Why labeling Antonio Banderas a 'person of color' triggers such a backlash
At the Oscars on Sunday, movie fans were reminded of a persistent diversity problem in the film industry's most anticipated awards event: Few nominees aren't white.
Only one person of color was nominated in the acting categories: Cynthia Erivo for her role as Harriet Tubman in the biopic “Harriet.”
Some media, however, also alluded to another actor as an exception to the #OscarsSoWhite dilemma: Outlets called Antonio Banderas, nominated for best actor for his role in Pedro Almodóvar's “Pain and Glory,” an actor of color.
The thing is, Banderas is from Málaga, Spain, and does not identify as a person of color. There are nonwhite Spanish people, but this isn't the case for him.
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In an interview with Univision's Jorge Ramos in January, Banderas was asked about the controversy. He chuckled and said he prefers to take it with a bit of humor.
"I don't know what I am," he told Ramos. "When I've gone to the U.S., I've considered myself Latino, because those are the people I've connected with the most."
Banderas then recalled filling out an official form in the U.S.: When he went to check the box for "white" under race, he was told that was wrong, that he was Hispanic.
"I said, 'Hispanic isn't actually a race,' " Banderas told Ramos, but he went ahead and checked the Hispanic box. "Great, I'm happy to be Hispanic, Spanish, Latino, and if I'm a person of color, well then I'm a person of color."
The idea that Banderas is a white European may be obvious to many, especially those in the Latinx community, but it's not the first time a white Spaniard has been referred to in the U.S. as a "person of color" or Latinx.
After all, Spaniards are technically considered Hispanic by the U.S. Census Bureau, which defines the term as "a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race."
And Latinx is a gender-inclusive variation of Latino/Latina, which generally includes any person of Latin American descent.
Banderas has often taken on Latin American roles in movies, including a Mexican mariachi assassin in Robert Rodriguez's “Desperado.”
A person of color?
After the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees last month, the news site Deadline wrote that the men's acting categories "were dominated by white actors with Antonio Banderas being the lone person of color" and later tweeting that "only two actors of color were nominated in the major acting categories." The publication eventually deleted both comments, although the previous version of the article is on other sites.
Vanity Fair wrote — and eventually deleted — that "while Spaniards are not technically considered people of color, it should be noted" that Banderas was also nominated.
And Reuters initially referred to Banderas and Erivo as the only "not white" actors nominated. The news agency later corrected the mistake, but some publications had already run the original version.
The backlash in Spain has been fierce.
Spanish media pounced on the word choice. Some publications accused the U.S. of having an "absurd obsession" with race. Others criticized Hollywood, saying that it was "convenient" to consider Banderas a person of color to appear more diverse.
To make things more confusing, Spanish media translated "person of color" literally — persona de color — a phrase that, in Spain, isn't used in the same way as in the United States. While different Spanish-speaking countries have variations of the concept, in Spain the term persona racializada is usually used instead.
To many Spaniards' ears, persona de color made it sound like Americans were saying Banderas was black. Twitter users made jokes about the term, saying Banderas is a person of color — the color white.
Putting Spanish in the same box
But others thought the term offensive and called it racist.
Juan Pedro Sánchez, 25, who lives in Madrid and weighed in on the Twitter discussion, criticized those who responded negatively, saying the concept of race and ethnicity varies according to where you are. He said Spaniards were all too quick to point out that they're white.
"A lot of people in Spain are bothered if others confuse them for Latin American because Spaniards see Latinos as people of color, and they don't want to be associated with that," Sánchez tells NPR.
He says this confusion happens often to Spaniards traveling outside Spain. He experienced it firsthand when he spent a summer in Chicago in 2017.
"It's a reoccurring problem — they put Spaniards in the same box as Latinos," says Sánchez. "What bothers me is not being considered a person of color, but that people ignore that Spain was a colonizer country. It erases that history."
There's another part of history that's sometimes overlooked. Whiteness within Spain itself is complicated. There have been historically marginalized communities, including people with Roma or North African ancestry, who are often considered nonwhite. At times in history, many Spaniards have also felt like the "other" in Europe.
Not just about language
Spanish-speakers have a variety of backgrounds. Many people labeled Hispanic also identify as white, black, Middle Eastern, Indigenous, Asian or any mix of these. But many Hispanic and Latinx people don't speak Spanish.
Confusion around labels can lead people to assume that someone identifies as Latinx or as a person of color simply because Spanish is their mother tongue, according to sociologist Jennifer Jones at the University of Illinois.
"There's just a presumption that anyone who speaks Spanish is of a certain background," says Jones. "I think there's this interesting slippage, which has happened from the beginning of the invention of the so-called Hispanic category, that it was primarily understood by a lot of folks as about language and less about country of origin."
Jones says there's a reason the term Hispanic is so vague. When it was first introduced into the U.S. census in 1980, the idea was to be as inclusive and all-encompassing as possible, so as to not leave out any groups. Before 1980, people of Latin American descent were labeled white by the U.S. government — but by being grouped with whites, there were few statistics on the Latinx community and therefore no way of knowing what its concerns and needs were.
"There wasn't a lot of consensus about what it meant to be Hispanic in the first place, and so [those lobbying for the term to be created] were kind of reluctant to give very clear parameters around that," says Jones. "But they realized there was power in numbers to be able to make claims to the state, in terms of resources and support, to create a voting bloc and to get lawsuits around these kinds of issues. So they sort of banded together as a way of asking for a category."
Linguistic anthropologist Jonathan Rosa at Stanford University says it's precisely because of this inclusive language that people from Spain can now strategically access certain political and economic markets — and benefit from the ambiguity of the definition of Hispanic.
"People fought really hard to have these categories or to make recognition possible for artistic or athletic or intellectual prowess," Rosa says. "And I think there's legitimate concern when someone who isn't associated with the kinds of histories of marginalization and exclusion ... is benefiting."
He gives the example of Spanish flamenco-trap singer Rosalía, who has won various Latin music awards since her career took off internationally in late 2018: an MTV award for best Latin video, five Latin Grammys and, just last month, a Grammy for best Latin rock, urban or alternative album.
"She then ends up being a sign of these really troublesome layered forms of marginalization where not only is there only one category [for Latinx music] but the only person who can be honored within that category isn't even associated with the experience that that category was allegedly created to recognize," says Rosa.
But that experience can be hard to define. Even within the Latinx community itself, people face different kinds of marginalization. Many factors are at play, including race, socioeconomic class and education level. A white, middle-class person from Chile may be treated differently in the U.S. from a working-class person from El Salvador with Indigenous roots.
‘Things need to be complicated’
And then there are the different experiences between new immigrants and Latinx people born in the U.S. or whose families have been stateside for generations. What's more, the terms Hispanic and Latinx have frequently fluctuated to include or exclude different communities and nationalities.
As Banderas notes, in the U.S., Spaniards are considered Hispanic. That may mean that they receive similar treatment to those in the Latinx community.
In Rosa's view, that's not as much a problem as the risk of overlooking Spain's history of colonialization.
"People say you're making things more complicated, but things need to be complicated," says Rosa. "I just worry that we end up flattening out history. My goal here is not to police Latinidad [Latin-ness]," he says. "My goal is to draw attention to these power dynamics."
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