In the Heights: Let’s Talk About Colorism and Representation
On April 16, 2010, I saw my first (and only, to date) show on Broadway. It was a fairly new show titled, In the Heights. 11 years later I saw the film adaptation, on June 10, 2021. It was my first movie in the theater since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Walking out of the theater with tears dried on my cheeks and mask I thought I’d never seen a more beautiful film. I came home and watched it a second time (this time with my husband). I listened to the music so much that my toddler started running around the living room yelling, “In the Heights!” and “Washington Heights!” Then the critic reviews and tweets started rolling in as opening weekend moved forward.
About the Heights
Washington Heights is a neighborhood in New York City with a strong Latinx community, primarily a Dominican community. I want to add a sidenote really quickly. I am Latina/Latinx and I will accept either word as a descriptor of myself. As such, I will use the words interchangeably, understanding that some in the Latinx community don’t like the word “Latinx” but also that we are a rich and diverse community. We are not a monolith where a few opinions equal the opinions of the whole. Knowing that the Washington Heights community has a large population of Dominicans, In the Heights demonstrates colorism. The lead actors/actresses are not only light-skinned but only a couple are of Dominican descent. If you’re interested in hearing more about the colorism of In the Heights there are plenty of other articles and tweets that you could read. I want to talk a little bit about the reaction to the colorism.
Stop the Colorism, PLEASE
I have actually read people’s tweets and articles saying that the lead actors/actresses aren’t Latinx enough because they are light-skinned. Just as the colorism in the casting is wrong, it is also colorism to say that someone isn’t _______ enough because they don’t fit your idea of what that race/etc should look like. That is just perpetuating the idea that your skin color has to match your race. I am a light-skinned Latina and when I read things like that, it is just continuing the racism that I have experienced my whole life that I am not “Latina enough” because I look like a white girl. It is not the fault of the actors how the film was cast. Being colorist towards them is just as bad as the colorism of the film, and probably actually worse.
Do Better, Be Better
Yes, In the Heights has its shortcomings, and also let’s talk about what’s good about it. We are seeing representation. I’m not saying, “any representation is good representation,” because let’s be honest, we’re past that mess. We need to have the right kind of representation if our efforts are going to matter and make real change. That said, it is a step in the right direction. Let’s talk about the shortcomings and also talk about the beauty of the Latinx community in all of its colors. We need to do better next time, and this time we need to not “cancel In the Heights” but continue the conversations about what went wrong and how we can do better next time. In the meantime, I’m going to keep my sueñito of a day when the color of our skin doesn’t mean that we are or aren’t a certain race and where representation is full and real and not just “good enough.”