Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?
I mostly write westerns. There's a reason for that. I'm married to a man who hails from a long line of cowboys. Yep! I'm talking about the ones who walk around like they're bigger than their boots, and still as sweet as shoofly pie. In fact, the way I met my husband is a bit of a romance story fit for a western.
I was going through a terrible divorce from a guy who would make any woman question the idea of marriage to begin with. Looking to get out and cut loose, I went to a local dive for a little dancing. There I was, sitting at the bar and sipping on a beer, when I looked up and met my match. Reflected in the mirror behind the bartender was a fellow who could have easily been confused for the Marlboro man. Yeah, he had a nasty cigarette hanging out of his mouth just like the guy in the old commercials. It was the rest of the package that I was paying attention to, though. His outfit completed the look of someone who had just roamed in from off the range. Oooh wee! Cowboy hat dipped low, blue button down shirt, tight jeans, and one booted foot rested against the wall as he cradled his pool stick. I just about fell out of my chair. Literally!
My small slip made him smile, and he came over to talk to me. By the end of the evening, we had exchanged numbers and he eventually became my "M&M," or "Mexican Marlboro." See, that's where his people are from--Mexico. In fact, that's the origin for most cowboy traditions too. Check out the vocabulary. "Dude" comes from dudos, used to describe the ones they doubted could last in a saddle. Lasso is from the word lazo, rodeo from rodear (meaning "to circle"), and there are many more.
It isn't just the vocabulary either. The clothes and boots, equipment, food that the men eat by campfires (beans, anyone?), and so much more. The cowboy world is one rich with Mexican culture.
So, why aren't more of them featured in Westerns?
When I first started writing western romance, I thought I would be entering a world that reflected much of what I know from my own life ~ my husband's favorite Mexican dishes, my Native beliefs, the languages and ways of these rich cultures. More importantly, I would get to read about the people. However, that wasn't what I found at all. The more I read, the more I was plagued with the disturbing realization that not only were there not many of any people of color featured in western romances, but they had practically been erased altogether--not even showing up as side characters. Was I simply looking in the wrong place?
I decided to ask others. Did they know where I could find western stories featuring Natives, Latinx and African Americans in the Old West? (Let us not forget, too, Asians who helped build our railroads and create beautiful works of steel.)
The response? About a dozen or so suggestions... with only two from black writers and ZERO from any other authors of color. I was floored. Where were all the #ownvoice writers? How is it possible that in the plethora of western series (many from that very group), comprised of literally hundreds of titles, there are only a handful of stories featuring a character of color? Mind you, this is nothing new in the traditional publishing world. For many years, the industry was obsessed with stories about "savages" who abducted white women. Over time, it became acceptable because the Native would be "part white," or even a white person who had been raised in a tribe. The Mexican was not a cowboy to be revered, but a lazy (possibly thieving) ranch hand. Asians never spoke any English... and all blacks were runaway salves who may or may not have killed their "massa" during their quest for freedom. Thankfully, the trad world is slowly starting to change. The gatekeepers are finally realizing that everyone wants equal representation, without the caricature portrayal.
But what about the Indie world? Why is it that when I asked for these stories, so many were quick to suggest a white author... despite the fact that the group contains plenty of colored writers? Moreover, why aren't more white writers inviting #ownvoice authors to contribute to their series? That isn't to say that there aren't ANY doing so. I, myself, have contributed a couple of times to series that made space for Mexican and Native characters. It also isn't to say that white authors can't write characters of color.
However, should they?
Skimming a few of the titles and their content (yes, I had to immediately check out the Amazon links to the books suggested), the answer is obvious. While some individuals showed sensitivity towards the cultures they were writing, I was made painfully aware that others were just jumping on the "diversity train." For them, writing a character of color was their way of declaring, "Look! I'm not racist." And that very well may be. However, are they open to inclusivity? Instead of showcasing their work, and writing stories from a point of view they apparently cannot grasp, are they ready to lift up the voices of #own authors? Until they do, I can only think that there is something terribly amiss in the western romance genre--a strange imbalance that does not depict the realities of what the Old West was really like. Despite what the market may show, it was a world created by people of color, and then adopted by white settlers.
So, where have all the colored cowboys gone? More importantly, will they ever truly return?
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