‘In the Heights’ and Colorism: What Is Lost When Afro-Latinos Are Erased - The New York Times
Jun 21, 2021 5 mins, 7 secs
The film, set in a New York neighborhood known as the Little Dominican Republic, didn’t cast dark-skinned Latinos in lead roles.

“In the Heights,” the long-delayed Hollywood adaptation of the Broadway musical, has been heralded as a step for more Latino representation in Hollywood, but a conversation has emerged about colorism and the casting of the film.

Chu, the director, and some of the stars about the lack of dark-skinned leads in the film: “As a Black woman of Cuban descent specifically from New York City,” she told him, “it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the fact that most of your principal actors were light-skinned or white-passing Latinx people.” Chu said it was a conversation and something he needed to be educated about.

Like many people, my first trip back to the movies since the pandemic hit was to see “In the Heights” on the big screen.

There has long been a lack of Latino representation in Hollywood, and “In the Heights” was aimed as a step toward rectifying that.

Hollywood has long valorized and highlighted fair-skinned Latinos over Afro-Latinos, often denying the latter roles that reflect their culture?

It’s a limited and inaccurate representation of Latinos, who are diverse in culture and complexion.

They could have hired more Black Latino actors, not to fill a diversity quota, but because that would have reflected the truth of the neighborhood.

The Latinos I saw were the kind that Hollywood has always favored: Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara-adjacent Latinos.

Latinos like myself, where there is no ambiguity about their Blackness, those who wear their Blackness on their face, barely make the cut in any production whether it’s Hollywood or Univision.

“In the Heights” continues the gaslighting that Black Latinos have endured for my entire lifetime.

So many public arts and gatherings seem to just pretend Black people don’t exist.

ISABELIA HERRERA I’ve seen justifications like, “In the Heights” is not a documentary and is not meant to represent the actual Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights; it’s a fantasia of a Latino neighborhood.

At the same time, the director, actors and producers have used the language of community celebration and the cultural history of the actual neighborhood of Washington Heights to market the film.

For people like myself, those scars are still very viscerally felt.

That being said, the status quo is that lighter-skinned Latinos are better and many people are not ready to renounce that, for whatever reason.

PHILLIPS I think this all reflects the terribly narrow view our society has of racial representation, that a Latino person must look a very specific way and a Black person must look a very specific way, and those identities can’t intersect.

I do believe that people have been trained to believe that a Latino looks like Gisele Bündchen, Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Vergara, whatever their heritage.

HERRERA I would have loved to see someone like Jharrel Jerome in this film; he is a Black Dominican actor who was in “Moonlight” and won an Emmy for his role on Netflix’s “When They See Us.” There was an open casting call for “In the Heights,” which is supposed to democratize the casting process and allow for more emerging talent to audition.

So the point about not having enough major Black Latino stars seems baseless.

As for Chu’s response, it is the same excuse that white Anglo executives and casting directors have used to exclude people of color from Hollywood for decades.

It’s unclear how much of a hand he had in the casting decisions for the film — he was one part of the creative team — but he is an important voice in Hollywood and on Broadway.

DE LEÓN That Miranda is being held to task for the representation of Black Latinos is a product of the continued lack of diversity in Hollywood.

We don’t have many heroes, or people to look to for Latino stories.

But to quote Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility” — especially when your film is set in a Black Latino neighborhood.

Hollywood barely has the infrastructure to be fair to African American actors, let alone Black Latinos.

Without letting them or “In the Heights” off the hook it’s worth recalling just how deep and twisted the history of Hollywood mis- and non-representation has been, and how North American racial attitudes have created the invisibility that’s so glaring in this movie.

Meanwhile the few Latino actors who gained entrée into American movies were either consigned to secondary roles (like Rita Moreno in “West Side Story”) or obliged to de-emphasize their identities.

Black actors also faced severe obstacles, but they weren’t the same obstacles, partly because in Hollywood, Black and Latino were often assumed or imagined to be mutually exclusive categories.

I’ve heard many people say they loved the film despite its shortcomings.

There were many ways in which watching the film was gratifying — seeing my beloved Dominican flag not only depicted, but exalted onscreen was a joy, as was the depiction of common immigrant struggles such as yearning for your home country, making great sacrifices to make it in New York or struggling with finding community in college.

I am not speaking for all Black Latinos, but the realization of your nonexistence in such a cultural blockbuster simply hurts.

To crib from the 1990s “Selena” biopic, we are simply too Black for Latinos and too Latino for anyone else.

Creating art about brown and Black people isn’t always as easy as we’d like to think — or, to be more exact, creating good, nuanced art about brown and Black people isn’t always as easy as we’d like to think.

For so long, representation has been heralded as a solution to racism; moments like this really expose the farce of that idea.

The conversation is not just about “In the Heights,” or about the number of Latino creators in Hollywood — it’s about the history of anti-Blackness, which has permitted white and lighter-skinned Latinos to appear most visible in all aspects of our culture.


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