Home Beauty salon “In the Heights” uplifted the Latinx community – but as an Afro-Latina I didn’t feel seen

“In the Heights” uplifted the Latinx community – but as an Afro-Latina I didn’t feel seen

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Another example of Hollywood whitewashing is Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s film.


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The media can perpetuate discrimination and racism against people of color that trap them in cycles of poverty. When people of color see themselves reflected in popular culture, they are empowered to reach their full potential. You can join us and take action on this problem here.

“You don’t look Dominican”, is an answer I am used to hearing from strangers when I answer the dreaded “what are youquestion because of my dark skin.

While 1 of 4 Latinxes in the United States identify as Afro-Latinx, we are often left out of Latinx narratives, further perpetuating discrimination, racism, and the sentiment that leads me to constantly defend my ethnicity.

Released earlier this month, In the heights, a moviebased on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical of the same name contributes to the long-held misconception that Latinxes cannot be black. There are a lot of positive results from the film that are worth praising, but I join other Afro-Latinxes grappling with what to do with glaring oversights in production.

Watch the trailer, which featured the story of a Dominican bodega owner in New York City and the American dreams of his neighbors, was bittersweet. I couldn’t help but notice that Anthony Ramos, a light-skinned Puerto Rican actor, was cast to play the Dominican lead role of Usnavi. Light-skinned Dominicans aren’t out of the ordinary, but the lack of darker-skinned people in a movie based in a neighborhood where nearly half of the residents identify as a Dominican did not sit well. As much as 90% of Dominicans are of African descent.

It soon became evident that In the heights probably wouldn’t be the movie to help my community navigate decades of colorism cultivated by a dictatorship and ethnic cleansing.

But I still had high expectations. How could I not? I missed the original series of In the heights on Broadway and I couldn’t wait to see the movie. The musical is inspired by Washington Heights, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood between 155th and 190th streets officially named part of the Little Dominican Republic, where my father was born and raised and where Miranda spent much of her 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.

Growing up, we crossed the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey almost every weekend to visit family and my grandfather still lives on 184th Street. I always felt immediately at home getting off the A train at the 181st, passing old men playing dominoes in the middle of the sidewalk, and visiting Dominican bakeries where I have to put together phrases in Spanish to order pastries because no one does speak english.

Authentic representations of the neighborhood are rare. There was the 2013 MTV docu-reality television series Washington Heights, which the network barely promoted, received appalling ratings and was canceled after one season. And although I liked films centered on the stories of American Dominicans like Raising Victor Vargas and By Lo Mio, they didn’t put Washington Heights on the map.

In the heights was a big budget movie from the creator of Hamilton, and to paraphrase director Issa Rae viral words, I was rooting for everyone Latinx. My cousin was even going to make his debut as an extra in a scene shot at the iconic Highbridge Pool, where my dad took me and my sisters, kids.

When I finally got the chance to rent the movie, my body couldn’t help but react to the familiar rhythms of merengue and bachata that pulsed throughout the dance numbers. I found myself smiling, imagining my salsa fanatic dad clapping. But the soundtrack alone couldn’t counteract the utter neglect of the need to accurately portray the Dominicans.

Leslie Grace, the only Dominican Afro-Latinx actress chosen for the lead role in In the heights, plays a Puerto Rican, which only added insult to injury. Plus, Afro-Latin Dominican actress Dascha Polanco doesn’t have a major role.

Since its premiere, social media users and art critics have surrounded the highly anticipated film, with many showing no remorse for the bleaching and laundering of director Jon M. Chu. erasure Afro-Latinx in Washington Heights. Actress comments Melissa Barrera, who plays Nina in the film, and prominent Latinx actress Rita Moreno defending the casting choices also sparked an uproar. Chu, who came under scrutiny for similar performance missteps when her 2018 film released Crazy Rich Asians, and Miranda Postedapologies who fell flat with the fans.

Lack of representation in the media impacts how others perceive people of color and how people of color see themselves. Latin American Afro-Latinxes are 2.5 times more likely to live in chronic poverty than Latinx whites or mestizos, according to to a World Bank report. Reducing black people in the media to negative stereotypes, secondary characters or not portraying them at all can Translate to prejudice and discrimination in employment, education, health care, the justice system and more disadvantage in the real world.

In the 2018-2019 digital TV broadcast season, only four actors were Black Latino, according to to a 2020 study conducted by UCLA. Between 2007 and 2017, only 3% of the top 100 grossing films featured lead or co-directing roles with Latinx actors, and Afro-Latinx actors were even less represented.

By portraying Washington Heights as a melting pot of Latinx culture and downplaying the presence of Afro-Latinx Dominicans, In the heights doing 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 Dominican beauty salon energy that emerges, Miranda’s cameo as a seller of piragua (Puerto Rican shaved ice) and the portrayal of the traditional foods I have with grown, from flan to guava and cheese crackers with a vegan twist on plantain masa dish pastels to remind us that it is 2021.

My aunts, uncles and cousins ​​couldn’t hold back their excitement at seeing the movie – they posted movie theater selfies on opening night and promotional photos on the streets. They also pointed out that the movie didn’t get everything about the neighborhood, but knew it was important that a movie like this could exist.

Dominican immigrants flocked in Washington Heights after the fall of the dictatorial regime in their home country in the 1960s and took refuge in cheap rents and near trains to Manhattan’s Garment District, where work was available. But in the 1970s and 1980s, these jobs quickly grew faded away and many were pushed in dangerous sweatshops in the region.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the neighborhood became a symbol of the crack epidemic. In 1990, the proportion of Dominican New Yorkers living below the poverty line reached 36%, which was almost double the city rate. Miranda didn’t choose to focus on these neighborhood struggles in the film, and while it’s important to highlight them, I appreciated that he focused on the good humor of her. inhabitants.

See on screen the other painful aspects of the shared Latinx experience in the United States – the gentrification pushing businesses, the financial sacrifices immigrant parents make for their children, the devastation of natural disasters in developing countries and barriers to undocumented immigrants and DREAMERS face –– was heartwarming to watch because, for once, they were recognized. The intrigues of racism and micro-attacks of Nina in an elite school and of Vanessa having no parents who could co-sign her apartment application were particularly resonant.

In the heights isn’t a documentary, it’s a fictional story taken from Miranda’s perception of Washington Heights and I don’t blame her. Only 4% of directors and 3% of producers were Latinx between 2007 and 2018, which leaves very few opportunities for everyone’s views to be shown if we don’t all sit at the table.

I didn’t expect Miranda on her own to address centuries of racism in Dominican culture and across the African Diaspora in 2 hours and 23 minutes, but recognize the risk of not repeating the erasure of Afro- Latinx could have been a start.

Building a more inclusive world where everyone can be respected and given the same opportunities is not limited to governments and institutions. We each have a responsibility to deal with the way racism manifests itself in our lives. It starts in our own homes and communities, but also in art and on screen.



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