Colorism in the Latino Community Reappears During the Opening Weekend of ‘In The Heights’

Jun 14, 2021
4:28 PM

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Anthony Ramos in a scene from “In the Heights.” (Warner Bros. via AP)

The film “In The Heights,” which celebrates the lives of Latinos living in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood is being criticized online for the lack of representation of the Black-Latinx community on screen.

Criticism has come mainly from Twitter, where the film has been labeled as “whitewashed.” Some have said that the movie portrays Afro-Latinos as the “stereotypical” characters—people dancing behind the main characters, the employees of barbershops, etc.

Carmen Philips, editor in chief of Autostraddle, published a thread on Sunday where she believes that the movie mutes the Afro-Latino experience and says that dark-skinned Afro-Latino actors are put into boxes.

“The conversation gets lost. And people say, oh, they’re not Afro-Latinx in the movie. That’s unfair to Daphne Rubin-Vega. That’s unfair to Dasha Polanco and Leslie Grace. But I do think that it’s important to discuss which Afro-Latinos were selected for that project. And why there are no dark-skinned Afro-Latinos, why there was not a broader representation of race, and I think part of what makes that decision really difficult is obviously it’s not reflective of the Washington Heights that we all know,” Philips told Latino Rebels on Monday.

In an interview last Wednesday with The Root, journalist Felice León asked director Jon M. Chu about why there was not a Black Latino main character in the movie and why the cast is mostly “white-passing” or lighter-skinned Latinos. Chu said they cast people they believe fit for the role and admits this is a real conversation to have. Actor Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa in the film, also supported the affirmation that they “fit” for the role.

About that conversation, writer Janel Martinez said on Twitter:  “Not one of the actresses in the film saying there were a lot of Afro-Latinxs auditioning but “they” were just looking for the right people for the roles and to embody each character.”

Grace, who plays Nina in the film, recognized during the interview that she grew up without seeing representation of people like her.

“I didn’t realize until making this movie that I didn’t really get to see myself or people that looked like my siblings, that are darker than me, onscreen,” she told The Root.

In The Heights” is based on the successful musical created by Lin Manuel Miranda, who is also part of the cast in the movie. The film tells the story of a group of neighbors who dream of a better life. Although the majority of the cast has Latino roots, Afro-Latinx critics and their allies say it’s not enough and that to not give importance to Afro-Dominicans, Afro-Cubans or Afro-Puerto Ricans is not a full representation of Washington Heights, a neighborhood with a 68% Latino population.

“We can talk about how there are some Afro-Latinos in the movie, and that is still important because so many Latino movies have not. It’s still important but is not enough. And I think the idea that we should just settle, that we should accept that, then we should be like, ‘Oh, thanks for your brief mention’ is not enough. We deserve more,” Phillips added.

Miranda has not specifically referred to this discussion but in an interview last week he said that “It’s unfair to put any kind of undue burden of representation on ‘In the Heights.’” He also added that there are millions of stories from the cultural specificities of the Puerto Rican experience, the Dominican American experience, the Cuban American experience, and no one couldn’t get their arms around all of that.

Critically acclaimed, “In The Heights” earned about $11 million its opening weekend.

Update, Monday, June 14, 8:30 p.m. ET
Miranda tweeted out additional thoughts about the colorism critiques in the film, where he said the following: “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I am truly sorry.”

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Juanita Ramos Ardila is a Colombian journalist who has written for El Tiempo and ColPrensa. An M.A. Journalism candidate at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, Juanita is also Latino Rebels’ 2021 Summer Correspondent. Twitter: @JuanitaRamosA.