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Opinion: ‘In the Heights’ is just more of the same whitewashed Hollywood

Julissa Contreras is a Dominican writer, poet, actor and creator of the “Ladies Who Bronché” podcast. Dash Harris Machado is co-founder of AfroLatino Travel, producer and facilitator of the “Radio Caña Negra” podcast and producer of “NEGRO: A Docu-series About Latinx Identity.”

The recent controversy surrounding “In the Heights,” the big-budget film based on the musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, came as no surprise for Black Latin American and Caribbean people. With its White and light-skinned leading roles, the film became part of a long tradition in the Americas of Black erasure.

When moviegoers and journalists, including the Root’s Felice León, started highlighting the lack of Black leading cast members in the film, many prominent figures rushed to defend it. “We shouldn’t burden Lin-Manuel with the responsibility of representing every Latino,” commentator Ana Navarro said. “You can never do right, it seems,” actress Rita Moreno said in defense of Miranda. “This is the man who literally has brought Latino-ness and Puerto Rican-ness to America.” Both accounts are inaccurate.

The problem is believing that “Latino-ness” presents a worthy “alternative” to U.S. whiteness, when it is simply White hegemony by another name. What Navarro and Moreno seemed to be telling us is a version of what Black folks everywhere have had to endure for a long time: “Just shut up and be grateful.” But all the triumphalist talk about “representation” crumbles when you point out how all the film leads, picked to represent a heavily Afro-Dominican community, just coincidentally and conveniently happened to pass the “brown paper bag test.

Black Latin American and Caribbean people are very familiar with this form of discrimination. At the core of the lip service is a continued adherence to anti-Black practices. We live parallel realities, as most racialized people in White societies do. But we should continue challenging the systematic decisions that make predominantly afrodescendant communities more white-washed fodder for white-centering Latinxs.

Non-Black Latinxs constantly complain about being underrepresented. But one could simply tune in to any of the Latinx media networks that overrepresent White actors to see the reality. You won’t see many Black Latinxs on those networks. They prefer us out of sight, our stories invisibilized, our narratives minimized. Erasure does not exist in a vacuum, it is part of the larger project of White hegemony and domination, maintained through racism, colorism and classism. The ruling “Latino” elite is predominantly White and mestizo, here in the United States and in the Americas.

The true musical rhythm of Washington Heights is not playful salsa rhythms and a quirky “Hamilton”-esque hip-hop, which trivializes U.S. enslavement and White power. The true rhythm is deep dembow, trap, bachata, merengue clásico mix — genres that honor the Black culture at the center of the Dominican experience. As actress and playwright Guadalís Del Carmen, who grew up in Chicago but found a real home in the Heights, puts it: “It wasn’t until I moved there that I stopped feeling like a walking paradox.”

Sure, musical theater has its own style, but this film does more than remix sounds — it remixes reality. In the original Broadway production, Lin highlights the dynamics of anti-Blackness as it relates to Nina’s father taking issue with her Black boyfriend. Why was the decision made to remove that incredibly relevant thread? It was a clear reminder of how Hollywood continues to remove nuanced humanization to replace it for easy gimmicks.

In many ways Hollywood has existed to uphold coloniality and capitalist frameworks integral to its success. What we need now is truth. Miranda issued an apology, but he must go deeper. He can either admit that he’s not really trying to tell groundbreaking stories and cares only about his own impact and legacy, or he can confront that he actively contributes to the same lack of representation he says he has felt his whole life. Why highlight a Black Latinx population if your interpretation needed to erase a large portion of the Blackness to tell it?

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