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We Need to Listen When the Afro-Latinx Community Criticizes In the Heights

In the Heights latest trailer.

I loved In the Heights. I sang its praises in my spoiler-free review, and I cried all over Abuela Claudia’s song “Paciencia y Fe.” But just because I loved this movie doesn’t mean I can’t criticize it for its lack of Afro-Latinx representation and the poor excuses given by the cast and crew when that criticism came to their attention. And this is coming from a White Latina, which I am, and who knows how important it is to lift up Afro-Latinx voices when they ask for more because they are Latinx and we have to support each other and destroy the colorism that exists within our community.

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This isn’t a new conversation, either. Issues of colorism have always been rampant since forever. I remember watching novelas when I was little with my family back in Puerto Rico and wondering why everyone looked like me when my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandpa were left out to dry. They were just as Latinx as I was, and it took me growing up to realize how deep racism and colorism is ingrained in the Latinx community and all the hard work that still needs to be done to root out the problem and make meaningful change that lifts up Afro-Latinx voices.

A lot of the current discourse about the lack of Afro-Latinx characters in In the Heights is thanks to The Root’s Felice León, who is a Black woman of Cuban descent and a Webby Award-winning host and video producer. In the video interview below, there are some cringe-worthy responses from the cast and director. Director Jon M. Chu basically glossed over her concerns with, “I would say that’s a fair conversation to have,” and Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa, excused away the lack of Afro-Latinx people by saying that there were plenty of Afro-Latinx people in the audition process and that In the Heights just went ahead and chose the right people for the roles.

To say this is bullshit is an understatement. The right people that embodied each character? Come on, White Latinx folks. We need to stop this nonsense. Because from where I’m standing, you are saying that there were no Afro-Latinx actors or actresses with the acting chops to take on important and lead roles in In the Heights and that we should be satisfied with only Afro-Latinx backup dancers. How about no?

And even including actors who are Afro-Latinx doesn’t necessarily overcome all the racist colorism issues if they’re on the lighter side when it comes to Afro-Latinx people. Case in point: Nina, who is played by Leslie Grace, who is Afro-Latinx Dominican, but is on the lighter-skinned side. She’s amazing in the role, and it’s absolutely wonderful to see her included, but we shouldn’t have only lighter-skinned actors in important roles. We’re asking for more than that.

It’s not like people haven’t been pointing out the lack of Afro-Latinx cast in In the Heights, either. Discourse about the White Latinx or White-passing cast has been around since June of last year. Quiara Alegría Hudes, the writer of In the Heights, both stage and film versions, was called out for the lack of diversity when it comes to Afro-Latinx characters, and so was Lin-Manuel Miranda. And their responses when being called out felt like they had actually listened and promised to do better. A year and a whole movie later, it’s weird that the rest of the production doesn’t seem prepared with good answers for this criticism.

Scrolling through Twitter, there is a lot more great discourse about the need for more Afro-Latinx representation in In the Heights, which I will include after this public service announcement for White Latinx people. Look, the only way we can make things better, the only way we can come together as a true community, is by acknowledging our privilege. Only then will we be able to support our Afro-Latinx family when they face colorism in our community and the media we consume.

So, no more excuses. No more, “Oh they chose the best actor for the role and none of them were Afro-Latinx.” None of that garbage. Because there is Afro-Latinx talent out there ready to go and make people who look like them feel seen. Some aren’t even waiting and are going ahead and making their own content, which we should absolutely watch and uplift. Check out Rizo by Jeanette Dilone and De Lo Mío over on HBO Max, or even Vampires vs. The Bronx over on Netflix. All three are pieces that deserve more love for the stories they tell and the communities they focus on.

And just so we’re clear, and this doesn’t get lost in my words or message, marginalized people can enjoy something and still be critical of it—meaning I can enjoy In the Heights as a Latina while still pointing out the strides we still have to make and the Afro-Latinx people that still need representation within our own community. Both can exist in the same space, and we can ask for more. That’s how change and growth happens. And that’s how we truly come together as Latinx people.

Until then, here are my favorite tweets and threads that continue the conversation and discourse on Afro-Latinx representation in In the Heights:

(image: Macall Polay)

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Lyra Hale
Lyra (She/Her) is a queer Latinx writer who stans badass women in movies, TV shows, and books. She loves crafting, tostones, and speculating all over queer media. And when not writing she's scrolling through TikTok or rebuilding her book collection.

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