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Tenoch Huerta’s role in ‘Wakanda Forever’ is a huge moment for Latinos

Many will see themselves in Namor, a breakout character in the “Black Panther” sequel

While watching “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” it’s easy to get swept up in the power of Namor.

The king of Marvel’s seas, played regally, with dignity, pride and full of Indigenous, anti-colonial swag by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s next big deal. This is a Robert Downey Jr./Iron Man moment. This is an, “Uh-oh, Thanos has all the Infinity Stones,” moment. This is a, “Yes, all three Spider-Men are in the movie,” type of moment. This is a first episode of “WandaVision” type of moment.

In one of the most anticipated sequels in the history of the MCU, one that somehow still exists despite the loss of Chadwick Boseman, Huerta is el hombre. El chico que te quita el sueño (“The boy who takes your sleep away”) which basically means that it’s an undeniably star-making performance. He’s all that and a bag of vibranium.

That power of Namor, who first appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics in 1939, isn’t in the obvious. Sure, he’s as strong as the Hulk. He’s a king. He can fly, with literal wings on his feet. He’s a mutant — which means the X-Men will finally be in the MCU sooner rather than later.

But the true power of Namor is that he’s played by a Latino man — and one with brown skintaking center stage in a Black superhero universe. And that’s not something that can be taken lightly.

The movie depicts two nations bordering each other — one on land (Wakanda), the other below the sea (Talokan), both led by superheroes. One is Black, the other is Indigenous, both powerful and refusing to adhere to colonization by force. I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve seen that in a superhero movie. And as someone who walks in both of those worlds, I can honestly say I never expected to connect so closely to a superhero film unless it was one I made myself. I became that Leonardo DiCaprio pointing GIF for 2½ hours — and a movie that was already emotional for so many reasons became that much more so.

I spoke with Huerta at the premiere of “Wakanda Forever” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture last month. He referred to his Black Panther moment as “B and B power,” Brown and Black power. He’s using that as a term of embracement, not division, knowing that Black and Latino communities haven’t always seen eye to eye here in the United States.

He sees the making of the film as two worlds coming together for the greater good and realizing that the sins of colonization have affected those communities equally. It was a chance to make beautiful music together and to realize that they are much more alike than they think.

“We’re the same,” Huerta said to me in Spanish. “[Latinos and Blacks] are not in two distinct points of life. We’re on the same side. And if we work together with love, we can move forward. I hope that this film, with the message that it has, can help everyone understand that.”

Let’s be clear about something: Black people made this moment happen for Huerta — and it’s a moment he has probably never experienced, even in his native Mexico, on this scale. The beauty of “Wakanda Forever” is its Blackness — including a Black director, writers, producers and actors — was a bridge, allowing Huerta to cross over into the MCU, and letting all of Latin America celebrate in its very own superhero moment, just like “Black Panther” was for Black people all over the world in 2018.

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Huerta’s ascension to MCU MVP goes against the grain of how entertainment and media works in Latin America. Seeing a Mexican his color in a regal role of leadership and super heroics is special. If you’re Latino/a/x, in the United States or Latin America, and been at your abuela’s house enough times when Univision or Telemundo was on, you already know what I’m talking about. What do you see when español is on TV? Doesn’t matter whether you’re watching the news, a novela, a movie, heck, even a commercial — the message is clear. White is the preferred template. And the closer you are to that Whiteness, the better chance you have to shine. Where do you think the age-old term mejorar la raza (better your race) comes from? Latin America always lets you know what it’s striving for.

In Latin America, Huerta has a better chance of being cast as the help than the hero. One of his biggest Spanish-speaking roles to date? A drug dealer on “Narcos.” Think about when you see clearly not-White Latinos on television. How many times were they in a role of servitude? Or the bad guy? Rarely are those the types of Latinos cast as the family living in that big mansion you always see on “La Rosa de Guadalupe”; they’re more likely cleaning that kind of house. Don’t believe me? What’s the biggest moment recently for a Latino actor who doesn’t look like a Utah Jazz season ticket holder? Yalitza Aparicio being nominated for an Oscar for “Roma,” right? What did she play in that movie? A maid. You get where I’m going. Ask yourself how many times you’ve seen a man of Huerta’s hue have a chance to be the leading man or, heck, even a Latin Lover on the big Spanish-speaking television networks, or streaming services such as Pantaya or Vix.

All of this is the remnant of the pervasive stench of anti-Blackness that has been part of Latin American culture for centuries. White? Great. Mestizo? Meh, okay, we’ll let you all in. Black? Doesn’t exist here unless we need help on our World Cup team. The average American who isn’t Latino doesn’t even realize Black people in Latin America exist, in part because of what they see whenever they are exposed to Latin American media.

That trademarked anti-Blackness of Latin America is something I feel every time someone is shocked to see my Puerto Rican father has a Black son. (Never mind the fact that I strongly resemble him and have the same name. I’m just a lot taller and tanner than the guy, thanks to my beautiful African American mother.) Or every time I get looks from Latinos here in Washington when they hear me speak Spanish. (Sí. Yo hablo español.) Or every time those same Latinos speak back to me in English when I’ve clearly began a conversation with them in Spanish. It’s something I felt when listening to those recordings of Latino Los Angeles politicians saying horrible things about Black children last month. No one understands anti-Blackness in Latin America quite like someone who has to be Black in Latin America. And let me tell you, this moment Huerta is having? There’s a part of me that thinks Latin America doesn’t deserve it, given the regard in which they hold Blackness. I know it. He knows it. Y ustedes saben tambien. But Black people gave it to you anyway. De nada.

I couldn’t help but get sentimental in the moment when Huerta and I were speaking to each other in Spanish at a museum meant to honor the very people who were giving him his big break in Hollywood, in the city where I was born that was once, before gentrification, its own Wakanda. There we were, two brown-skinned Latinos in nice suits, very much aware of where comic book culture had taken both of us in our careers. It was a moment dripping in cool that your average Televisa producer would have looked right past in search of his next star that looked like neither one of us. But melanin prevailed on that night.

In “Wakanda Forever,” Namor, just like the Black Panther before him, leads a nation that looked into the face of colonization and said not today. Not here. Not now. Not ever. Even the secret origins of his surface-world name, “Namor,” is a chef’s kiss moment of Indigenous pride that we don’t want to spoil here. Huerta understands the strength of giving people that look like him, especially young people, a chance to see themselves in a way that many in their native lands don’t see as worth the time.

He told me, “If a child in Mexico or Latin America tomorrow looks in the mirror and says there’s nothing bad in the mirror, this is who I am — that means everything to me.”

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