“In the Heights” was made to be bigger than just a film. It was created to resemble a dynamic community. That being said, it’s a piece of why representation matters. In the Heights was centered around the concept of visibility. But not for all Latinos.
While it captured golden streaks of rich Latino culture, it failed to include Afro-Latinos as principle roles.
Aside from Leslie Grace (Nina) who is Dominican American, the Black Latino representation fell through. Hollywood and Latin American film industries have consistently capitalized on colorism. Often, Latinos with lighter skin are placed in lead roles while actively erasing a large portion of Latino diversity.
“In the Heights” adds to the historical idea that there can’t be an intersection between being Black and Latino. This is completely contradictory to the very broad spectrum of Latinos.
It’s an inaccurate and disappointing depiction. During musical numbers in the film, the cameras pan to a sea of celebrating faces. But the harsh reality is that it’s an example of anti-Blackness in Latin American media.
In this fictional, magical world of “In the Heights,” Blackness is still inexistent as a primary role. To make things more dismaying, the Heights are also known as Little Dominican Republic. How can a movie that is set in a predominantly Dominican space be so unreflective of the real individuals that make it up?
“They could have hired more Black Latino actors, not to fill a diversity quota, but because that would have reflected the truth of the neighborhood,” New York Times reporter Concepción De León said in a June 22 article.
The media, in general, is so often Euro-centric and unfortunately, that favoritism bleeds into Latino-made projects. The overused concept that non-Black Latinos need to star in all media is false. There are countless talented Afro-Latinos that easily could’ve fit leading roles in the movie.
At the least, the movie will continue to lay the groundwork ahead for more Latino-made projects; increasing Hollywood’s funding. While it missed the mark of representation, the movie was able to check other boxes. The film’s creatives were able to emphasize a storyline taking a Latino character out of the role of the maid/comedic relief and into the protagonist.
My criticism of the film isn’t based on aspirations to “cancel” Lin-Manuel Miranda or “In the Heights,” because we would be left motionless. My criticism is founded in the hopes that when we know better we do better. But also to remember that even as Latinos we can uphold structures of privilege based on color. It can feel unsettling to know we have the potential to contribute to said status quo but when things are uncomfortable that means they’re important. Nonetheless, we need to hold ourselves accountable.
Representation is everything though not necessarily a cure to racism as proved in “In the Heights.” As a generation that is growing up on technology, it’s so important that all children of color can look up to a character and see themselves. And Afro-Latino children shouldn’t be exempt from this.
There are few entitlements Latino children have but one of them is resonating with a character who makes you believe in yourself because being seen is important.