2021 marked a pivotal year for Afro-Latinx representation in Hollywood in both animation and live-action media following a long history of Afro-Latinidad exclusion from American media. The releases of Encanto, In the Heights, and West Side Story, have made undoubtedly large strides in Afro-Latinx representation warranting applause while also prompting necessary discourse around representation and Latindidad’s intersection with blackness.
To fully understand and appreciate the nature of this progress in media, the historical absence of Afro-Latinx representation must be explored. Whitewashing, or white actors inappropriately depicting different races and ethnicities, has been present in media for centuries.
Through voice impressions, skin tone alterations, and general stereotyping, these acts of erasure trace back to minstrel shows and movies of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The prevalence of blackface as performance began to decline during WWII as a result of rising Civil Rights efforts that condemned the practice. However, though blackface was reduced in the industry, yellowface, redface, and brownface soon took its place. East Asians were mocked by characters such as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Native Americans were falsely portrayed in mid-20th century Westerns, and Latinos and Afro-Latinos were misrepresented as most notably seen in 1961’s West Side Story.
Under the backdrop of an emblematic teenage street gang rivalry between Puerto Ricans and white teenagers in the 1950s Upper West Side, West Side Story follows the romance between a Puerto Rican, Maria, and a Polish-Irish boy named Tony. In the movie, a Russian-American, Natalie Wood, would star as Maria while Greek-American, George Chakiris, would play Bernardo, head of the Puerto Rican gang and Maria’s older brother. Rita Moreno would later mention in a 2017 podcast how all the actors depicting Puerto Ricans in West Side Story, including herself, one of the few authentic Puerto Ricans on the cast, were placed in extremely dark makeup. A light-skinned Puerto Rican, Rita Moreno’s character, Anita, finds herself in a scene where she is almost sexually assaulted by the white gang and mocked for being “too dark to pass.” Though both Rita Moreno and Anita are boriqua, even she is guilty of falsely representing an Afro-Latina. Considering the fact that the movie specifically takes place in San Juan Hill, a predominantly African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Puerto Rican community, these cases of miscasting were beyond tone-deaf. It not only illustrated the widespread discrimination existent in the movie industry, but narrowed Latinos to a singular shade. In this, there is not only a failure to acknowledge the racial diversity amongst Latinos, from black to white but also an inherent disrespect and erasure of the Afro-Latinx perspective through insensitive misrepresentation.
Steven Spielberg’s 2021 West Side Story immediately addresses the inaccuracies of its predecessor through the proper casting of Latinos for Latinx roles and especially with the casting of Ariana DeBose, an Afro-Latina who perfectly represents Anita’s character. However, while watching the new West Side Story I could not help but feel that the tone of the film was apologetic rather than emphatic. While its messages of white flight, displacement, and racial discrimination in New York City still rang true as I watched in a South Bronx theatre, I could not help but think of the generations of BIPOC from San Juan Hill, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side who deserved and could have benefitted from this proper representation. Nonetheless, the apology was still needed and the movie is in fact necessary as the appropriate treatment of Afro-Latinidad is something the movie industry still struggles with today.
These struggles are most evident in last summer’s In the Heights. With addictive musical numbers that span across several genres and styles, choreography and visuals that satisfy the eyes, and an all BIPOC, predominantly Latinx cast, at first glance the movie seems flawless. However, as the plot unfolds and the senses get accustomed to the film’s exuberance, several issues with Afro-Latinx representation begin to arise. As a film representative of Washington Heights, In the Heights fails to accurately portray the neighborhood’s and Latinx community’s blackness. Though some Afro-Latinos are noticeable as extras and background dancers, in the primary cast only two out of over a dozen characters are identifiable Afro-Latinos, both of which are supporting characters who lack any arcs. Dascha Polanco, who plays Cuca, a hairdresser decked in long acrylics and tons of jewelry, is introduced in the first five minutes of the movie by flirtatiously purring at the protagonist in a way that’s clearly meant to be ghetto and undesirable. Meanwhile, Noah Catala plays “Graffiti Pete” a graffiti artist who in the opening scenes is shewed away from graffitiing Usnavi’s bodega and just minutes later steals from it while unattended. With this exclusion and degradation of Afro-Latinos in In the Heights, criticism regarding the film’s colorism began to spread and when questioned about it Rita Moreno responded, “It’s like you can never do right it seems… can’t they just wait a while and leave it alone; they’re really attacking the wrong person.”
Unlike the original West Side Story or other works of the past, this stereotyping and restriction of Afro-Latinx representation is not coming from white people but rather at the hand of BIPOC, specifically other Latinos. While it is disheartening to see Afro-Latinos treated this way by other Latinos with whom they share culture and ethnicity, it is not surprising. Colorism has existed within the Latinx community for as long as the Latinx community itself. Unfortunately, it serves as one of the many factors that unify Afro-Latinos across several ethnicities and backgrounds. Therefore, when a film about Latinos made predominantly by Latinos is colorist against Afro-Latinos, it is not ironic, but rather poetic and expected. In fact, this is not new to the Latinx community at all as Univision, Telemundo, and novela after novela have abundantly made clear that light-skinned reporters, artists, and actors are to be prioritized over their Afro-Latinx counterparts. Thus, the disappointment that comes with In the Heights is not its ultimate adherence to these colorist tendencies, but rather that the perceived progressivism of our American generation was not enough to overturn them.
Considering the precedent set by In the Heights for Afro-Latinx representation in 2021, I was both excited and apprehensive for the release of Encanto. Already ambivalent over representation in Soul, I wondered if Disney’s Colombia would be authentically Afro-Latinx or authentically colorist. However, I was ultimately charmed by Disney’s racial portrayal of Colombia, a portrayal I fear would be far lighter if it were made by Colombia itself. While I do appreciate Disney’s racial depiction of Colombia, as a Colombian, I believe more could have been done in culturally representing the country aside from subtle flags, arepa de queso, and buñuelos. Grossing over $237 million in theaters and with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno ” now as the longest-running Disney song in Billboard Hot 100 history, Encanto’s success is undeniable. It is a story of magical realism based in Colombia and focused on a family’s struggle with generational trauma. While the movie’s impressive soundtrack and stunning visuals are definitely notable, it is Encanto’s Afro-Latinx representation that has arguably been its most revolutionary aspect. Prior to Encanto, 2017’s Coco was the only other Latinx-based animated Disney movie and upon its release would join the very limited group of Latinx, American animations which predominantly include The Book of Life, El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, and Dora the Explorer. All based on Mexican culture with Mexican characters, with animated representations of non-Mexican Latinos having been few and far between prior to Encanto. As a result, US studios have hyper-generalized Latinidad with Mexican culture, which has only served to contribute to the already existent American generalization of Latinos as Mexicans. This filtration of Latinx culture is not only harmful in its narrowness and exclusion of other Latinos, but also in its resulting restriction and even erasure of much of Latinidad’s blackness. Through its portrayal of Colombia and inclusion of several black characters, Encanto will hopefully serve as the catalyst and standard in including more of Latinidad’s ethnic and racial diversity in American animation.