10:45am PT by Rebecca Sun
'Rogue One': How Diego Luna's Accent Gave a Voice to a New Set of Fans
On the second day of the new year, college student Perla Nation took her father to see Rogue One. A landscaper who immigrated from Mexico in the early 1980s, Pablo Perez doesn’t pay much attention to Hollywood, whose activities on- and off-screen often seem worlds apart from his daily life. But as they sat in the darkened theater, Perez found himself transfixed — not just by the story and action unfolding onscreen, but in particular by one specific element.
“When Diego Luna’s character came onscreen and started speaking, my dad nudged me and said, ‘He has a heavy accent,’” Nation, 27, wrote on her Tumblr page later that day (Luna’s tweet of the post helped it go viral). “When the film was over and we were walking to the car, he turns to me and says, ‘Did you notice that he had an accent?’”
Perez couldn’t shake his amazement that he had just seen a big Hollywood movie featuring a leading man who happened to sound like him. He grilled his daughter if this movie had made a lot of money. He questioned if it was popular. He wondered why Luna hadn’t masked his accent. Nation told him about Luna’s interviews, where he has declared pride in his natural Mexican accent.
“And my dad was silent for a while and then he said, ‘And he was a main character,’” Nation wrote. “And my dad was so happy.”
In the Tumblr tags, Nation added that people have criticized her father’s accent many times over the years. “I think this has really helped shift his outlook on it,” she wrote.
My mother was born in China, raised in Taiwan, and moved to the United States in her mid-30s, just before she got married. The only characters in American pop culture who sounded like her (or an attempted approximation) were I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (“Meess Go-rightry!”), Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles (“No more yanky my wanky”) and Margaret Cho’s impression of her Korean mother, which always made my mom and I cringe. I never noticed the actual jokes in Cho's stories, because by then I had been conditioned to understand that for many people, the accent was the joke.
When ABC's Fresh Off the Boat premiered two years ago, many Asian-Americans were wary of the portrayal of the parents. Sure, they were young and attractive (and based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s real-life family), but did they have to speak in broken English?
“I get that,” Constance Wu, who plays mom Jessica Huang on the hit ABC sitcom, said at a panel I attended last April, “because I was used to people reducing my parents to their accents, and that taught me to be ashamed. But there’s nothing inherently shameful about knowing two languages and having an accent.”
And then she said something that continues to strike a chord: "Just because your English isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice."
That’s why representation matters. It isn’t about political correctness or hitting Noah’s Ark-like quotas. It’s about having a voice that isn’t just there to be laughed at or to serve as background noise. It’s about feeling acknowledged in the culture you live in, via a proxy who reflects your background or your experiences.
Through Luna’s Rogue One character Cassian Andor, Pablo Perez saw a hero whose Mexican accent didn’t stop his teammates from taking him seriously. And so did everyone else.