‘In the Heights’ and Colorism: What Is Lost When Afro-Latinos Are Erased

DE LEÓN Of course it’s OK to still love the film. It’s not a binary discussion. 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. Not to mention the food and a lot of the music (though I am still salty that bachata, quintessential to the Dominican Republic, was not more prominently featured). But none of this is enough. You can’t celebrate pasteles en hoja without celebrating Black Dominicans. You can’t celebrate salsa without recognizing that its percussion is inherited from African drums. Showcasing these cultural elements is no doubt important, but it cannot be divorced from or done in lieu of depicting Black Latinos themselves.

GARCIA I enjoyed seeing Highbridge Pool in that beautiful musical number. I enjoyed the central role of the fire escape, the bodega, the food and the music. I identified with a lot of it. As a very Black presenting Latina, I’m almost used to not seeing myself in Latino media, even when it is our culture that is being exalted. I am not speaking for all Black Latinos, but the realization of your nonexistence in such a cultural blockbuster simply hurts. The gaslighting that comes with the validation of our music and culture but the erasure of our bodies is almost normal. To crib from the 1990s “Selena” biopic, we are simply too Black for Latinos and too Latino for anyone else.

PHILLIPS An important lesson is that whether it’s a film or a play or whatever, the work begins with casting but doesn’t end there. It’s also about the story and the context. 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.

HERRERA At its core, the act of criticism is a labor of love. We critique cultural objects because we have hope in them, and we want them to be better. I often think about a 2019 interview in The Nation with the poet and writer Hanif Abdurraqib. He talks about the notion that criticism is something that arises out of anger, bitterness or jealousy. To me, that anger is in service of something else: it allows us to imagine a more just political future. As he says, “Critique, for me, has to be an act of love — or else it’s a waste of time. And so I have to figure out a way to honor artists I care about while still understanding that my job isn’t necessarily to bow to them.” It also helps me interpret art outside of “this is good” and “this is bad.”

SCOTT That is such an important point about criticism, which all too often is misconstrued as “hating” or “canceling.” On “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” the other night Rita Moreno tried to defend Miranda — “a man who literally brought Latinoness and Puerto Ricanness to America” — by in effect wishing his critics would just be quiet, or wait until some unspecified, more appropriate time. She has since apologized, and a recent documentary details the bigotry she faced throughout her career. In any case, protecting works of art from criticism does them no favors. It’s as simplistic as dismissing them for their shortcomings.

HERRERA I think an important aspect of this debate is that it has once again exposed the limitations of a conversation focused on representation. For so long, representation has been heralded as a solution to racism; moments like this really expose the farce of that idea. The argument is often that representation, especially in spaces where marginalized communities have historically been excluded, will save us from discrimination. But there are limits to what representation can do.

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