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Why the colorism problem of ‘In the Heights’ matters

It’s hard not to see the erasure of dark-skinned Afro-Latinos from the movie as whitewashing. The exclusion also highlights the blatant colorism among Latinos.

Corey Hawkins (left) and Leslie Grace in "In the Heights."
Corey Hawkins (left) and Leslie Grace in "In the Heights."Macall Polay/Handout

In northern Mexico, where I grew up, it’s been normalized to give nicknames based on skin color, a racialized practice largely unrecognized as wrong. My uncle, who has the darkest skin among his siblings, is known as “el negro.” My dad’s cousin was “la prieta.” My two sisters have lighter skin than me, so I always thought of myself as “la morena,” the dark-colored daughter.

So it never occurred to me that I wasn’t dark-colored until I moved to Boston, a place filled with Black Americans, Haitians, Black Dominicans, and Black Puerto Ricans. While filling out the US Census last year, the race question had me ponder deeply about skin color — and other Hispanics were baffled too. Under Hispanic origin, I marked myself as Mexican. Then the form asked about race: White, Black, American Indian, Asian. Do I pick white? Does that make me a white Latina?


That’s the colorism baggage I bring to the controversy surrounding “In the Heights,” the highly anticipated movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony-winning Broadway musical set in New York’s Washington Heights. By and large, the film received acclaim from movie critics. But it was also heavily rebuked online for the filmmakers’ choice to cast light-skinned or white-passing Latinos in protagonist roles.

It is a fair reproach: The barrio known as as Little Dominican Republic does not look like the movie’s portrayal. Whether or not it was a conscious decision from the filmmakers, it’s hard not to see the erasure of dark-skinned Afro-Latinos from “In the Heights” as whitewashing. The exclusion also highlights the blatant colorism among Latinos, which is a dormant but ever-present topic that is overdue for discussion in the mainstream.

Miranda apologized earlier this week. “I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy,” he said.


After watching “In the Heights,” Tanya Katerí Hernández, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, was left with conflicting thoughts. “As a Latina, I wanted to be supportive of the project and of all the Latino artists in it,” she told me in an interview. “At the same time, it felt like a real blow because it was just the repeat, over and over again, of the erasure of Afro-Latinos. I know social justice can’t operate all issues at the same time in every single moment.” But, she said, “when you have a project that is so clearly centered on a particular geographic zone . . . it felt like generic Latinidad.”

It wasn’t just the casting decisions. There were some changes made to the story in the film that differ from the musical version. For instance, in the Broadway musical, written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, one of the Latino characters displays anti-Black bias. But this subplot was cut from the film version. That’s more evidence that the filmmakers missed a huge opportunity to make a powerful statement about colorism.

Of course, many Latinos enjoyed “In the Heights” despite the criticism about erasure. And as the Los Angeles Times’ Fidel Martinez wrote: “No work of art, no matter how well-intentioned, will ever truly represent the totality of a group of 60 million people.” Yet this stubborn dynamic persists among some in the cultural and political spheres — as in, we’re Latino, ergo, we vote a certain way. There needs to be a more thorough deconstruction of these myths, one that accounts for racial attitudes. (A great example: My Globe colleague Jazmine Ulloa recently wrote about the role “racism and disapproval of the Black Lives Matter movement among a swath of the Latino community” in South Texas might have played in the presidential election.)


In her upcoming book “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality,” Hernández explores some of the ways Latinos have the potential to do one another harm. “Let me be clear, all Latinos experience bias vis-a-vis white Anglos in the racialized United States,” she told me. “Racism and discrimination are multiheaded monsters that reach out and wrap their tentacles in all different kinds of ways. . . . I’ve seen in my research that, in our highly segregated housing market, Afro-Latinos have stories time and time again of being turned away from Latino landlords. I see it in the employment sector, too. Afro-Latinos, or those perceived as too dark or indigenous looking, are often unwelcomed or pushed out of jobs by a Latino supervisor.”

Which brings me to my own colorism baggage. In the United States, I am a white-presenting Latina, which carries certain privileges that I can’t deny. It’s why “In the Heights” was a teachable moment for me. Too many Latinos remain in the dark about racism within our ethno-racial group. “We are not taught to be” racially literate, Hernández told me. “There’s a larger systemic structure that implicates all of us.”


Ultimately, the discussion of colorism among Latinos is like “a wound that can’t have any kind of chance at healing unless you bring it out in the open,” Hernández said. She is right — we all carry colorism baggage and admitting it is a first step. The pervasive discrimination based on skin color that plays out among ethnic groups can be just as debilitating as the racism people of color feel day-to-day in a white world

Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.