Whose Heights is it Anyway?

Unpacking the colorism and controversy surrounding the Broadway musical turned HBO MAX film…

Harlem will always be my favorite section of Manhattan, but Washington Heights holds a special place in my heart, and it had everything to do with the culture. Having lived there for several years back when I was a food server in Manhattan, my memories of 155th Street and beyond are sweet and pleasant, filled with exotic breakfast, playing in fire hydrants, and late-night bachata lessons on the block. As a half Cuban/half-Black American girl from Long Island who didn’t speak Spanish, I never felt like a token, and I never felt left out.

Needless to say, I was… underwhelmed by the blatant lack of Afro Latino representation in Lin Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of In the Heights. Yet, I wasn’t surprised. The erasure of Afro Latinos within the diaspora began long before Miranda got his start. Still, like every person of color innovating in their respective field, there’s always a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, current creators will fight against the generational curse of anti-Blackness.

The Story May Change, but the Micro Aggressions Stay the Same

Melissa Barrera, who played the role of Vanessa, revealed that there were many dark-skinned Afro Latinos present during the audition process. However, she used a popular meritocracy-based microaggression, saying that those who “were best for the roles” were ultimately chosen. That assertion suggests that lack of representation is because of lack of talent and not exclusion. This is no different than when white people use the “we pick who’s best for the job” rationale to defend having all-white staff and organizations.

While the slight may sound subtle to the ear, the implication has drastic consequences for Black people and anyone who navigates marginalized intersections. It perpetuates the narrative that we are not good enough, not qualified enough, not talented enough for consideration. She better sit down somewhere smh.

For director Jon M. Chu, this is not his first time addressing colorism in his work. Critics challenged the director for casting decisions in the 2016 blockbuster film, Crazy Rich Asians. The film made progressive strides in employing Asian creatives, both on and offscreen. Yet, the favor towards lighter hues and classist overtones led many to question Chu’s vision. When León asked Chu what he had to say to dark-skinned Afro Latinos who felt In the Heights missed the mark regarding representation, he said this:

“That was something that we talked about, and I needed to be educated about. In the end, we tried to get people that were best for those roles… I think that’s a really good conversation to have.” Jon M. Chu, The Root

By admitting that colorism was a conversation during production and an issue that he struggles with, Chu was affirming what viewers already knew; the absence of dark skin in the principal cast had less to do with misstep and more to do with intention. Chu would later ask León if she noticed the dark-skinned performers in the nail salon scene and big dance numbers. Not missing a beat, she reminded him that background and dance roles are notoriously more accessible for dark-skinned performers and that it was main characters where representation is so desperately needed. In the end, Chu expressed his hope that “future” projects would attempt to provide the proper representation that In the Heights chose to pass on.

Like Chu, Lin Manuel Miranda has also struggled with honest portrayal. His groundbreaking hit, Hamilton, may have been a smash for Broadway; however, there were (and still are) a substantial amount of (Black) people who question the musical’s intention. The plot wholly dismissed enslaved Africans at a time when American slavery was the plot. One of the most prominent critics of Hamilton was Toni Morrison. The literary genius held so much contempt for Miranda’s exploitation of the vilest, most heinous era in American history. So much so that she was a significant donor of Ishmael Reed’s, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Haunting was a short-run stage play that imagined Miranda confronted by the slave-owning leaders he romanticized and the enslaved Africans he forgot. Even though critics panned the production, it gave a voice to the descendants of enslaved Africans who were against “the new” Hamilton.

Miranda would eventually provide a detailed apology on his Twitter page, acknowledging the impact that colorism had on his production. To his credit, his apology was direct and without excuse. It was as good as the one he provided for failure to support the Black Lives Matter movement and the apology he gave for glorifying American slavery with Hamilton (see where I’m going with this?).

Miranda’s efforts may be in the right direction. However, many Latinos are unwilling to follow. Almost immediately after hitting send on his apology tweet, stans filled the comment section…

Rita, Por Favor

The Puerto Rican actor, whose career spans over seven decades, has portrayed Latina and Italian characters. However, it was her big break in the 1961 classic, West Side Story, in which she did something she was no fan of: make her complexion darker by wearing makeup much more browner than her fair complexion. Morena would later reveal how she felt it was unfair having to present a phenotype that wasn’t naturally hers. Ironically, sixty years later, Moreno would be unable to identify with those not being represented for the very complexion in demand during her heyday. To her credit, Moreno released an apology statement of her own the day after the interview, expressing regret over her original sentiment.

There’s nothing simple about inclusion when it comes to colorism and Afro Latinos within the diaspora. Society and entertainment have reduced the margins of acceptance to a place where dark-skinned folks just don’t fit. While I’m no hater of Lin Manuel Miranda, I’m no fan either. I won’t be watching In the Heights anytime soon, but if I do, I’ll brace myself for the reality that I won’t be watching the Heights I know and love.

Tamela J. Gordon is a New York raised, Miami revitalized writer and spiritual self-care advocate, currently based in Little Havana. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and join her Patreon community for access to original written content which focuses on pop culture, intersectionality, race, and mad bullshit.

Writer. Feminist. Advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS.