Afro-Latinidad Is a Brooklyn Original in ‘She’s Gotta Have It’

Dec 13, 2017
4:02 pm

Growing up in Brooklyn taught me about diaspora before I had the language to name it. Iris, who lived up my block in Fort Greene and recycled plastic bottles to fund her trips to Atlantic City, was Trinidadian. Next to our neighborhood was Bed-Stuy, where my brother went to high school and where most folks were black American, the descendants of enslaved people from down south. To the east of us, in Bushwick, were Puerto Ricans, many of them as brown-skinned as their Bed-Stuy neighbors. And my own family, Afro-Panamanians, lived in Crown Heights, where every year the West Indian Parade made glitter out of Eastern Parkway. I learned early on, from looking at the people around me, that black could mean a lot of things.

Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” reboot exists in this same universe. Despite all its other well-documented faults —half-grown characters that are more idea than person, a limited understanding of polyamory and queerness— the show stands out in its representation of Afro-Latinidad. Lee, who has included Afro-Latinx characters in past work, portrays them here as neighborhood fixtures, not new in the slightest, but a long-established part of the Brooklyn community in which the show takes place.

This newest release follows Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a black millennial woman, as she navigates sexual relationships with three men and one woman while also trying to make it as an artist. Like its predecessor, this version takes place in Fort Greene. But today the neighborhood is much different: as Lee makes clear, this is “gentrified Fort Greene,” with wildly unaffordable rent prices, an influx of white, wealthy newcomers, and enough class and racial tension to fuel entire episodes.

Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos), the youngest of Nola’s three lovers, is one of these original residents. Half African-American, half Puerto Rican, he is also one of the few explicitly Afro-Latino characters on television right now. And his role as an Air-Jordans-obsessed, native Brooklynite from the Fort Greene projects makes his depiction even more unique; despite his age, Mars is part of the “old,” neighborhood, a testament to the culture and people being displaced through gentrification.

Indeed, his racial identity can’t quite be separated from place. Between his “Crooklyn” cap, his Knicks jerseys, and his insider knowledge of everything from local graffiti artists to dancehall shows, Mars’ identity is a uniquely New York one. This representation feels refreshingly accurate to me. Within mainstream media, Afro-Latinxs are usually either invisible, excluded, or covered as a new phenomenon that while deserving of attention, remains “other” (a twist on “regular” Latino!).

“She’s Gotta Have It” normalizes Afro-Latinidad, reflecting its long history in New York. In Episode 6, Lee makes a shout out to that history, and to its diminishing presence. During Mars’ monologue, in which he introduces the audience to his world, we pause at a shot of him standing outside a corner store called “Da Last Puerto Rican Bodega en Brooklyn – Fundada 1956.”

The show also portrays Yoruba spirituality with sensitivity and grace. Toward the end of the season, Mars’ sister, Lourdes, a Santería practitioner, offers Nola a spiritual cleansing. She sits her in a bathtub, pours herb-infused water and flower petals over her body, and offers prayers to the orishas on Nola’s behalf. The bath has a healing effect and gives Nola a renewed sense of wholeness; overall, the scene is a beautiful example of care between black women. It also highlights the depth of African heritage within Latin America, clarifying that black culture, while expressed here in a NYC projects apartment, also has roots elsewhere.

But it’s not only light-skinned Puerto Ricans we see in the show, like Mars and his sister. One of the other recurring characters, Papo, a homeless veteran, artist, and one of Nola’s old schoolmates, is a black Dominican. While he isn’t afforded much character development or agency, he’s a key part of the neighborhood and this season’s storyline. Nicknamed “Da Mayor” for his beloved presence on the block, Papo is a proud Dominicano, the shopping cart he takes around decorated with Dominican flags, his little stereo blaring reggetón at all hours. He’s also one of the residents who most struggles with the community’s changes; indeed, much of the criticism Lee levels at gentrification is expressed through Papo.

Episode 9 reaches a dramatic climax when Nola’s new neighbor, a white woman named Bianca, calls the cops on Papo for loitering on her stoop. All the conflict between new and old Fort Greene comes to a head as she yells, “Go somewhere else!” and Papo responds, indignant and hurt, “I was born and raised here…Where am I supposed to go?”

It’s clear in this interaction, and again when the police arrive, demand Papo’s ID, and then cuff him, that Papo —poor, black, and Spanish-speaking— is bearing the consequences of multiple prejudices. I appreciate the show’s attention to intersectionality here, and more so, the way it’s built into the story, as important a part of capturing Brooklyn as Lee’s panning shots of Fort Greene Park or the murals of Biggie Smalls on Myrtle Avenue. If nothing else, “She’s Gotta Have It” 2.0 shines in its expansive approach to blackness.

There’s a moment at the end of this scene between Papo and Bianca, when Afro-Latinidad sees itself. As the concerned crowd of neighbors watches as Papo is taken away by police officers, he calls out to Mars Blackmon, “Cuida mi carito,” and Mars answers, “Ya tú sabes.” Mars and Papo, Brooklyn originals, black Latinos, they look out for each other.

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Maya Doig-Acuña is a native Brooklynite and recent graduate of Middlebury College, where she studied race and worked as an editor for Beyond the Green, a writer-activist blog. She has written for Harlem Focus, will be published in a forthcoming issue of Duende Literary Journal, and has received support from Bread Loaf School of English. Maya currently works at Futuro Media Group in Harlem. She is a lover of feelings and television shows that make people cry.

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