Blanqueamiento: Boston’s Latino Film Festival Included (and Awarded) Two White European Films

Oct 7, 2019
12:39 PM

BOSTON — People from Spain by definition are not Latinx. Most Spaniards are white Europeans, just like the people who made the films “El silencio de otros” and “Madre.” Which is why including these two films in the 2019 Boston Latino Film Festival (BLIFF) is by definition whitening Latinidad.

The concept of pushing more whiteness into the identity of Latin America has a name, which is “Blanqueamiento” (Britannica entry, and its less sympathetic Wikipedia page). It literally means “whitening” or “whitewashing.”

Including two films from Spain in a Latinx media space blurs the lines between white European Spaniards and Latinxs, undermining the core of Latinx identity, which is based on a historical and geographical identity that values the roots of African and Indigenous peoples, while also excluding Spain.

BLIFF’s Film Demographics

Of the official 33 Latin American nations, only 11 were represented and centered out of BLIFF’s 40 films this year. Which leaves 22 Latinx peoples not represented. Which would be more understandable if two non-Latinx films were not also featured in the festival.

Spain’s two films means that white people from Spain occupied 5% of the slots in the film festival. The two films from Spain went on to win of three of the festival’s seven awards of the festival, which is 40% of the awards and prestige that should have been reserved for Latinx peoples only.

I messaged the directors at BLIFF and their general personnel to offer them a chance to comment on this piece. I asked them these five questions:

  1. Why does BLIFF feel European films are needed in a Latino Film Festival?
  2. Why does it not make more sense to let films from Spain just air at Boston’s general International Film Festival?
  3. Why using the word Latino is not appropriative when non-Latinx films will be aired in a Latino film festival?
  4. And would BLIFF consider changing its name to “Boston Hispanic Film Festival” if the people who run the festival want to include European films?
  5. Are the directors, production houses, or actors of the films Latinxs, and that is why they are included?

I also requested their entire archive of lists of films that have been shown at BLIFF every year going back to 2002. With this I could have analyzed the national origins of all the films that BLIFF has featured, to see if this is the first year that BLIFF included European films from Spain, or if this is a trend.

A recent post from 2019 did note this: “Since 2002, BLIFF has been using the power of film to break stereotypes, to bring together cultures and communities, and to reveal the complex issues that affect the Latino community in the United States, Latin America and Spain.”

As of this writing, I have not received an answer to these questions from BLIFF personnel or its directors.

The Conflict Between Hispanic and Latinx Identity

In a 2018 interview, the director of BLIFF specifically said, “[BLIFF] is Boston’s largest, longest-running, and most exciting presentation of cinema from the Spanish-speaking cultures of the Americas,” and that she wanted BLIFF to become the premiere event “to celebrate HISPANIDAD in Boston.” These are a curious thing to say about a Latino space. Hispanidad is not the same thing as Latinidad, as there are lots of cultures in Latin America that do not speak Spanish. Spanish speaking cultures in the Americas alone do not equal Latinx. As well, we must always be sensitive to the fact that Indigenous Peoples are shamed for speaking their languages in Latin America and forced to assimilate into speaking Spanish by racist white and Mestizx Latinxs.

In the same interview, the BLIFF director also noted “BLIFF has screened more than 500 films from over 20 countries.” This number is a strong reason why all of the past films in BLIFF should be analyzed, considering there are 20 Hispanic nations, and that privileging Spanish-speaking cultures over others in Latinidad is still a form of ethnic racism that is called cultural hegemony.

It seems that the differences between Hispanic and Latinx identity may not be understood well enough by BLIFF personnel, and that this could have led to the mistake of including two European films in this year’s festival. To be fair, there are many complexities behind the reasons why some groups of people prefer to identify as Latinx or Hispanic.

On the other hand, there is only one Afro-Latinx involved in running the festival, event coordinator Rosa Sanchez. While the other 16 of the 17 people that run or judge the festival appear to be white or white-Mestizx Latinx. This is a perfect example of the fact that if power and equity are held only by white Latinxs, then we can never expect for Latinidad on the whole to become less white supremacist.

Why Not Include Haitians in BLIFF?

Lastly, to show more concretely why squandering equity is a problem, let’s look at the specific example of Haitians who are regularly erased in Latinidad. Films in the nation of Haiti are regularly produced. There are no Haitian films represented in BLIFF this year.

What makes the exclusion of Haitian films from BLIFF most audacious is that the festival takes place in the Boston metro area, where there is a vibrant and thriving community of Haitians and Haitian-Americans. According to Migrant Policy Institute, there are an estimated 47,000 Haitians in the Boston metro area alone, the third largest population of Haitians in a U.S. city.

Haitians are Latinx, and are present in the location where BLIFF takes place, so it is difficult to understand how BLIFF could possibly overlook the Haitian demographic for the festival, even just from a representation standpoint.

Some might say that most of the Latinx community speaks Spanish, and therefore it is right that a film from Spain is included because all Latinxs can understand it.

This logic is incorrect, as evidenced by the presence in the festival of the mostly white Brazilian film “Divino amor,” which is in Portuguese. Portuguese-speaking Brazilians are not Hispanic but are Latinx. As such, if Spanish-speaking Latinxs are willing to watch a film in the Portuguese language, then they should have no problem watching a film in Haitian Creole, or in Indigenous languages, or any other languages that are spoken in Latin America.

Latin American Media Is Known for White Supremacy

There is a reason why non-black Latinxs in the U.S. need to push ourselves in fighting white supremacy in our own media—the legacy of racist erasure of Indigenous and Black people in Latin American media is outrageous and has always been out of control. For example, in 2007, a Reuters article by John Hecht was called “Mexico TV Favors Light-Skinned Actors,” which reported that Mexican studios prefer to cast white people who look like David Beckham, and people who could pass as German or French.

That was 12 years ago.

In a 2016 article, a BuzzFeed Mexico report said that Mexican magazines also are predominately full of white people even though a survey found that 65% of Mexicans identify as “moreno.” It was found that non-white Latinxs made up from 2.5%–20.6% of all peoples in the 15 major Mexican magazines that were included in the report.

These two articles show how white and Mestizx controlled media in Latin American nations continue the practice of Blanqueamiento, and that Indigeneity and Blackness are constantly under assault in Latinidad. What is more, Black and Indigenous Peoples not having equal representation in Latinx media is one example of how they do not have equity in Latinidad. For this reason especially, giving away opportunities meant for Latinxs to Europeans in a U.S. Latino film festival is a continuation of this existing problem with our cultures.

Three Historical Reasons Why This Whitening Is Problematic

First, white Europeans from Spain are the people most responsible for countless genocides of Indigenous peoples throughout all of Latin America that are even continuing now, and are responsible for centuries of enslaving millions of Africans, who were the ancestors of most Afro-Latinxs today. The ancestors of Black and Indigenous Peoples in Latin America had (and still have) entire civilizations, cultures, languages, religions, and more that Europeans from Spain have tried their best to destroy. When considering that people with institutional power in Spain have no interest in even giving an empty apology for these conquests, this makes the choice to celebrate Spain in a Latino space all the more curious.

Second, with the exception of Haiti, all Latin American nations are settler-colonizer states that are built on white supremacy. So equating white Spaniards in Europe with Latinx identity can be seen as the same as saying that Spanish culture defines Latin America. This idea gives power over the concept of Latin America to Europeans, while also erasing non-white Latinxs, and will further solidify white supremacist ideologies that white and Mestizx Latinxs already have. Namely, that Latinxs who speak Spanish and are culturally Spanish, and are racially European, are the most important people in Latin America. Which they are not.

Third, Europeans in Latin America created and perpetuated the racist idea that biologically whitening the people in Latin America means to “mejorar la raza.” A racist idea that has been internalized and still plagues non-white Latinxs to this day.

Lastly, this is not a call to embarrass or shame BLIFF’s organizers, who work on a volunteer basis and who before now might not have understood the implications of including European films in a Latinx Film Festival. We should also appreciate the work BLIFF has done to create exposure for Latin American films in the U.S. for the last 19 years, which does tangibly benefit Latinxs.

Yet at the same time, this is a call to not to give away space reserved for Latinxs to Europeans. This is also a reminder that white and Mestizx Latinxs need to reject white supremacy in Latinidad at every opportunity, because all Latinxs have been socialized into ideologies of white supremacy, and we who benefit most from it need to unlearn these harmful ideas and behaviors the most.


Fabián Chávez is a Chicanx writer born and raised in East San Jose CA, currently living in MA. He tweets from @FabianHorologst.