I am Afro-Latina and I Was Not Erased from In the Heights

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By Christina Fernandez-Morrow 

Colorism was an issue but I am more than melanin.

I’ve been following the ire against Lin Manuel Miranda’s 2021 movie, IN THE HEIGHTS that centers around the erasure of Afro-Latinx people in the film because all the prominent characters are lighter skinned. I was among the thousands of Latinx people who anticipated the movie for over a year and who watched it opening weekend. As an Afro-Latina, I did not feel erased. In fact, I felt the exact opposite. It was the first time that I felt seen and celebrated on the big screen.

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I get that the skin tone of the main characters was lighter than what is typically thought of as “Black”. But, does that make the characters any less Afro-Latinx? The definition of Afro-Latinx is a person of Latin and African heritage. This is a broad spectrum. To say that the movie erased Afro-Latinos is incorrect and minimizes everything else about being Afro-Latinx, as though the only thing that contributes to this identity is melanin. While the movie has a serious case of colorism, erasure is far from what I saw when I watched the movie.

I saw myself in the noses of many of the characters. Noses have long been the first thing I notice on people. When I see one that resembles the curvy, flatter, wider tendencies that mirror my own, I see my African roots.

I saw myself in the bounce and curl of the hair that didn’t sit flat and straight on everyone’s head in a shade of sunlight. I reveled in the coils, waves and spirals that danced on screen as they do on me and on the heads of my nieces and nephews who inherited this wonderfully wild and signature mane from our African ancestors.

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I saw my childhood on the plates of food that featured platanos, a staple in various African countries that was carried across the seas to feed slaves, immigrants and colonizers alike. My mouth watered as characters passed plates full of pasteles and arroz con pollo that have filled my belly and those of my family with flavors from our Motherland. I saw cooking styles that have been passed on from mothers and fathers to their children and grandchildren — a pinch of achiote here and a sprinkle of adobo there, no measurements needed, with fragrant sofrito and extra garlic mashed by hand for the best flavor.

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I heard my history in the clave and timbales that resonated in the songs sung in a mix of English and Spanish. My ears perked up at rhythms that brought back memories of family parties where we celebrated to those beats brought here by musicians forced to board rocking ships and work their fingers to the bone for others’ gain. I bobbed my head to the music from generations before me who found joy in the drum beats from another continent filled with brown bodies that danced to the music as I’ve done my whole life. These sounds survived through their hands and hearts and were passed on to mine in plenas and bombas originating in West Africa and influencing the music played throughout the film.

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I heard my loved ones in the accents of characters on screen that not only made me nostalgic for the days of New York in the summertime, but the swirl of words born of the blending of Taino and African sounds, made familiar across the globe all these centuries later, becoming its own discourse that makes Afro-Latinx people so unique. I smiled hearing the language of my life playing on screens across the country, inspired by countries once looted and disrespected.

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I felt seen in the sway of hips and thighs that were wide like mine and all the women who came before me to carry white babies on their hips and feed them with full, ample breasts, building legacies of strength that reach down to the generation of my daughter and the daughter she may one day raise. The shapely bodies of the women in the movie were not afraid to be seen in clothes that hugged their curves and assets in ways that made them works of art and beauty long revered in cultures originating on continents filled with people who look like me. Bodies bent, twirled, pumped and flowed in the moves of my ancestors who danced to congas and cuatros with steps steeped in traditions made centuries ago and adapted over time into the African-inspired choreographies enchantingly spread throughout the film.

While the skin tones were more cafe con leche and less cafe negro, they were no less Afro-Latinx because we are so much more than our skin tone. We are Afro-Latinx because of our history, heritage and experiences. Seeing so much of my culture on the big screen celebrated the elements beyond melanin. I felt seen and heard and even better, I felt understood in a way no other piece of art had captured before.

I’m not saying that colorism wasn’t an issue or that we don’t need darker skin tones on screen. But skin tone alone does not a culture make. Colorism can be addressed without bashing the film in its entirety when it showed so many elements of Afro-Latinx life so fearlessly and unapologetically.

Christina Fernandez-Morrow

Author, speaker, curious mind. Yay: traveling, eating, biking, spending time w/ interesting people. Nah: talking politics & religion, negative attitudes, egos.

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