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Op-Ed: In The Heights, Latinx Representation In Film & Our Family

Where was the outreach to Dominican artists? No merengue? No dembow? Where was Fefita? Where was 809? Where was Dyckman? No Rosario brothers? Where was the musica urbana at? Where was the authenticity? I love Marc Anthony but would have preferred to have seen an Anthony Santos cameo and I’m saying this as a Puerto Rican!
Op-Ed: In The Heights, Latinx Representation In Film & Our Family
Op-Ed: In The Heights, Latinx Representation In Film & Our Family

Op-Ed: In the Heights is a musical with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. The story is set over the course of three days, involving characters in the largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City. There has been a mixed response regarding a great film that received back lash due to colorism issues in casting of major roles.

The film’s scenic department created a historic map of the Dominican Republic for the bodega. Coates also designed a painted mural on the side of the market with an image of a man in a boat dreaming of the day he returns to the island. Courtesy of Andrew Baseman (Notice they cut off Haiti)

As a lighter skin Latinx Puerto Rican w/ proud Afro roots, an adopted son of the beloved Washington Heights, a lover of Dominican culture (so much that I made the island my home), not a supporter of the Miranda family (due to the PROMESA issue), but a huge supporter of Lin Manuel's artistry and pushing our culture forward, I am torn on this film.

  • Are the Hollywood stats stacked against us?
  • Does most of America and the industry see this as a “niche” movie?
  • Was I filled with pride seeing the culture/neighborhood I grew up in finally blasted on the big screen in all it's positive glory?
  • Should I support this possible “tip of the iceberg” movie?
  • Yes to all.

HOWEVER… After being filled with pride and tears in my eyes from viewing my upbringing in song format, I looked at my wife ( Ella Dominicana... pero bien Dominicana) and asked, "what did you think?"

She said, "I loved it!... But where were the black Dominicans?"

A few articles have been written on the issue, one of the best was by @NPR. Let us look at the facts regarding Latinx representation in film from the Annenberg Study done by USC.

  • Roughly 5% of Latinx people have speaking roles.
  • 77% of 50 U.S. states and 2 territories have populations with a higher percentage of Latinos than what we currently see in Hollywood films (4.5%).
  • A mere 5 films out of 500 showed a Latino character from the #LGBT community between 2014 and 2018.
  • A total of 387 of 400 movies were missing Latino characters with a #disability.
  • Over half (61.9%) of all characters shown engaged in illegal activity were part of an organized crime group such as gang members or drug dealers.
  • Of the 3,616 Produced by credits, only 3% were held by Latinos. Seventy-eight of those credits were held by Latinos and 19 were held by Latinas; this is a gender ratio of 4 male producers to every 1 female.
Latinx representation in film is summed up in a few words: Lack thereof, criminal roles, and Latinas really exist?

Seeing ourselves cast as positive, law abiding, non sexualized humansis incredibly difficult. Seeing Afro Latinx people cast in the above roles are very far and few in between. Getting big budget films to hire Latinx people as writers, directors, etc. is almost non existent.

Many issues and emotions raced through my mind while watching the film with one striking question.

Did this film properly represent the diversity in my Latinx family as a Latinx?

I thought of my very Puerto Rican abuelo Pablo. A military veteran, with lighter skin, dashing looks and green eyes. (Below)

Pablo Velez

I thought of my my darker skinned, abuelo Enrique. An incredibly jovial man who had the mindset of an engineer but worked every job imaginable to raise his 8 children. (Below)

No alt text provided for this image
Jose Enrique

I thought about the struggles of racism they faced in New York City when they left Puerto Rico in the 1940's and 50's. I thought about the levels of education they received (barely Junior high school) and how their children became teachers, lawyers, nurses and civil servants. I thought about how I shared their legacies, as my name is Pablo Enrique. I thought of my upbringing as a lighter skin Boricua with thick, coarse, curly hair and "African" features. How I was always told we come from Africans, indigenous people y un poquito de los Españoles. I thought of the DNA tests that netted over 63% African ancestry (twice).

  • Are we tired of the same old “we have to support the bread crumbs we have” argument? Yes.
  • Was there sufficient representation of beautiful darker skinned family members? No.
  • Does colorism exist in our culture? Obviously.

Should an actual Latinx person have directed this? Yes. For example, what hurt the most was the response by the director Jon Chu. He was trying to justify the casting when he said, “when we were looking at the cast, we were looking for the people who were best for those roles specifically," He cited Afro-Latinos were in the background as dancers and extras in the beauty salon number.

The lack of historical knowledge on this this exact practice is what damaged the film for me. The Director basically agreed that the casting was done exactly how it has been done in the past by limiting darker faces to back end roles. Uggggghhhh…

This was supposed to be our Black Panther, Uptown our Wakanda, and Anthony Ramos our Latinx Pantera. Was the movie filled with our talented Latinx actxrs? Yes! Kudos to Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Gregory Diaz IV and the outstanding cast. They uplifted most of the countries and cultures in Latin America and the Caribbean (I saw a few Jamaican flags too!).

However... Did the movie simultaneously ignore a large amount of darker skinned Latinx and actual Dominicans? Yes. Did this feel like a washed down version of our culture into a neat little Broadway musical box? Yes.

Where was the outreach to Dominican artists? No merengue? No dembow? Where was Fefita? Where was 809? Where was Dyckman? No Rosario brothers? Where was the musica urbana at? Where was the authenticity? I love Marc Anthony but would have preferred to have seen an Anthony Santos cameo and I’m saying this as a Puerto Rican!

But like the famous poet Yung Berg asked, “where do we go from here?”

Do we boycott the film and run the risk of Hollywood shutting ANOTHER door? Do we ignore the sentiments of our Afro Latinx comunidad? Do we ignore the lack of a'platano in the film? Do we challenge the amazingly ignorant statement of Latinx icon Rita Moreno? (Can't you just wait awhile?)

I don’t have the answers Sway (except on Rita Moreno). I just urge that we continue this conversation of Latinidad, colorism, and lack of representation in film from a place of love. Gracias y Pa’lante 24/7.

With love,

OP Ed by Pablo Enrique Segarra, Esq.

Attorney, Co-Founder, CEO & Proud Latinx

Main Imagine credit: No neighborhood would be complete without a corner bodega. Re-created with products suggested by the father of producer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, tin ceilings and fake grime were added for an authentic aged quality. Courtesy of Andrew Baseman

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