have told you I couldn’t love it more. Yet, now, today somehow, I do.
I’m three years older than Oscar Isaac, and I still want to be Poe Dameron when I grow up.