As he collected his Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Rodney Rothman, who co-directed Marvel’s ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ beamed, “When we hear that someone’s kid turned to them and said, ‘He looks like me’ or ‘He speaks Spanish like us,’ we’ve already won.”
The movie is about a Black Puerto Rican boy, Miles Morales, who suddenly finds himself balancing the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders.
From the moment Miles pulled his suitcase (decorated in true Boricua fashion with a Puerto Rican flag) through his family’s kitchen and took a bite from his mother’s caldero brimming with arroz con gandules, I loved him. I could imagine Miles asking his abuela for bendiciones with the same ease he used as he switched between English and Spanish on his way to school. There’s a phrase some Latinos use to greet each other, “de lo mío”—it colloquially means, “what up, fam?” but translates literally to “of my own.” What I knew of Miles Morales, almost from the first frame, was that he was of my own.
I’m not alone in this feeling of warmth toward the hoodie-clad hero: at a time of an American history when Black boys are especially vulnerable victims of extrajudicial murders and just a little over a year since Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, Miles Morales means something.
The full gravity of Miles’ importance isn’t limited to how he looks and sounds. Yes, ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ winning at the 91st Academy Awards is a win for Afro-Latino visibility. But what I love best about Miles Morales is that his story is one many children of color know too well.
In the movie, Miles finds himself overwhelmed by the expectations confronting him: those of his teachers at his new boarding school, those of his father who wants Miles to walk the straight and narrow, and those of his Spider-Verse peers. In each case, Miles wonders whether he’s good enough and how he can tap into that potential everyone insists is there but that he himself is unsure of. Aside from looking like us and talking like us, we love Miles because he is us.
You could make the argument that there’s a universality to Miles’ predicament: who among us hasn’t felt the fear of being crushed under the expectations thrust upon us? But there’s an extra layer there for people of color; people who came up, or whose parents came up, in poverty; and first-generation Americans—an awareness of the shoulders you stand on and the fragile legacies, painstakingly built, that are dependent on your success. We understand that our triumphs send ripples through our communities, past and present.
I became acquainted with Miles and his symbolic power as a multi-racial hero in 2011, while clerking for a civil rights attorney. At that time, MALDEF and the NAACP were joined in a suit against the state of Texas. Their argument was that the state’s district maps intentionally diluted the political power of Black and Latino Texans by breaking their neighborhoods into different voting districts. The attorney I worked for, an expert witness who provided testimony on the political cohesion of communities of color, presented Miles Morales as evidence that Black and Latino Americans are more than politically united but are neighbors, family, and part of a diaspora.
That Miles Morales will endure as a symbol of Black and Latino solidarity, is something I’m certain of, and I think we have yet to fully grasp what he could truly mean for us. But for now, the magic of Miles Morales is that he tells Black and Latino children that their stories matter, that they aren’t alone in feeling afraid of never measuring up and most importantly, that they exceed our expectations every day by being themselves.
That they —in their hoodies and their sneakers— are important, amazing, magic.
Lauren Lluveras is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, housed in African and African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She tweets from @elleelle_koolj.