Going to a place where people get together for a good time decked out in costumes sounds like your typical Halloween party but for costumer players aka cosplayers — people who dress up as characters from movies, books, TV shows, and video games — it’s a year-long event. Some people prefer cosplaying accurately where they are exact replicas of the characters while others like to give it a creative spin. Whether a cosplayer spent hundreds of hours painfully hand-stitching an elaborate costume, or pulled it together in a week with thrifted and bought items, cosplaying is a creative outlet and passion project for many.
The word cosplay comes from the words “costume play” and is believed to have been coined by Japanese reporter, Nobuyuki Takahashi after he attended Worldcon (The World Science Fiction Convention) in Los Angeles in 1984. Fast forward to today and cosplay has created an expansive subculture with a strong sense of community including for people of color despite the lack of representation in Hollywood.
For cosplayers, Julia Enriquez, a Mexican-American Los Angeles native, and Yanissa Ayala, an Afro-Latina who lives in Puerto Rico, cosplay started out as a hobby but soon became a lifestyle. Both women started out their cosplay journey in a similar fashion in high school when friends invited them to anime conventions. Pulling together last-minute costumes, they went as some of their favorite characters, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Making connections at these conventions and the whole experience of you being genuine as yourself and doing something that you really feel comfortable as is the best part of being a cosplayer,” Yanissa told HipLatina.
But, like everything else, the cosplay culture is not perfect. Cosplay reflects what already exists in media and, as such, it strikes a blaring light onto what Hollywood ignores. The massive underrepresentation of the Latinx community in media. For the cosplay community, this means the characters represented are mainly white characters and the cosplayers who gain the most attention are the ones who reflect that image.
“Sometimes I feel like we [Latina cosplayers] can get lost in the mix,” Enriquez said. “It can feel really discouraging because you see people who don’t really look like you a lot of the time. So when we find those people who are a part of the Latinx community and in the cosplay community, it’s the best feeling.”
Although uncommon, it has occurred where people will make a comment toward cosplayers of color remarking that they were “too dark” to cosplay a certain character. Enriquez feels blessed in that she has never had any incidents occur during conventions about her being a Latina cosplayer.
“I guess for me, where we are [Los Angeles], I find myself around people in the cosplay community who are like me, are Latina. There’s a camaraderie there, an understanding of respect,” she remarked. However, Enriquez has had strange occurrences on her Instagram page where she posts all her cosplays.
When it comes to social media I’ve gotten weird comments where it’s very uncomfortable. I think it’s just because people feel so emboldened behind a screen that they feel like they have the entitlement to say what they want and feel like they have no consequences for it versus a con experience in-person and a social media experience, it can cause different safety issues. Being in the physical community, you have the people around you for immediate support whereas if someone DMs you inappropriate things you don’t have that same community right off the bat.
Ayala also has had a similar experience on social media where trolls run rampant. In-person conventions are events where she can showcase her cosplays as well as sell her art at her booth but posting on social media opens the door to hateful comments.
“When a cosplayer does make it into popular media it usually isn’t a Latina and a plus-size Latina even less,” Ayala says. “There’s a lack of representation with that and also some people give a lot of hate for being dark-skinned or not looking like the stereotypical Latina. I haven’t had super bad experiences of being called out for not looking like a character, but I know a lot of people that have. So it’s something you have to be wary of. You need a tough shell because it can have a toll on you. On social media, I occasionally get bad comments but I just block.”
This behavior reflects the same issues Latinxs deal with in Hollywood. According to a report released in October 2021 from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 7 percent of lead roles went to a Latinx actor. How about non-lead roles? Only 6 percent of named and speaking roles were given to Latinx actors. The report found that a major setback is that the Latinx community continues to be portrayed in a negative light as more than one-third of lead Latino roles in 2019’s biggest movies were depicted as immigrants (usually undocumented), criminals, impoverished, or uneducated characters.
Ayala herself had a hard time remembering the first time she felt seen as a Latina. In fact, the only one she could think of only represented her in terms of being Puerto Rican. “The only character I can really think of doesn’t really represent me as a woman but does represent me as Puerto Rican is Miles Morales from Spider-Man. Otherwise, there isn’t much accurate representation of Puerto Ricans and of Puerto Rican women in big media.”
Enriquez has a different experience and immediately recalled a character from her childhood she still has a lot of love for. “I think for me the one time where I felt seen and immediately attached to a character was Frida from El Tigre on Nickelodeon,” she told HipLatina. “She was my immediate focus and she didn’t have to have brown hair and brown eyes, but from the story and everything around her, I thought, ‘I’m Frida! That one is me!’. She was a Mexican girl on a TV show on a cartoon that I loved and I truly can’t think of any other time where I immediately grasped onto a character.”
Since that 2021 report, there has been an influx of Latinx representation in media though there is still a lot of progress to be made. From the magical Madrigal family in Encanto to America Chavez in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to the upcoming Father of the Bride remake with an all-Latinx cast.
“There’s been a stronger story being told and more complex stories when it comes to the Latinx community but there are still setbacks. A very low percentage of the Latino community is represented and there’s still a small amount of Latina characters that are main characters in media when compared to white women. But it’s progressed I think nonetheless. I think there’s more to be done and it’s never going to stop. There have definitely been major changes,” Enriquez says.
This is only good news for cosplayers looking to find characters that make them feel seen. However, it’s important to note that fictional characters can make people feel seen in different ways. They may not look like you, but they can represent you in other ways.
“I don’t look like a lot of characters because I am not pale and because I am not skinny,” Ayala shares. “That is something you can’t really think about when you’re doing cosplays because you’re not always going to look like the characters you do. I respect people who choose to only do characters they look like, but the reality is that there are not a lot of characters that look like me. If I were to just nit-pick characters to cosplay I wouldn’t have much to do and that wouldn’t be fun.”
And the point of cosplay, above all, is to have fun! No matter your skill with a needle or a makeup brush, there is a place for everyone.
As for Ayala and Enriquez, another striking similarity takes the form of their dream cosplay. Both women hand-make their costumes and their dream cosplays are from the same movie. “One that has been in the works for a couple of years now is an Ariel-styled ballgown. I want to enter that one into competitions so my goal is to finish it this year. I can’t wait for it to be finished, I’m so excited,” Enriquez says.
“One of my dream cosplays that I’m planning to do is Ursula from The Little Mermaid,” said Ayala.
Both also share the same type of advice for other Latinas out there looking to join the world of cosplay. Jump in! Just start and realize that cosplay isn’t about being perfect, it’s about fun and community.