OPINION: On Colorism, Mestizaje and ‘In the Heights’

Jul 7, 2021
3:48 PM

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Anthony Ramos, foreground left, and Melissa Barrera in a scene from “In the Heights.” (Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

Suddenly on TV, YouTube, and social media, there are countless experts on colorism, especially as it relates to the film, In the Heights. Based on the Broadway drama by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, it has generated much discussion on colorism itself and on the fact that Afro-Latinos (and specifically, Afro-Dominicans) who predominate in the Washington Heights community are underrepresented among the major characters.

In an effort to bring some light to this debate, it is proper to begin by making a few clarifications. First of all, colorism —and the racism that generates it— is a global phenomenon For long, we have observed Bollywood films featuring mostly Light-skinned Aryan types, millions of Black women the world over lightening their skin, and yes, even Jesus Christ himself portrayed as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic.

Colorism is also very prevalent throughout Latin America, beginning with the precept to “mejorar la raza” (“improve the race”) by marrying someone who is whiter and lighter than you. We also note European phenotypes favored on Mexican film and TV, totally ignoring, except for menial roles, that nation’s huge and historic Indigenous population.

Questioning anyone who displays some African features, some Puerto Ricans may ask, “y tu abuela donde está?” (“so, where is your grandmother?”)  In Mexico, anyone who is or acts pretentious or privileged is referred to “ni si tuviese los ojos azules” (“acting as if he/she has blue eyes.”)  These statements reflect the socio-economic pyramid of power and wealth in Latin America with the European descendants of the “conquistadores” occupying the top tiers while towards the bottom are relegated most of the Indigenous and African descent populations.

Moreover, in Latin America colorism has a particular context distinct from how it is viewed and expressed in the United States. Although there do exist defined groups of Indigenous, African, or European descent populations, the vast majority of Latin Americans are of mixed race. For most of us, there is no clear distinction between White European, Black African, or Indigenous Native. It becomes then a question of what proportion of these three gene pools does a person or families have.

Unlike in the United States, where there was only marginal racial mixing, by comparison throughout Latin America, racial mixing of these three sources was massive. And attempts to define distinctions between these various mixtures were made since the 16th century in Mexico with the multiple “Castas” portraits, and in Brazil and Puerto Rico with over a dozen labels for various combinations of racial mixture.  Yet it is that very mixture that has generated an entire range of skin colors in Latinx communities with multiple skin shades and intensities of White, Brown, and Black that defy simple categorization.

However, upon moving to the United States, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, and all those in the Latinx community who are of mixed race are forced to define themselves as either Black or White in the census.

In Latin America today, a person with both White and Black ancestry is labeled as “mulato or mulata,” with White and Indian ancestry, she/he would be “mestiza or mestizo.”   Still, it is important to remember that throughout the region, the term “mestizaje” is used to refer to the entire concept of racial mixing in general,

With this background, we could better understand the controversy of colorism within In the Heights. I agree that it was a clear failing of either production, directing and/or casting to not accurately reflect the more African-descent features of Dominicans living in Washington Heights. Nevertheless, throughout the film, there was clearly a deliberate and effective attempt to show the wide diversity of racial varieties typically found in Latinx communities in Washington Heights as throughout the Americas.

Viewed from the context of filmmaking here in the U.S. it is important to also note the genuine concern expressed a few years ago, about “Hollywood so White.” Yet, when we review the numerous Oscar winners for the last two years, we see Black films, actors, and producers winning widespread recognition as never before. It is about time that their struggle, creativity and tenacity have brought them, as they well deserve, onto the big silver screen.

However, it is not the same for Latinx actors compelled to play Anglo roles because their characters, their stories —as well as their long history of repression and resistance— have been relegated to the margins of American history. Also marginalized from realms of Hollywood imagination is the entire Latinx experience. Despite all this, Latinx people are among the most avid movie-going and feature film consumers in our nation.

For these reasons, despite its undeniable flaws and failings, the musical, In the Heights should be viewed and appreciated for bringing some authentic elements of Latinx urban life to a silver screen so bereft of Latinx representation. It should also be enjoyed for aesthetic aspects of song, dance and multinational celebration that it features with such color and energy.  Finally, may it serve to generate many more films that strive to present characters and communities which authentically reflect our forgotten Latinx experience in these United States.


Dr. Julio Noboa Polanco is an opinion columnist and an Assistant Professor of Social Studies retired from the University of Texas at El Paso.  His research is focused on issues of race and ethnicity in the history and social studies curricula of public schools.