When moviegoers and journalists, including the Root’s Felice León, started highlighting the lack of Black leading cast members in the film, many prominent figures rushed to defend it. “We shouldn’t burden Lin-Manuel with the responsibility of representing every Latino,” commentator Ana Navarro said. “You can never do right, it seems,” actress Rita Moreno said in defense of Miranda. “This is the man who literally has brought Latino-ness and Puerto Rican-ness to America.” Both accounts are inaccurate.
The problem is believing that “Latino-ness” presents a worthy “alternative” to U.S. whiteness, when it is simply White hegemony by another name. What Navarro and Moreno seemed to be telling us is a version of what Black folks everywhere have had to endure for a long time: “Just shut up and be grateful.” But all the triumphalist talk about “representation” crumbles when you point out how all the film leads, picked to represent a heavily Afro-Dominican community, just coincidentally and conveniently happened to pass the “brown paper bag test.”
Black Latin American and Caribbean people are very familiar with this form of discrimination. At the core of the lip service is a continued adherence to anti-Black practices. We live parallel realities, as most racialized people in White societies do. But we should continue challenging the systematic decisions that make predominantly afrodescendant communities more white-washed fodder for white-centering Latinxs.
Non-Black Latinxs constantly complain about being underrepresented. But one could simply tune in to any of the Latinx media networks that overrepresent White actors to see the reality. You won’t see many Black Latinxs on those networks. They prefer us out of sight, our stories invisibilized, our narratives minimized. Erasure does not exist in a vacuum, it is part of the larger project of White hegemony and domination, maintained through racism, colorism and classism. The ruling “Latino” elite is predominantly White and mestizo, here in the United States and in the Americas.
Black Latinxs are fighting discrimination that dates to the colonial “casta” system, which placed African and Indigenous peoples at the bottom and Iberian colonizers and their children at the pinnacle — all of whom have retained social, economic and political power in the region for and among themselves.
The issue is not the expectation that films must represent all Latin American experiences. The issue is dishonesty.
Washington Heights is home to a population of mostly dark-skinned Black Dominicans. “In the Heights” does make an effort to include Dominican cultural staples while still honoring the diversity that has always shaped the community, but it does so in the palest ways possible, prioritizing the palette of those who make up the minority of the neighborhood’s demographics: White and light-skinned Latinxs who use their access to Spanish, as a first or second language, as a distancing mechanism from their Whiteness.
The true musical rhythm of Washington Heights is not playful salsa rhythms and a quirky “Hamilton”-esque hip-hop, which trivializes U.S. enslavement and White power. The true rhythm is deep dembow, trap, bachata, merengue clásico mix — genres that honor the Black culture at the center of the Dominican experience. As actress and playwright Guadalís Del Carmen, who grew up in Chicago but found a real home in the Heights, puts it: “It wasn’t until I moved there that I stopped feeling like a walking paradox.”
Sure, musical theater has its own style, but this film does more than remix sounds — it remixes reality. In the original Broadway production, Lin highlights the dynamics of anti-Blackness as it relates to Nina’s father taking issue with her Black boyfriend. Why was the decision made to remove that incredibly relevant thread? It was a clear reminder of how Hollywood continues to remove nuanced humanization to replace it for easy gimmicks.
In many ways Hollywood has existed to uphold coloniality and capitalist frameworks integral to its success. What we need now is truth. Miranda issued an apology, but he must go deeper. He can either admit that he’s not really trying to tell groundbreaking stories and cares only about his own impact and legacy, or he can confront that he actively contributes to the same lack of representation he says he has felt his whole life. Why highlight a Black Latinx population if your interpretation needed to erase a large portion of the Blackness to tell it?
Miranda and Moreno, who tried to walk back her initial statements, are still operating within their industry’s anti-Black standards. It’s clear that upholding that standard of harm takes precedence over authentic, humanizing storytelling. Why do we continue to submit ourselves to this low standard of storytelling and then expect the voices marginalized in the work to show up as grateful consumers?
“In the Heights” picks and chooses mythical “universal” Latino experiences over letting the truth stand in its entirety. The deprioritization of lived and racialized experiences in favor of a nonexistent mono-cultural “Latinidad” has no function beyond fantasy. How can we honor those who came before us and risked everything to exist despite the challenge of erasure? Are we willing to let them be sold out so that White Latinxs can use our keys to open their own doors? No. We must hold people such as Miranda accountable for writing us out of our own story. There is absolutely no community without accountability.
We afrodescendants have always forged our own paths that respond and correspond to our needs. Organizations such as Mujeres Negras RD, AfroResistance, Barrio Alante, Proyecto AfroLatin@, Bx (Re)Birth and Progress, Radio Caña Negra, AfroLatino Travel, Reconoci.do all center AfroLatinos on our terms and without the shallow fanfare. Divesting from the system that synchronously extracts our talents and creations and demands our silence and absence becomes ever more imperative. Latinidad and all of its oppressive, disingenuous trappings is nearing its final curtain call.