When the musical In the Heights debuted in 2008, it was considered a triumph of Latin American story-telling. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, it brought the barrio to Broadway and centered Latino immigrants building a community in New York “north of 96th street” so their children could chase the American Dream. The plot is centered around Usnavi (originally played by Miranda himself), the son of Dominican immigrants, who runs the family bodega but dreams of something bigger.
The movie version of the Tony Award–winning show hit theaters and HBO Max last week to largely positive reviews and praise for its three-dimensional portrayals of Latin-American characters, not to mention its ambitious full-cast musical numbers. A majority-Latino cast carries the film, starring actors like Anthony Ramos, a star of Miranda’s other Broadway blockbuster, Hamilton, who is of Puerto Rican descent, playing Usnavi; Mexican TV actress Melissa Barrera; and Bronx-born bachata singer Leslie Grace, who is of Dominican descent. At the same time, many viewers have expressed disappointment at a lack of Afro-Latino representation in the cast, especially among lead characters.
Journalist Felice León of The Root spoke with director Jon Chu about the casting choices, citing her own identity as a black woman of Cuban descent. “Most of your principal actors were light-skinned or white-passing Latinx people,” she said. “What are your thoughts on the lack of black Latinx people represented in your film?” Chu replied that the team had tried to cast the best actors for the roles, but acknowledged the issue. “I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin. I think that’s a really good conversation to have.” On Monday, Miranda issued an apology on Twitter, saying, in part, “I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy. In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry.”
The accusation of colorism in the light-skinned casting choices illuminates a problem regarding whom Hollywood presents as “Latino,” and whom it excludes, according to Tanya K. Hernández, author of Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination. “There is often a complete erasure of Afro-Latinos, and a frozen, overly romanticized picture of indigenous peoples as only historical figures from a Mayan past,” she says. Any viewer of American TV or movies can observe that mainstream media typically highlights light-skinned Latinos, even though a 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed nearly one in four Latinos identifies as Afro-Latino.
The homogenous representation of Latinos on the big screen stems from a larger issue, says Ed Morales, a lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. He describes a longstanding ideology in Latin America that emphasizes pride in building a mixed-race society. “It’s attached to this idea of what’s called mestizo, which is, as the word describes, the phenomenon of racial mixture in Latin America and how it’s different from the United States,” Morales says. Black Latinos’ ancestors were brought to South America and the Caribbean by the same transatlantic slave trade that delivered enslaved people to the U.S., but after emancipation, U.S. law forbade interracial marriages, whereas Latin-America did not. “Latinos in the U.S. grew up with this idea that Latinos are mixed-race and so are incapable of racism. And that allows them to sort of marginalize and ignore Afro-Latinos who are often the victims of overt or subtle discrimination.”
Even without segregationalist Jim Crow laws, Latin American countries still created racial caste systems that ranked people with darker skin below light-skinned people, which Hernandéz describes as a pigmentocracy, a term she says means in essence the same thing as white supremacy. “The legacy of slavery and racial hierarchy is very alive in Latin America and the Caribbean,” she says. “The range of skin color from dark to light brings greater societal privileges and access.”
In an era of social justice movements, there’s been a renewed push for change by scholars, activists and journalists, like Janel Martinez, founder of Ain’t I Latina, an online destination for Afro-Latinas; Natasha Alford, creator of the documentary Afro-Latinx Revolution: Puerto Rico; and members of the Black Latinas Know Collective. In 2019, black and indigenous people of Latin-American descent started an online movement #latinidadiscancelled, calling for rejection of the Latino categorization entirely because of how the label has excluded Black and indigenous people. “The ‘Latino’ term for a long time has permitted white-presenting Latinos to access white privilege while at the same time denying their own bias against darker skin group members under the presumed unified flag of Latinidad,” Hernandéz says. “The rejection of the term is a rejection of the racial erasure it enacts.”
According to Hernandéz, the criticisms of In the Heights’ casting are tied to ongoing disappointments about representation. “I suspect that the critique from many Latinos is rooted in our frustration of having so few representations of Latinos in Hollywood and the dashed hope that a member of our very own ethnic group, who proclaims such love for Afro-based art forms, would provide such a dishonest portrayal of our racial diversity,” she says.
To Morales, the dearth of Afro-Latinos onscreen is particularly egregious because the story is set in Washington Heights, home to a much larger percentage of Afro-Latinos than the rest of the United States. “[The movie] doesn’t really focus that much on actual Dominican culture, except for a few times when they play bachata music and merengue music,” says Morales, despite the fact that the lead character Usnavi is the son of Dominican immigrants. “There’s really not much of a Dominican feel among the characters, and right now [Washington Heights] is a majority Dominican neighborhood and a substantial part of that population is Afro descendant, whether they identify that way or not.”