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Published On: Mon, Jun 14th, 2021

When They Forget About Us… Again.

40 Black and White Photos Capture Everyday Life of Washington Heights in the 1970s

I will admit, today I feel less Latina then I did yesterday. Than I did the day before. Than I did the day before that.

Each day keeps chipping my Latinidad away like water to stone. What does this are the ways that Latinos tell me I’m not part of them.

In the Heights is a movie, based on the hit Broadway musical, that centers around the life of four young folks (and the neighborhood) from Washington Heights. The story is about finding a home, a place in the world, survival, and thriving as the world changes around you.

I saw the first eight minutes of In the Heights a couple of days before it’s theatrical release. I had never seen the musical but heard so many things about it. I knew one song, “96,000”, and was a fan of it. The trailers were out for months. I was ready for it and excited to see it in the theaters, leaving my pandemic cave for something that resembled normal.

I heard about a story from the making of the movie. Before a certain take of In the Heights, actor Anthony Ramos would shout, with all his might, “This is for the culture!”

But in those eight minutes, something bothered me. The short snippet told me in no uncertain terms that people who look like me are not part of the Latino narrative.

40 Black and White Photos Capture Everyday Life of Washington Heights in the 1970s

This rally cry pumped up the mostly Latinx cast and dance crew to dig deep and to give it their all. For the people. For the pueblo. For the love of being Latinx in America.

But what culture was Ramos talking about? What culture was on display in In the Heights? Who was allowed to represent a culture, one of many, that have been despised and vilified in America in one of the biggest media mediums – movies?

Who is allowed to be Latinx?

And this is the apex of the problem I have with In the Heights.

Let’s be frank first. It’s a good movie and I will not deny it. It has what it needs to be a good movie. The music is infectious. It always has been and always will be. The story is beautiful. It is one step above a survival story, it’s a handbook on how to thrive when you lose your way. And haven’t we all lost our way?

There are so many Latinisms in the movie that if you blink, you’ll miss 20 of them – the food, the dancing, los dichos, los boleros.

The direction by Jon M. Chu was stellar and highlighted another Latin American tradition, storytelling through magical realism. It’s in our blood and it’s how we pass on our essence, the story becomes more than magic and beyond realism. This is a transition that we learn from

The abuelos, who learned it from their abuelos, who learned it from theirs. A storytelling tradition that is often duplicated but somehow hits harder when it comes from la communidad.

Yes, it’s a beautiful movie but it is also a movie where it’s business as usual. Because this should have been for all of us. It should have been every single one of us dancing in the streets, on the sides of buildings, yelling it from the roofs how good we look with Hollywood spotlights bouncing off our skins.

This was supposed to be our Black Panther moment, our moment from the culture for the culture, something that shakes the foundations and bust open doors for future movies. For all of us to finally show who we are.

But if you’re darker than a paper bag, you’re not allowed into the block party. And here’s a reminder, as big as a movie screen that you, Afro Latinos, will never be allowed to the party unless…

· you’re dancing in the background.

· you’re an extra.

· you’re doing something exotic like combing through kinky hair.

In an interview with The Root, Jon M. Chu said about casting for the speaking parts that, “At the end when we tried to cast, we cast the people that were best for those roles.”

This phrase should sound familiar. This is the same phrase that is repeated when someone who is qualified or beyond qualified doesn’t get a job. This is the excuse that lets hiring managers off the hook from looking for and hiring diversity hirers. This is the justification the hides the sins of colorism. This phrase is just as bad as “there were no diverse candidates for the position.”

Yeah, okay.

From that interview, creator Lin Manuel Miranda, was missing. Yes, Miranda who is so proud of being Puerto Rican he bleeds banderas de la isla daily. After a weekend of conversation, he released a statement.

Read Lin Manuel’s Statement Here

“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen, in the feedback, he wrote on Twitter. “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it and I’m listening.”

And here is where the disappointment begins. Hamilton, his latest Broadway hit, was a diverse cast. It was a cast that looked like America. And yet, as In the Heights was taken from stage to screen, the opportunity to scale up, to fix the wrong and to use the lessons learned from casting Hamilton, wasn’t taken. Even with more than 10 years after the musical opened on Broadway, it’s as if nothing was learned.

But a lyric was changed to avoid mentioning the former president.

I have to assert my dignity in small ways to tell the world that I exist. That my ancestors not only existed but created a base for this Latinx culture to not only survive but thrive. It was my ancestors that gave the clave that made up the backbone of the soundtrack. It’s my ancestors’ creations that were bubbling in Abuela’s pots and pans. When my ancestors had nothing, they had each other. To live. To survive. They had the forethought to make something from nothing.

They created community. They created a home when they were ripped from theirs and forced to a faraway and strange land, stranger than Standford University was for Nina. The heights from the movie happened centuries before the first piragua guy shaved their first ice ball.

Essentially part of the essence of what makes In the Heights for the culture and about the culture came from African ancestors, whose decedents we only want in the background like that black grandma hidden in the closet or attic. And, as always, we are divorced from it all and divorced from the celebration of what was created.

I don’t want to go where I’m tolerated but where I’m celebrated and In the Heights reminds me that I’m not celebrated among my own. And, I suspect, I’ll catch hell for this blog post for not supporting, not saying enough good things, for being a traitor to the culture. People will message me about how wrong I am, calling me all kinds of names that would make the saints blush. I suspect some will want to take my brown card.

But if we are to hold people like American Dirt writer Jeanine Cummins accountable for perpetuating Latino stereotypes, we need to hold our own people’s feet to the fire for continuing the practice of colorism when they damn sure know better. When they damn sure will do better in the future.

In the Heights is just the latest in a long line of media erasing Afro-Latinos from a culture the ancestors helped create. And because of this I feel less Latina every day.

I wonder what West Side Story is going to look like? Are we all going to be big mad if they get it wrong or just be happy we’re singing and dancing on screen?

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Icess Fernandez Rojas is an educator, writer, podcaster, and a former journalist. She is a graduate of Goddard College’s MFA program.

Her work has been internationally published in Queen Mobs Lit Journal, Poetry 24, Rabble Lit, Minerva Rising Literary Journal, and the Feminine Collective’s anthology Notes from Humanity. Her Houston-based story, “Happy Hunting”, was recently published in the Houston Noir anthology.

Her podcast, Dear Reader, is based on the popular blog of the same name. Her nonfiction/memoir work has appeared in Dear Hope, NBCNews.com, HuffPost and the Guardian. She is a recipient of the Owl of Minerva Award, a VONA/Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation alum, a Dos Brujas Workshop alum, and a Kimbilio Fellow. She’s currently working on her first novel and finishing her memoir, Problematic. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Icess and at her website: http://icessfernandez.com.

When They Forget About Us… Again.