Posts

“In the Heights” colorism controversy and why accurate representation is important

Recently, the newly released film adaption of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical–In the Heights–has received some controversy regarding the film’s casting choices and lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx actors, with critics citing colorism as the root cause of the inaccurate representation of the historic NYC neighborhood.

In the Heights, colorism controversy

In the Heights faces blacklash regarding colorism controversy. (Image Source)

Set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, the film’s themes celebrate diversity and identity. However, audiences were quick to notice the lack of dark-skinned Latinos in lead roles. Instead, all of the main Latinx characters are portrayed by light-skinned or white-passing actors. Viewers took to social media to voice their feelings and bring attention to the longstanding issue of colorism in Hollywood. 

In the Heights follows the lives of various Latinx characters living in Washington Heights, weaving their stories together in a celebration of Latin pride and Latinx stories. However, the film adaptation notably lacks dark-skinned Afro-Latinx main characters, creating an inaccurate portrayal of the NYC neighborhood. Described as a “melting pot” by In the Heights actress Melissa Barrera, Washington Heights, the film fails to portray an accurate “mosaic of this community.” 

While the film maintains a high rating on critic site, Rotten Tomatoes, and has favored well with general audiences, the issue of colorism remains a valid criticism and an important conversation to be had. 

Commenting on the controversy, actress Melissa Barrera said that “the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there. A lot of darker skinned people. And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent,” clarifying, “Because the cast ended up being us, and because Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like.”

It is true that there were dark-skinned performers in the group numbers as background dancers, but this only further highlights the key issue: there were none in lead roles. To dark-skinned Afro-Latinx viewers this sends the message that their lives and their stories are not important. It tells them that they are only “background” characters in the lives of light-skinned and white people. The film’s only dark-skinned character is Benny, played by non-Latino actor Corey Hawkins. In the musical, Benny pursues a romance with Nina, though he is viewed as an outsider by Nina’s father because he is not Latino. Being the only dark-skinned character in the main cast, this sends another message to audiences, that dark-skinned people are “outsiders” or don’t belong in Latino communities, which could not be farther from the truth. 

In our current socio-political climate, where race issues are at the forefront, this significant lack of dark-skinned Afto-Latinx actors in a film about a historically diversey neighborhood cannot be ignored. Movements like Black Lives Matter have made it clear that there is still so much work to be done regarding the treatment of Black lives in our society. The lack of visibility of Black lives and Black stories in our media is just one of many symptoms of systemic racism. Just as systemic racism prevents Black individuals from accessing resources, education, and employment due to long standing biases ingrained in our culture, Hollywood, too, is affected. 

You might be interested: Biden-Harris Administration unveils plan to build black wealth and narrow racial divide 

As Melissa Barrera pointed out in her statement, the audition process included many Afro-Latinx actors auditioning for lead roles. However, not a single one made it to the big screen. Why? Some may say it was down to talent, but there are many, many talented dark-skinned actors in Hollywood, so one has to wonder why they were not given the same opportunity to star in the film as light-skinned and white Latinx actors. 

In the Heights creator and American actor, singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, and playwright, Lin Manuel Miranda. (Image Source)

In a Twitter statement addressing the colorism controversy, Lin Manuel Miranda expressed his deep apology for the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx representation in the film. 

“I started writing In the Heights because I didn’t feel seen,” he says. “And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen. I’m seeing the discussion around Afro-Latino representation in our film this weekend, and it is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it, particularly among the leading roles. I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling unseen in the feedback. I hear that, without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the world feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.”

“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. I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings. Thank you for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”

Stacie de Armas on breaking stereotypes and advocating for Latinas

Stacie de Armas is the Senior Vice President of Diversity Insights & Initiatives at Nielsen, where she conducts data harvesting, narrative development, and socialization of inclusive insights that cascade across multiple diverse identity groups—storytelling with a purpose. She is passionate about equity and advocacy for Latinos. 

Breaking stereotypes and advocating for equity

Stacie de Armas describes herself as “a Latina, a Cubana, a daughter, granddaughter, a sister, a tia, a mother, a seeker, and a teller of truth, ” and says being a Latinas has been her “superpower” in her work. At Nielsen, her position sits in a unique space that allows her to use Nielsen’s resources to uncover diverse community insights that empower and educate. Growing up, she never imagined she could do this job or have an extensive background as a consumer researcher, behaviorist, and thought leader in diverse communities. 

“I never knew I could be a researcher. Growing up, stereotypes surrounded me on television, if I saw myself at all. And I didn’t realize that I could be more,” says Stacie. “I didn’t see myself on screen, and when I did, I didn’t see a doctor, or a scientist, or a strong woman. I often saw Latinas presented in a light that I didn’t recognize and wasn’t my truth. In my job, I get to change that stereotype for all women.”  

Now, she’s breaking stereotypes for herself and others to show Latinas their power and potential. Looking back on her career, she notes a strong common thread of a passion for equity that has woven through all her experiences. 

“From the outside, my career seems like a series of opportunities that built on previous ones, but upon closer evaluation, you can see early signs of my passion for equity. At the time, however,  I didn’t quite see it like that. I thought all the advances I made were happenstance or serendipitous,” says Stacie. 

In one of her earliest working experiences, Stacie worked as a waitress throughout college. She was one of the few waitresses who spoke Spanish and soon formed fond friendships with the back-of-the-house staff. 

“I felt aligned and had common experiences with our Spanish-speaking team, and I really enjoyed those friendships. They were authentic. I felt like I belonged with them, and we had shared backgrounds,” Stacie says. “I found myself advocating for them in small ways.  As it happened, I saw early on there was inequity in how they were treated, and I found it hard to stand by and watch it unfold.”   

Later in college, Stacie began working at a bank, where she quickly fell into a role where she supported Latino clients. Again, because of her Latina background and ability to speak Spanish, Stacie found herself advocating for them. She transitioned from bank teller to supporting loan signings and new accounts, explaining the various documents that were not in Spanish at the time. Rather than just filling quotas, Stacie worked to help her Latino clients learn the inner workings of the U.S. banking system. 

advocacy for Latinos, breaking stereotypes, Stacie de Armas

On breaking stereotypes: “I never knew I could be a researcher. Growing up, stereotypes surrounded me on television if I saw myself at all. And I didn’t realize that I could be more.” (Photo courtesy Stacie de Armas)

“Naturally, I focused on this client base and found ways to meet their current needs without exorbitant fees. My clients would bring their friends and family, and others to bank with me. It was such an honor at the time, and I felt mutual respect.” 

After college, Stacie moved on from banking to work at an ad agency. Again, a similar situation presented itself. 

“I was an assistant buyer, and we worked primarily in English-speaking markets, but we did handle some Spanish language broadcast and cable network advertising buying for a few clients.  I noticed we didn’t have a good understanding of the offerings, the audience, or the value of the outlets we worked with. Our conversations and negotiations with our English language broadcasters were more detailed. The data was there, but evaluating our Spanish Language networks wasn’t a priority,” Stacie explains. 

So Stacie took the initiative and asked to focus on the Spanish market. She then began meeting with the agency’s Spanish language media companies and advocating for a new strategy that had more equity for Spanish media companies. And from there, she began handling most of the agency’s Spanish language buying and planning. 

“And so the story goes,” she says. “ Everywhere I ever went, as a white presenting Latina, I felt an obligation to stand with, beside, and for my comunidad. And it shone through in my work. My career grew in the space of consumer advocacy, specifically for the Latino consumer.  This passion for equity had presented itself early in my life, and I have carried it with me throughout my career.”  

You might be interested: A National Conversation with Latina Leaders to address Latina Small Business recovery in Post-Covid19 economic crisis

Be bold and do not let yourself be ignored

Now, Stacie is committed to breaking down barriers for other Latinas and empowering them to break through stereotypes, as she did, and made their dreams a reality. 

To other aspiring Latina professionals, Stacie says her best advice is to be bold. 

“I think we are often not taught about the value of being bold.  We confuse being bold for being aggressive. Being bold is assertive but not aggressive. It is a learned skill. The advantage of being bold is you don’t have to bring it up again,” she says. “My strengths are my bold but kind approach, empathy, and listening. They have served me throughout my career and allowed me to grow and serve.”  

advocacy for Latinos, breaking stereotypes

“We confuse being bold for being aggressive. Being bold is assertive, but not aggressive. It is a learned skill.” (Photo courtesy Stacie de Armas)

Look beyond your core experience and follow your passion

Another important lesson learned along the way is: Look beyond your core experience for professional involvement and follow your passion.

“When Nielsen acquired Arbitron in 2013, I was given the opportunity to stay on the commercial side of the business or grow my career in an area of community outreach and advocacy,” says Stacie. 

Until then, Stacie had focused mostly on the US Hispanic consumer, working specifically with ad agencies and radio stations to help them craft and shape their narratives to serve the Hispanic communities better. She had no real experience in grassroots community outreach and advocacy though she figured she could pivot her business advocacy skills for consumers into community advocacy. 

“Even though my heart was on the commercial side, I decided to accept the position in the community and consumer outreach group and extend my experiences.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be by far the most significant career-impacting decision that I would ever make,” says Stacie. “I never anticipated how my passion for diversity business issues would flourish or the professional opportunities that I would have as a result.” 

Throughout her career, she has faced some obstacles, one of which was the challenge of imparting her passion for and value of the community to those in decision-making roles. She found that oftentimes her passion was not transferable or understandable. However, data is universal and hard to refute. 

“Supporting your story, advocacy, or plan with data is paramount and makes your point unignorable.” 

So go out there and be bold, assertive, and passionate about your story, project, or mission. Make things happen, and don’t let limiting stereotypes stop you from reaching your highest potential.