Consider: How has the media shaped your perception of various communities? What other shows/movies have you watched that fail to represent the full spectrum of the Latinx community?
When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film In the Heights was released last week, it drew justifiable criticism for erasing the largely Dominican Afro-Latino population of the real-life neighborhood in which it takes place (NPR).
The Dominican Republic and Haiti share an island in the Caribbean, and there are many racial, ethnic, and cultural similarities between the two nations. Though most Dominicans in the DR identify as mixed-race, the overwhelming majority of Dominicans, like Haitians, are Black by American racial standards (Black Excellence). About half of the population of the gentrifying neighborhood of Washington Heights, Manhattan, where In the Heights is set, is Dominican (U.S. Census Bureau). Washington Heights comprises one of the largest immigrant communities from the Dominican Republic within the U.S. (Furman Center). Unfortunately, In the Heights wildly misrepresents the Dominicans living in this culturally significant neighborhood, continuing a trend where Afro-Latinos are ignored on screen.
There is a long history of anti-Blackness and colorism within Latinx cultures. Status coming from proximity to whiteness via lighter skin promotes the harmful ideology of a caste system of power and desirability that is present in almost every ethnic culture around the world. This speaks to the global ramifications of white supremacy and colonialism. The beauty of Afro-Latinos in every hue and skin tone should be seen throughout In the Heights.
Felice León, a producer for The Root who’s an Afro-Cuban New Yorker, confronted the director of In the Heights about casting only light-skinned actors for the principal roles (The Root). Though Washington Heights, in actuality features many dark-skinned and Afro-Latino people with roots in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, the only Afro-Latinos in the film are background dancers. “I was just like, wow, dancers – right. So background dancers, so they do not have lines. They are relegated to the background. They are, you know, sort of like a decoration. They are entertainment in that way, but they do not have a substantive storyline. And that very much felt like, you know, where – how we’ve seen Black and darker Latinx people, you know, as maids in telenovelas, as we’ve seen. And in this film also, there were, you know, Black women in the hair salon,” she said (NPR).
Darker-skinned people have been excluded from leading roles by production companies around the globe (Time). This homogeneous depiction of people has global ramifications, such as promoting harmful skin bleaching products sold to women and denying the basic humanity of darker-skinned people. Children learn empathy for others and a greater sense of self-identity by seeing diversity portrayed in shows and films from characters with dignified roles. As globalization increases with social media and the internet, the audiences have the power to shape media to be both inclusive and entertaining. At the same time, filmmakers hold a responsibility to accurately reflect the people they are portraying within their films, in this case, the Dominican population within Washington Heights, NY.
Audiences are tired of seeing their art whitewashed, their collective voices signaling the need for accountability and change. One of the most powerful tools that we have at our disposal is social media. Marginalized communities can speak out and make their voices heard when projects such as “In The Heights” do not accurately portray the racial makeup of the neighborhood that it claims to represent.
Lin-Manuel Miranda acknowledged his error in the erasure of Afro-Latinos from leading roles within his film, saying, “I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community” (Twitter).
But as León later told NPR, “I am, at this point, really tired of having to wait and having to sort of be in line. And I’m saying this, again, from the perspective of a Black woman of Cuban descent. Yes, he must do better – period. At this point, you know, this is a $55 million project.”
The ownership of harm and commitment to growth as an artist is an important step in making cultural shifts. I look forward to seeing future films from filmmakers of color that are holistic and authentic in their cultural representation, and I am grateful to the audiences for providing critical feedback that challenges notions of anti-Blackness and erasure in 2021.
Michelle Swinea is a creative writer and academic. Currently, she is writing her first novel in honor of her grandparents. You can find her on Twitter at @walkbyfaithlife.
“In The Heights” failed to accurately represent the constituents living in the Washington Heights neighborhood due to the film’s erasure of Afro-Latinos.