clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steven Universe made Lars the most fascinating character by revealing his heritage

The former Big Donut employee is soaring around space, but connections to the Filipinx diaspora provide a profound journey

Cartoon Network Studios

Steven Universe is animated, but the show’s characters are complex people with vibrant backstories. For a few seasons, there was one exception: Lars Barriga, Beach City’s disaffected Big Donut employee. When the series first introduces us to Lars, his sour attitude, hostility, and selfishness paint him as an annoying and frustrating character. But for me, and others with roots in the Filipinx diaspora, a subtle nod to Lars’ ancestry was as big a reveal as any Crystal Gem twist.

In the show’s 14th episode, “Lars and the Cool Kids” we learn that Lars may suffer from a compulsive desire to fit in. The episode opens with him standing against the wall of Fish Stew Pizza, waiting for a chance to befriend the Cool Kids. When the group does hang out with him and Steven, Lars spends the entire time worrying about the opportunity, ultimately self-sabotaging his dreams of connecting with Beach City’s coolest teens. By seeing this drive manifest through anxiety and insecurity, he gains a bit of sympathy from the audience.

The show goes to great lengths to establish that Lars cares deeply for his coworker Sadie, and yet he routinely neglects her as he chases his compulsions. The complex nature of Lars’s relationship with Sadie is best portrayed in “Island Adventure.” While stranded, they squabble, flirt, cuddle, and kiss, and Lars asks her an extremely empathic question: “ you ever get lonely, even when you’re around people?”

Yes, all the time.

In season five, Lars is abducted alongside Steven and brought to Homeworld. He begins to face and accept his shortcomings, admitting to Steven that he views himself as stupid and afraid. In his words: “I’m… a wuss, Steven.”

As they give the Diamonds the slip and escape to the depths of Homeworld, Lars finally shakes off his fear and cowardice by befriending the Off Colors, the gem versions of the Misfit Toys, and taking responsibility for their safety. Suddenly brave, courageous, and selfless, Lars accepts that it’s okay to be afraid. He acts confidently and selflessly, and ultimately sacrifices himself in order to protect the discolored Gems and illicit fusions.

Though Steven revives Lars, the former doughnut server carries on his new demeanor off-screen. Confident Lars eventually commandeers a Sun Incinerator ship from high-class Gem named Emerald, then escapes Homeworld with his ragtag group of Gem rejects.

While many would consider Lars’s literal death and rebirth as the pivotal moment of his character’s arc, for me that moment happened earlier, with a cake.

In “The Good Lars”, Lars bakes an ube roll to bring to a potluck in an attempt to get closer with the Cool Kids. Lars settles on the popular Filipinx dessert after Steven tells him to “...make something that represents you.” Shortly after the episode debuted, Twitter user @theresivy asksed Ian Jones-Quartey if Lars was Filipinx. He responded with a simple “Yes.”

Cartoon Network Studios

As someone who grew up going to debuts dressed in Barongs, trying hard to not stain my itchy, translucent shirts with purple yam cake, I knew immediately that Lars must be Filipinx. The last name Barriga, his family’s ube recipe, not quite getting along with his peers — Lars has the trademarks of the youthful, Filipinx diaspora.

And looking back at the episode “The New Lars”, in which his parents are introduced for the first time, I further realized that Lars isn’t just Filipinx, but most likely half, like myself. Growing up, I saw few characters like that on screen, and when there was a Filipinx person on a show, their Pinoy heritage was often masked by on-screen racial ambiguity or off-screen voice acting.

A number of characters on Steven Universe are voiced by Filipinx actors, including Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), Lapis (Jennifer Paz), and Peridot (Shelby Rabara). While their presence behind the screen is great, I didn’t know they were Filipinx until I poked around the Steven Universe Wiki.

Lars’s background was introduced simply, with a symbol: a cake. A thing to spot. Something I was excited about noticing. Suddenly, Lars made sense to me.

As a halfie who doesn’t speak Tagalog, I spent a lot time growing up trying to distance myself from my Filipinx identity. I didn’t fit in well with the community at church or even my mom’s side of my family, just like the way Lars struggles to fit in with the residents of Beach City.

After the revelation about his racial background, it became much easier to identify with Lars. I understood why he was standoffish and uncomfortable in his own skin, and why he tried so hard to fit in with the Cool Kids. It’s hard to figure out what it means to be Filipinx. We’re Asian, but some consider us not to be. Imperialism has muddled our traditional way of life with that of Spanish colonizers. Filipinx youth tend to lift habits and interests from Black, White, and other Asian cultures.

lars and steven season 5 steven universe Cartoon Network

Lars and I share a liminal space in the history of Filipinx diaspora and the branches of mixed background family trees. It’s hard to fit in when you don’t belong to a single home, whether it is the ground you stand on or the blood rushing through your body. You become obsessed with fitting in, while slowly finding out that you don’t quite fit anywhere, and understanding even more slowly that it’s okay.

Being Filipinx means you have a burning desire to share — to help others and feed your community. I think about my mom and all that she has sacrificed to help her brothers and cousins have a better life. I think about my grandma, who couldn’t say a single word to me in English other than “eat.”

Lars didn’t start off that way. He was egotistical, unpleasant, and selfish — about as multifaceted as Pearl’s gem. It took seeing him connect with his heritage to make his transformation possible. The use of food to make explicit his Filipinx identity contextualizes his heroicism on Homeworld. His sacrifice to save the Off Colors doesn’t just make sense, it was the only thing he could have done. Because that’s what Filipinxs do, we help others, even if it means putting ourselves at risk.

Jeremiah Yarmie is a writer and producer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 Territory. His interests include science, sounds, words, urban design, and environments — both natural and artificial.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon