Geek used to be one of the go-to terms to describe the outcasts and the marginalized. It may (or may) not come as a surprise that people of color find themselves on the outside looking in of this community, as well and finding themselves fighting the same types of battles they do everywhere else.
CASSIUS spoke to Cristal Marie, a singer, host and self-proclaimed geek, who has taken her love of geekdom and made it part of her life—so much so that she brought her fandom to her home country in the Dominican Republic.
CASSIUS: How long have you been a geek? What was the first thing that sparked your interest?
CM: I’ve been a geek since I first saw the classic shojo anime “Candy Candy” on TV when I was 6 years old. They used to play the Spanish dub on a local channel after school and that just became my ritual. I’d come home and watch “Candy Candy,” then “Saint Seiya,” “Ranma 1/2,” “Sailor Moon” and “Rurouni Kenshin.” Eventually, my older brother managed to score a SNES system and we got Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past. And don’t get me started on the first time I saw Star Wars. Han Solo will always be my first inappropriate crush. And yes, the man shot first. Fight me. But yeah, in the canon of my geekdom I would say “Candy Candy” was my baptism, The Legend of Zelda was my communion, Star Wars was my confirmation… and my wedding was Final Fantasy VII. I cheat on Final Fantasy occasionally with Anne Rice novels, but shhh.
C: You’re a musician too, a well-known one at that. How’d you get into that?
CM: For me, it all started with two things: Pocahontas, particularly “Colors Of The Wind” sung by Judy Kuhn and the score of Final Fantasy VII by Nobuo Uematsu. I wanted to become a pianist and play the perfect “Prelude,” and I would climb walls and trees or call the wind to my balcony. I probably looked insane to my neighbors and my parents. I remember I joined the school choir because (in my mind) I wanted to convince them to arrange and perform Sephiroth’s theme: One-Winged Angel. It didn’t work [laughs], but I did discover I had a talent for singing and things just kind of grew from there.
I recently sang with Andrea Bocelli at Hard Rock Punta Cana and it was just…the most incredible and magical moment of my life. I would say another highlight was singing the theme song of a Telenovela for NBC/Telemundo. I grew up with “Marimar,” “Muchachitas,” and RBD, so this was pretty close to my heart.
C: You helped create a convention. Where was it and what inspired you to create it?
CM: CONANIME was in the Dominican Republic. I grew up in the Dominican Republic and there was no such thing as an anime convention—or a pop culture convention of any kind—at the time. While studying performance at Berklee College of Music, I went to Anime Boston for the first time and I was so inspired I just had to do… something! I remember that first time walking into a space where anime, video games and people like me were celebrated and thinking, “oh my gosh, I’m home.”
I was super into the J-rock and Visual Kei scene at the time and I used to buy issues of Gothic and Lolita Magazine so I and some friends organized a meet up at Porter Square and called it “Porterjuku” in honor of Harajuku. We had a turnout of about 45 people and I thought it would be cool to do something similar in my country. CONANIME was organized in a month and we expected about 100 or 200 people to show up. Instead, 4,000 people showed up over 4 days. There had never been an event of that magnitude in my country. It was insane and traumatizing, and amazing.
I remember that first time walking into a space where anime, video games and people like me were celebrated and thinking, “oh my gosh, I’m home.”
C: How was it received by your family and friends?
CM: Not great. The university that donated the space for the convention shut down our main stage when they saw the magnitude of the event and they didn’t really like or understand cosplay. We had cover bands playing L’arc En Ciel, anime openings, Dir En Grey… it was too aggressive for them at the time.
They had no idea what they were getting into, they thought we were going to do a quiet event with sword exhibitions and tea ceremonies. And we did have the Japanese Embassy backing us up, so that was a plus. We tried to show them the cultural importance of anime and manga, we even made a presentation on how the economy of Japan was affected by it and how fostering the growth of artist communities in any country was a positive move, but all the school saw was, “who are these disruptive, costume-wearing grown-ups playing metal music? How is this Japan?”
Never mind that, people outside of the convention were bullying or attacking some convention-goers, that they didn’t bother shutting down. Instead, the event had to end early—it was supposed to run for a week. This didn’t stop us though because there was a real hunger for this type of event in my country. We now have several anime conventions in the Dominican Republic. From J-Fest to FMA. CONANIME wasn’t perfect, but I’m very proud of what we did accomplish, we got that ball rolling and brought the community together, and in the end, that was the whole point.
C: What does it mean to be a geek in Latinx culture?
CM: I don’t necessarily know what it was like for others, but I have two versions of being a geek in Latinx culture. On one hand, society made it out to be a very negative experience, to the point that my parents would yell at me for staying in my room drawing and well-meaning friends would call my parents to let them know I was hanging out with a “bad crowd.” So I was grounded a lot, even though I had excellent grades.
I was bullied, called names, had random people throw balls of paper at me or spit on me. My friends and I were considered a “case” in my school, and some of us were brought in to the director’s office for being “deviants.” I had a bit of a reputation and I would skip class without teachers bothering me, kind of like that delinquent stereotype in anime actually. But it got pretty bad.
A teacher stopped me from reading a manga during recess and confiscated it because she said that reading backward (in other words non-Western) was of the devil. When I tried to explain that it was just a different culture she dismissed me and thought I was possessed. They organized a “Connecting with God” retreat to try and “fix me.” But I acted out a lot because I was angry, and there was a lot of prejudice in my country at the time; there still is. I was in a conservative school, and unfortunately, that leads to a lot of misunderstandings, especially when I was super into series like X/1999 or Vampire Princess Miyu, or reading The Vampire Chronicles. I mean, I did try to make the school choir sing “One-Winged Angel”… that did not translate [laughs].
But then there’s the other side, the one that truly matters to me: I made all my best friends through the geek community. Every single person I know who is still in my life to this day was someone I either met through an anime convention or because we found out we had the same video games and could get together and talk about them. I joined a J-Rock club and had my first kiss in that group, my first heartbreak. Outside of anything negative with society or parents or the perception of other people at the time, I can honestly say geek culture helped me build a sense of home.
C: You make videos now, how did you start with Frederator?
CM: I answered a casting call, straight up. The call said they were looking for someone who was passionate about video games for their channel The Leaderboard and was willing to maybe talk about it on screen. We got to talking about my influences and apparently, they liked me enough to host and write a bit for them. I’ve now hosted at The Leaderboard, Channel Frederator (Coco!), and the brand new anime club channel: Get In The Robot.
C: What is your goal with Frederator?
CM: To share my passion for all things geek and to be myself unapologetically: a Latinx creator who loves anime and gaming. Hopefully, I can help raise a little more visibility for my Latinx community as well. People don’t generally see us in this space often, but we’re there. Being a woman, in particular, I’ve come across people (mostly men, sorry not sorry) who don’t expect me to be someone who writes material on the subject or has an opinion or even knows about obscure 90’s anime like “Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma and Shamanic Princess” — they dismiss me as a face.
I’m so grateful that Frederator is so inclusive and everyone there has been super welcoming (plus they’re just super badass creatives and I love them). All my life I dreamed of a cool space where I could meet friends, have fun and talk about anime, and games without judgment. Now it’s part of my career. Being a host and creator at Frederator is kind of the best outcome from an otherwise difficult experience growing up geek.
I’m proud of where I’m from. 100% #PlatanoPower. But that doesn’t mean you can fit me neatly into a box.
C: How are Latinx portrayed in geek culture?
CM: I’d say it’s a bit of a hit and miss at the moment, but I believe studios are working on it. Back in the day, most anime introduced Latinx characters as these dumbed-down, over-sexualized, brutish figures (Lala from “School Rumble,” don’t even get me started), and to me, that just reeks of lazy writing.
I mean sure, some of us are sassy, and who doesn’t love a boss like Michiko Malandro, but personally I think rather than hyper-sexualized. But then you have characters like Leo De La Iglesia (from Yuri On Ice!!!) and that’s when you start seeing the true potential for healthy portrayals of Latinx in anime: a well-rounded character with motivations of his own who isn’t there to use stereotypes as a comedy fallback. It reminds me of Sado from BLEACH who was also just a great character and personally I liked Roberta from Black Lagoon… I just wished she hadn’t been a maid. It’s a really complex conversation and we need to keep having it, but more importantly, we need to keep showing up and being present as Latinx in the geek community. I’m proud of where I’m from. 100% #PlatanoPower. But that doesn’t mean you can fit me neatly into a box.
C: In anime? Is there a lot of representation?
CM: No, but I have high hopes, and I do think creators are starting to make efforts to be more inclusive, and it’s up to us to help them out by making our voices heard and being visible in media. I recently witnessed something magical at PAX East: the VGO (Video Game Orchestra) performed with a Latinx friend of mine. The director, Shota Nakama, and my friend, Luis Armando Rivera, both met in Boston and shared a passion for video games. Years later, Shota is responsible for the Final Fantasy XV OST and Luis performed at their concert in PAX East the unreleased original song “Noctis.” It’s possible to create more bridges between our cultures, and it’s possible to do amazing and historical collaborations that transcend because moments like these mean a lot to our communities. We just have to keep showing up! We are here and we love being part of the global geek community!