The Latino and Black communities exploded with feelings over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” pretty much as soon as it hit screens. Folks were thrilled about the film’s potential — and some of them felt let down once they realized it lacked the diversity they expected. Specifically, the surprising lack of Afro-Latinos left a lot of people perplexed, not least people who grew up or live in Washington Heights themselves. And when Rita Moreno complained to Stephen Colbert on The Late Show that Miranda didn’t deserve the criticism, asking, “Why can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone?”, she only added fuel to the fire.
As a white-passing Latina, it took a long time for me to understand the hardships of my darker-skinned family members — and the effects their erasure onscreen could have. The truth is that colorism is everywhere, it’s toxic, and it’s easy to ignore if you pass as white. When Moreno said, “Can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone?”, I heard the voice of my mother and white family members talking over those darker-skinned relatives while they tried to bring up their experiences and their pain. It made me angry and ashamed.
Darker-skinned people of color contend with such dismissal every day, quietly on the sidelines of mixed family gatherings and publicly on film screens.
On NBC’s Nightly News With Lestor Holt, Miranda apologized for the lack of Afro-Latinos in prominent roles in the movie, and spoke of his own experiences of racism. When he first entered the industry, he said, he was given racist and colorist advice about how to “comport himself”, such as: “Conceal who you are so you can be more ambiguous. Grow your hair out. Change the way you speak. Speak in American standard. Pay more attention in pronunciation and speech class and pronounce the vowels the way the teachers pronounce the vowels so that people won’t know where you’re from... so you can play this kind of role and that kind of race... And I was like, ‘I want to work, yeah’.”
This kind of advice is a known “secret” for folks in the acting community. Appearing “racially ambiguous” is seen as a plus, while being clearly Black is often seen as less desirable. Over decades of such erasure, Black and darker-skinned people have found it harder and harder to even make it to auditions, never mind land the starring roles. Miranda knew the odds were stacked against them, so why didn’t he make more of an effort to make sure their community was included?
Similarly, though she may mean well, Rita Moreno only entrenched colorism when she suggested the discussion about “In the Heights” should be left alone. This is bigger than Lin-Manuel Miranda; this is a reckoning that needs to be had, and attempting to shut down the conversation leaves you on the wrong side of history. In an age where critical race theory discussions are getting pushed out of multiple states’ classrooms, we can’t afford to just “leave it alone”.
Moreno has benefited from colorism, whether she would like to admit that privilege or not. And she has spoken of having her skin darkened in West Side Story and the discomfort it caused her in the past. In an interview in 2019, she said: “I remember one time saying to the makeup man who was making me up, ‘I really hate this color because this isn’t the color I am.’ And he actually said to me ‘What, are you racist?’ I was so stunned that I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say.” There’s a lot to unpack there, and racial assumptions are at the heart of it. If anyone should be welcoming an important discussion about the color of people’s skin and the importance of representing it accurately, it seems, Moreno should be.
“You can never do right, it seems,” Moreno said in her interview this week. This is wrong. I was wrong when I allowed myself to “just wait” to have the hard conversations with my darker-skinned family members after my mother suggested their skin made them less beautiful and less worthy. It was wrong of me to “leave it alone” when my white cousins made disparaging, colorist comments towards the other side of the family. I didn’t fight to understand and I wasn’t a good ally then. I should have been. It was my responsibility to open that conversation and to push back.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken critiques of “In the Heights” to heart and apologized. He has promised to do better. His lack of defensiveness and his willingness to learn was refreshing in contrast to the reactions of some of his friends.
Rita Moreno can do right now by listening to those Afro-Latino and darker-skinned people who do not have the privileges that she does. She can fight for their right to be represented, seen and heard, and to have a seat at the table. Martin Luther King Jr said that “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It’s time the silence stopped.
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