“You don’t look Dominican,” is a response I’m used to hearing from strangers when I answer the dreaded “what are you'' question because of my dark skin.
While 1 in 4 Latinx people in the US identifies as Afro-Latinx, we are often excluded from Latinx narratives, further perpetuating discrimination, racism, and the sentiment that leads to me constantly defending my ethnicity.
Released earlier this month, In the Heights, a filmbased on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical of the same name is contributing to the long-standing misconception that Latinx people can’t be Black. There are many positive outcomes of the movie that deserve to be praised, but I join other Afro-Latinx people in grappling with what to make of the production’s glaring oversights.
Watching the trailer, which introduced the story of a Dominican bodega owner in New York City and his neighbors’ American dreams, felt bittersweet. I couldn’t help but notice that Anthony Ramos, a light-skinned Puerto Rican actor, was cast to play the lead Dominican role of Usnavi. Light-skinned Dominicans are not out of the norm, but the lack of darker-skinned people in a film based in a neighborhood where nearly half of residents identify as Dominican didn’t sit right. As much as 90% of Dominicans are of Afro-descent.
It quickly became apparent that In the Heights probably wouldn’t be the movie to help my community move past decades of colorism cultivated by a dictatorship and ethnic cleansing.
But I still had high expectations. How could I not? I missed the original run of In the Heights on Broadway and couldn’t wait to see the film. The musical is inspired by Washington Heights, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood between 155th and 190th Streets officially named part of Little Dominican Republic, where my father was born and raised and where Miranda spent much of his childhood. My grandparents were one of the first Dominican immigrant families to live in Washington Heights in the 1950s, before the neighborhood became a Dominican hub in the 1980s.
ALERT!! Box Office matters. Show up. Buy a ticket for a friend, a school, co workers, total strangers..whoever needs to see it. Each ticket is a vote for more movies that showcase the incredible Latina/Latino talent &stories that are still out there. Make it a fact. #InTheHeightspic.twitter.com/nYCOmlMJa5— Jon M. Chu (@jonmchu) June 10, 2021
Growing up, we drove across the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey almost every weekend to visit family and my grandfather still lives on 184th Street. I’ve always felt immediately at home getting off the A train at 181st, walking past old men playing dominoes in the middle of the sidewalk, and visiting Dominican bakeries where I have to scrape together Spanglish sentences to order pastries because no one speaks English.
Authentic portrayals of the neighborhood are few and far between. There was MTV’s 2013 docu-reality television series Washington Heights, which the network barely promoted, received abysmal ratings, and was canceled after one season. And while I loved films that centered Dominican Americans’ stories like Raising Victor Vargas and De Lo Mio, they did not put Washington Heights on the map.
In the Heights was a big-budget film by the creator of Hamilton, and to paraphrase director Issa Rae’s viral words, I was rooting for everybody Latinx. My cousin was even going to make a debut as an extra in a scene shot at the landmark Highbridge Pool, where my dad took me and my sisters as kids.
When I finally got the chance to rent the film, my body couldn’t help but respond to the familiar merengue and bachata beats pulsating throughout the dance numbers. I found myself smiling, imagining my salsa-fanatic dad clapping along. But the soundtrack alone couldn’t counteract the complete negligence of the need to accurately represent Dominicans.
Leslie Grace, the one Afro-Latinx Dominican actress cast as a lead role in In the Heights, plays a Puerto Rican, which only added insult to injury. What’s more, Afro-Latinx Dominican actress Dascha Polanco doesn’t have a major part.
Since it premiered, backlash from social media users and art critics has surrounded the highly anticipated film, with many showing no remorse for director Jon M. Chu’s whitewashing and erasure of Afro-Latinx people in Washington Heights. Comments from actress Melissa Barrera, who plays Nina in the film, and prominent Latinx actress Rita Moreno defending the casting choices also sparked an uproar. Chu, who received scrutiny for similar representation missteps upon the release of his 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians, and Miranda issued apologies that fell flat with fans.
Lack of representation in the media impacts how others view people of color and how people of color view themselves. Afro-Latinx people in Latin America are 2.5 times more likely to live in chronic poverty than white Latinx people or mestizos, according to a World Bank report. Reducing Black people in the media to negative stereotypes, side characters, or not portraying them at all can translate to bias and discrimination in employment, education, health care, the justice system, and more disadvantages in the real world.
During the 2018-2019 digital TV broadcast season, only four actors were Black Latino, according to a 2020 study conducted by UCLA. Between 2007 and 2017, only 3% of the 100 top-grossing movies featured leads or co-leads with Latinx actors, and Afro-Latinx actors were represented even less.
By painting a picture of Washington Heights as a melting pot for Latinx culture, and downplaying the presence of Afro-Latinx Dominicans, In the Heights does a disservice to an already marginalized group by making them feel invisible on their own turf.
Despite my qualms with the film, I still applaud the vibrant energy of the Dominican beauty salon that comes through, Miranda’s cameo as a hustling piragua (Puerto Rican shaved ice) vendor, and the depiction of the traditional foods I grew up with, from flan to guava and cheese crackers with a vegan spin on the plantain masa dish pasteles to remind us that it’s 2021.
My aunts, uncles, and cousins couldn’t hold back their enthusiasm about seeing the film — they posted selfies from movie theaters on opening night and photos of promotions on the streets. They also pointed out that the film didn’t get everything about the neighborhood right, but knew it was important that a movie like this could exist.
Dominican immigrants flocked to Washington Heights following the fall of their home country’s dictatorial regime in the 1960s and found refuge in cheap rents and proximity to trains that went to Manhattan’s Garment District, where work was available. But in the 1970s and 1980s, those jobs quickly disappeared and many were pushed into unsafe sweatshops in the area.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the neighborhood became a symbol of the crack cocaine epidemic. In 1990, the proportion of Dominican New Yorkers living below the poverty line reached 36%, which was almost twice the citywide rate. Miranda did not choose to emphasize these struggles in the neighborhood in the film, and while important to highlight, I appreciated that he shifted the focus to the high spirits of its people.
Seeing the other, painful aspects of the shared Latinx experience in the US on-screen –– gentrification pushing out businesses, the financial sacrifices immigrant parents make for their children, the devastation of natural disasters on developing countries, and the barriers undocumented immigrants and DREAMers face –– felt comforting to watch because, for once, they were acknowledged. The storylines of Nina’s navigating racism and microaggressions at an elite school and Vanessa not having parents who could co-sign her application for an apartment were especially resonant.
In The Heights isn’t a documentary, it’s a fictional story drawn from Miranda’s perception of Washington Heights and I don’t fault him for that. Only 4% of film directors and 3% of producers were Latinx between 2007 and 2018, which leaves very few opportunities for everyone’s perspectives to be shown if we don’t all have a seat at the table where major decisions are made.
I didn’t expect Miranda to single-handedly remedy centuries of racism in Dominican culture and across the African diaspora in 2 hours and 23 minutes, but recognizing the risk of not repeating the erasure of Afro-Latinx people could’ve been a start.
Building a more inclusive world where everyone can be respected and receive the same opportunities doesn’t end with governments and institutions. We each have a responsibility to confront how racism shows up in our lives. That starts in our own homes and communities, but also in art and on screen.