Afro-Latinidad in "Spider-Man": A Hyphenated Identity
By Serapia Kim
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was released in 2018 with Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino high school student, as the new Spider-Man. A blockbuster hit with an Afro-Latino superhero as the protagonist, Spider-Man is a part of a new era of film—one that centers the stories of people of color. But beyond that, Spider-Man is unique in that it makes visible the often-forgotten intersection of Blackness and Latinidad in media. The film depicts Blackness and Latinidad not as separate but as coexisting, and Afro-Latinidad not as an abstract concept but as an identity grounded in the lived experience of Miles.
In this blog post, I want to explore how Miles’ Afro-Latino identity is depicted in the film and the comic series. To clarify, the film is not based on the comic series’ timeline, which makes for a useful comparison between the two mediums for their different portrayals and complications of Miles’ Blackness, Latinidad, and Afro-Latinidad.
As Sony’s press release states: “The film will exist independently of the projects in the live-action Spider-Man universe, all of which are continuing.” This departure can be seen in how the film does not explicitly unpack Miles’ Afro-Latino identity, instead choosing to merely reference it in implicit ways (as I’ll discuss further below). In contrast, the comic series—only one of which I will be addressing in detail in this post—directly tackles the tension between his Blackness and Latinidad, a divide that is primarily made visible by others, not one that Miles himself creates.
The film depicts Miles’ Afro-Latino identity as a given, a harmonious whole. From the beginning, the film establishes that Miles’ Blackness and Latinidad smoothly coexist in his life. His visible Blackness, as revealed by his skin color and hair texture for example, is reaffirmed by the song he is listening to, “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee, the latter of whom is a Black artist. His Latinidad is most obviously shown in scenes where he speaks Spanish to his mother and friends, but also more subtly in him eating what seems to be arroz amarillo in the scene below (and not cereal as I first thought, because who blows on cereal? :) ).
Screenshot from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).
The film goes further in establishing how his racial identity is read by his community, or what sociologist Nancy López would describe as one’s “street race.” On his way to school, he greets his friends in English and Spanish (the dialogue in Spanish remains untranslated but is noted on the screen like below). It is in these moments that he publicly ‘makes visible’ his Latinidad. In this sense, language plays a crucial role in how his Afro-Latino identity is made known to others ‘on the street.’
Screenshot from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).
Unlike in the comic series, Miles’ Afro-Latino identity is neither discussed nor challenged. This may be a strategic move by the creators, choosing to focus on telling the story of Miles as ‘just another superhero’ rather than bringing in the added complication of unpacking his identity as an Afro-Latino superhero. In fact, no one even explicitly mentions the fact that he is Afro-Latino; it is merely referenced in implicit ways like above. While this depiction of Miles can be celebrated in that it does not make Miles’ ethnoracial identity a contentious plotline, it seems disingenuous to not devote any airtime to discussing his Afro-Latinidad. For one, the film’s harmonious depiction of his Afro-Latinidad does not capture the challenges he experiences with his identity in the comic series, let alone depict the reality that is the challenges that Afro-Latinx people continue to struggle with today. In this sense, I wonder to what extent the movie truly centers the lived experience of Afro-Latinx people, many of whom are the audience members of this film and perhaps the readers of the comic series.
The comic book Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1, shows how, in the eyes of other people, Miles’ hypervisible Blackness overshadows his Latinidad. In chapter two of the comic book, Miles ‘debuts’ as Spider-Man when he fights a creature he calls ‘a demon.’ A video of this fight scene goes viral when an unnamed ‘fangirl’ posts it on her social media. In this vlog, she gets visibly excited that “The new Spider-Man is brown […] a kid of color.” She then tries to guess whether he is African American, Indian, or Hispanic before resorting to racializing him as Black and celebrating his Blackness. Miles looks bothered by his “qualification” as the Black Spider-Man and her failing to recognize the fact that he is “half Hispanic.” This scene reveals how hypervisible his Blackness is and, on the flip side, how easily forgotten his Latinidad is. While his Blackness is a point of celebration for people like the ‘fangirl,’ it comes at the cost of obscuring his Latinidad—an identity that is equally important to Miles as it is inseparable from his Blackness.
I am cautious, though, of making a few linguistic assumptions. First, it is unclear whether the ‘fangirl’ thought that Miles’ was either African American, Indian, or Hispanic for the word “or” does not appear in the comic book and these ethnoracial labels are instead listed one after the other as questions. This small semantic detail can reveal a lot about whether she views these identities to be mutually exclusive or to be a list of identities that can be viewed in combination, like how being Afro-Latinx means one is both Black and Latinx. Obviously, the latter is true, but the reality is that in popular discourse, Blackness and Latinidad are seen as either-or identities in which one is wholly one or the other (i.e., mutually exclusive). Second, I am hesitant to conclude that Miles thinks of his Latinidad as ‘equally’ important to his Blackness. I wonder whether my assumption of this equality comes from the fact that each of his parents embodies one of these identifiers, his dad is African American and his mom is Puerto Rican. If both of his parents were Afro-Latinx, I wonder if it would complicate how Miles’ Afro-Latino identity is understood by others and by the audience. But back to the main discussion.
The comic book scenes where Miles (re)asserts his Latinidad reveal how other people can insert a distance between his Blackness and Latinidad, revealing a tension between the two identities. This tension refers to how people can perceive Blackness and Latinidad to be mutually exclusive, which carries an implication that Afro-Latinx people like Miles have “to pick one group over another as a primary identification.” This tension is symbolically represented in the literal distance between the words ‘Afro’ and ‘Latinx,’ a distance made clear by the hyphen that bridges them while simultaneously reinstating their separation. To people like ‘the fangirl,’ who resort to racializing him as Black without noting his Latinidad, Miles’ Blackness is hypervisible while his Latinidad is invisible. Such a contrast reveals the difference between Miles’ street race (primarily Black) and his self-perceived race (both Black and Latinx).
While the film does not engage with this tension between his street race and his self-perceived race, the interview with Miles’ voice actor, Shameik Moore, adds a new dimension of complication to Miles’ Afro-Latino identity. Moore is a Jamaican American who does not identify as Latino. In the interview, he echoes the distance between Miles’ Blackness and Latinidad when he states “I just saw that he [Miles] was Black […] This man is Spanish [sic]… I'm not Spanish. I'm Jamaican” (at the 00:19 and 01:04 marks). Moore reads Miles as racially Black and that is the part of Miles’ identity that speaks to him the most—so much so that he takes the position to be his voice actor while knowing that he cannot represent the “Spanish” side of him. Moore’s discomfort with the expectation of Afro-Latinx representation is made clear when he recalls recording Spanish lines in the film and being reminded that there is more to Miles than his visible Blackness. It is in these moments of speaking Spanish, and thus making audible Miles’ Latinidad, that Moore is reminded that Miles is Afro-Latino—a moment of clashing in the hyphenated space of Afro-Latinidad where Latinidad becomes visible.
In summary, there is an incongruence between how Miles conceptualizes his identity and how others do. To Miles, it is clear that his Black and Latino identities are inseparable. He lives his life cohesively as both, never as either. But to others, his identity is one that can be examined separately, which allows Moore to privilege Miles’ visible Blackness over his mostly ‘silent’ Latinidad and the ‘fangirl’ to racialize him as Black and thereby separate his Blackness from his Latinidad.
I must admit that my positionality as an Asian American lends me a distance from which I view and interpret this film and comic book, especially when evaluating them through an ethnoracial lens as I do in this blog post. Besides my lack of lived experience of Blackness and Latinidad, I enrolled in this class called “U.S. Afro-Latinidades” with a limited understanding of ethnoracial discourse at large, including that of my own.
My primary exposure to academic dialogue on race and ethnicity stems from this diagram called “racial triangulation” (shown below). At the heart of this diagram is the well-known model minority myth, which posits that Asian Americans’ material success (measured simply by income) can be attributed to their cultural values (which are foreign and ‘non-American’) and hard work. Implicit in these characterizations of Asian Americans is that Black Americans’ lack of material success is attributed to their collective lack of such qualities, and are, hence, ‘their fault.’ At the heart of this harmful stereotype is a denial of institutionalized anti-Black racism that makes material success difficult for most Black Americans and a rhetoric of “a racially coded good minority/bad minority opposition” erected by racist white Americans that pits one minority group against another.
Source: Claire Jean Kim (1999).
While this diagram is useful in illuminating the experiences of some Asian Americans, it erases many important realities. For one, it is a woefully oversimplified diagram that erases the existence of Black immigrants, Latinx/Hispanic people (where would they fit in this diagram?), and Afro-Latinx people, whom I believe cannot fit in a diagram that assumes a neat spectrum from “foreign” to “insider.” To clarify, while undocumented Afro-Latinx immigrants may be primarily racialized as Black and thus seen as ‘insiders,’ their undocumented status would reveal that they are “foreign” and make them vulnerable to institutional violence (e.g., deportation).
An important conclusion to be drawn in the study of Afro-Latinidades is that Afro-Latinidad is not a mere addition of Blackness and Latinidad, and in fact Blackness and Latinidad are constantly challenged and negotiated by Afro-Latinx people (e.g., to be visible, as in the case of Miles). This class, which centers the lived experiences of, and scholarship about, Afro-Latinx people, taught me that ethnoracial discourse is far richer when minoritized people are the interpreters and knowledge creators of their own histories and identities.
Serapia Kim '19 is a graduate of Williams College with a B.A. in Political Economy. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Busey, Christopher L., and Bárbara C. Cruz. “A Shared Heritage: Afro-Latin@s and Black History.” The Social Studies 106, no. 6 (2015): 293–300. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377996.2015.1085824
Kim, Claire Jean. “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans.” Politics & Society 27, no. 1 (1999): 105–38. https://doi:10.1177/0032329299027001005
López, Nancy, Edward Vargas, Melina Juarez, Lisa Cacari-Stone, and Sonia Bettez. “What’s Your ‘Street Race’? Leveraging Multidimensional Measures of Race and Intersectionality for Examining Physical and Mental Health Status among Latinxs.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 4, no. 1 (2018): 49–66. https://doi:10.1177/2332649217708798