The Cost of Representation: Afro-Latinxs in TV and Film
By Andrea Alvarez
On February 16, 2018, Marvel’s Black Panther made its debut on screens. The film was a success, breaking numerous box office records, receiving several awards and nominations and praised highly for its cultural significance. Having given visibility to many African American actors, young Black viewers and comic book fans were finally seeing more of themselves on screen–and no longer as the side character or extra, but as superheroes, as protagonists, and as characters with depth and substance. A great deal of discourse was spurred by the film, both positive and negative. One comment in particular sparked controversy; following the release of the film, Puerto-Rican actress Gina Rodriguez wrote the following in a tweet, “Marvel and DC are killing it in inclusion and women but where are the Latinos?!...” This comment not only negates the appearances of Afro-Latinx actresses Zoe Saldaña and Tessa Thompson in superhero films prior to this one, but also implicitly presents Latinidad and Blackness as mutually exclusive. Furthermore, Rodriguez’s comment can be seen as creating a dynamic where minorities must fight for space among each other as opposed to against the dominant group. Although Rodriguez continues to demonstrate personal confusion over the matter, her comment elucidates a larger problematic perception and image of the “Latino,” one we see constructed and reproduced by Hollywood time and time again: That of the mestizx, “mixed,” or “Brown” Latinxs, and consequently, not of those who are Black.
Given the evident confusion surrounding the heterogeneity of Latinidad and the pervasive nature of visual media, I aim to explore ways in which we see Afro-Latinidad on screen, specifically in TV and film. What does meaningful representation of Afro-Latinxs look like? I will be analyzing the representation of Afro-Latinxs in well-known films and television shows to argue that the question of what counts as “meaningful” representation of Afro-Latinxs is highly subjective due to the fluidity of interpretation inherent to visual media. Along the way, I will categorize various visual representations of and artistic contributions of Afro-Latinxs. I have chosen to use examples in both film and TV to broaden the scope of my analysis due to limited scholarship about, and representation of Afro-Latinx actors in, either medium. I will be looking at actors’ performances themselves as well as available interviews with actors to engage differing perspectives in my analysis. I will start by looking at how Latinidad is imagined, reimagined, and constructed as discussed in academic sources and as exemplified in some of my favorite shows. Then, I will explore instances in which African American actors play Afro-Latinx characters. I will follow this by discussing instances in which Afro-Latinxs play African American characters and, finally, I will analyze examples in which Afro-Latinxs actually play Afro-Latinx characters on screen.
Before I dive in, I would like to recognize that, because I do not identify as Afro-Latina, I cannot speak from a personal perspective about whether certain instances demonstrate “appropriate” or “meaningful” representation. Therefore, my conclusions will be largely informed by academic theories, commentary from actors in interviews, and from information in articles to assess the reception of media in terms of representation. With these sources, I will present how portrayals of Afro-Latinidad in each of these three casting scenarios remain limiting and lack nuance inherent to the actual transnational, intersectional experiences and identities of Afro-Latinxs. That being said, I will first contextualize Afro-Latinx representation by discussing the erasure of Afro-Latinxs perpetrated by limited visual portrayals of Latinxs on screen.
One well known and controversial portrayal of Latinidad is in the show Modern Family. In this show, Colombian actress Sofía Vergara portrays Gloria Pritchett, a Colombian single mother to Manny, who ends up being raised by her and her much older, wealthy new husband, Jay.
Vergara has faced a great deal of backlash for the ways her character on the show depicts Latinxs and Colombians by relying heavily on stereotypes of the hyper-sexual Latina, questionable intelligence of immigrants in this country tied to limits in knowing English, stereotypes of being loud and theatrical, and caricaturing of familial dynamics of Latinxs and in particular Colombia’s violent and painful history at the center of cartel-related violence. WLRN Public Media editor Tim Padgett comments, “The show seems to exploit every ugly stereotype about Latin America and especially Colombia, portraying Gloria as a woman with dirt floors, burros, and narco-violence in her DNA.” Most telling of all has been Vergara’s commentary to interviewers that she is encouraged to emphasize and exaggerate her accent on set, making her inevitably a participant in her own misrepresentation as a Latina in the TV industry. Of course, there are various power dynamics at play in Vergara’s freedom to play her character as she sees fit. Professor Molina-Guzmán at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign writes, “Nevertheless, the more a Latina/o actor can be commodified, the more that Latina/o actor is financially valued as determined by their ability to draw larger salaries and influence production decisions. So, it is not skin color or ethnic identity itself, for instance, that holds racial capital but rather that actor’s ability to parlay his/her ethnic and racial identity into acting roles, advertising campaigns, and publicity” (Molina-Guzmán, 216). This power structure, however, does not diminish the real effects that this kind of representation contributes to already-limited images of Latinxs in the U.S. Even more concerning is that Vergara’s tokenized Latinidad erases the diversity of Latin America by reducing those of the diaspora to a narrow, singular, and highly superficial portrayal.
Even in shows considered more representative of Latinxs, there is still much ground not covered. Take the show One Day at a Time, for instance. This comedy web television series, developed by Gloria Calderon Kellet and Mike Royce, centers a Cuban American family living in the Echo Park neighborhood in Los Angeles, California.
The show has been praised for tackling subjects such as mental illness, immigration, sexism, homophobia, and racism that Latinxs face while living in the U.S. However, the show still centers a mostly mestizx and white-passing Cuban family. While there is a bit of discussion of skin color (one episode touches upon the fact that the daughter, “Elena” (pictured left, below) is more “blanquita” than the son, “Alex” (pictured on the right) who is called “café con leche,” and thus spared from harassment for being racialized as Latinx), the racial conversation stays at the mestizx or white-approaching end of the racial continuum.
Writer Julio Salgado on Rewire News praises the show in its more complex portrayal of Latinxs in the U.S., but also explains its shortcomings with respect to racial representation. Salgado explains, “…while the show did explore the issue of colorism in the Latinx community, it could have done more to show how anti-Blackness runs amok in our community. If Issa Rae can address brown and Black tensions in Insecure, why can’t more non-Black Latinx creators tackle anti-Blackness in their shows?” Salgado’s point is highlighted particularly by the lack of exploration of identity of “Ramona,” played by Dominican actress Judy Reyes.
Ramona is the one Afro-Latinx character in the show; she becomes very close friends with the protagonist, Penelope Alvarez, played by Justina Machado (who is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents). Penelope (left) leans on Ramona (right), who is a lesbian, as a mentor to help her understand her daughter, Elena, as she navigates her sexual orientation after she comes out to her family as gay. Despite her role as a close friend of Penelope, Judy Reyes’ Afro-Latinidad is never mentioned beyond her name and some use of Spanish. Erasure in this regard is assessed further in academic analysis. One paper, titled, “‘I got you’: The Modern American Family and Latinx Reconfigurations in Netflix’s One Day at a Time,” claims that, part of what makes the show a success are the “the signifiers of Latinidad included in the opening sequence” and “in-jokes that act as subtext” which are “relatable to viewers who are also part of the Latinx diaspora, regardless of whether or not they identify as Cuban (Perez, 45-46). Thus, although the show’s target audience is the “Latinx diaspora,” hegemonic, mestizx Latinidad is centered while the whole Afro-Latinx portion of this group remains absent and unrepresented. Furthermore, author Melissa Perez emphasizes the communicated “multitude of Latinxs” and how the “fluid and flexible multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, and multinational” nature of the characters and discourse “do the dual work of uniting the Alvarez family with its audience” (Perez, 47). However, the fact remains that given a mostly mestizx and white cast and lack of discourse or acknowledgement of Afro-Latinidad in general, Afro-Latinxs are not reflected and thus not represented, leaving the question of whether the show is really as inclusive as it claims. Jennifer Jones elucidates the degree of erasure seen in these examples, explaining that, “While mestizo nationalism is being challenged and, in some cases, dismantled in Latin America, it serves as a central political self-assertion in the United States that continues to invisiblilize Afro-Latinos or push them outside of Latinidad into the African diaspora or Caribbeanness” (Jones, 583).
Having largely to do with the political use of the term, Latinidad in the U.S. has been “constructed and produced” not only on an individual level but through judiciary, legislative, and economic means. By centering Latinxs and being viewed as a “representative” show, One Day at a Time is contributing to what has become an Americanized version of Latin American mestizaje (“mixed”-ness), which the U.S. has morphed into the term “Latinx” through this type of limited representation. The image of Latinxs as a social category, and its being thought of as simply “Brown,” is ultimately linked to the politics of mestizaje dominating much of Latin America, which erases Black and indigenous folks from discourse (Jones, 581). The terms Latinx and Latinidad, as understood and reinforced by political agendas, has contributed to the erasure of Afro-Latinxs in the U.S. imaginary and beyond.
In her article, Commodifying Black Latinidad in U.S. Film, Professor Molina-Guzmán writes,
Sometimes codified as Black because of their skin color and Black phenotypic appearance yet still classified as Latina/o because of their ethnicity, Black Latina/o actors must work within the entertainment industry’s typecasting culture that privileges whiteness as the normative referent and positions Black bodies as exoticized, deviant, and consumable spectacles (Molina-Guzmán, 212).
Guzmán brings up again the important issue of power within casting and ultimate representations of characters in the industry. This reproduction of whiteness as the “referent” and Blackness as “deviant” already sets up a binary within which Afro-Latinidad is cornered. Thus, Guzmán sets up the context in which Afro-Latinx actors must navigate their choices in accepting roles and moreover, the limits to personal connections and interpretation they can have to their assigned roles.
The first of these negotiation scenarios I looked into was how representations of Afro-Latinxs were called into question by African American folks playing Afro-Latinx characters.
The film Moonlight is about a young queer Black boy’s coming of age in Miami, Florida. One of the main characters, Juan, briefly takes the protagonist, Chiron, in while the young boy works up the courage to speak about his being bullied at school. Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, plays a significant role in the young boy’s self-understanding, sharing a key scene with him in which the title of the film is explained. Juan tells young Chiron, “I’ve been here a long time, but I’m from Cuba. A lot of Black folks are Cuban…you wouldn’t know that from being here, though.” Juan then proceeds to tell the young boy a story, ending with a woman exclaiming, “‘In the moonlight, Black boys look blue….’At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Yes, Ali’s character brings brief information regarding the racial appearance of Cubans in Miami, but there is no further exploration of this point. Ali’s character also speaks to the unique experience that is, as Laó-Montes puts it- “the diasporicity and translocality of Afro-Latinidades,” specifically that of “Afro-Latinos residing in the United States” because “they are situated in-between blacks and Latinos in the U.S. national space at the same time that they link Afro-North Americans with Afro-descendants south of the Rio Grande” (Laó-Montes, 128). However, I reiterate my belief that the film does not do the complexity of this identity justice, and instead the scene clearly propels the more general message of Chiron’s need to face his identity and fight for who he is.
What is increasingly interesting is Juan’s place within the historical context of Cubans in Florida. Jones writes about how Afro-Cubans coming in great numbers to the U.S. were subject to the rules of Jim-Crow yet were offered “privileges and protections as Cubans and Cuban Americans, accessing resources unavailable to African Americans” (Jones, 574). Despite this complicated history, there is no mention of this dynamic in the film, and Juan’s mention of his nationality seems to leave viewers with more questions than complete representation. It is important to note that Mahershala Ali plays “Juan,” while Afro-Dominican actor Jharrel Jerome plays “Kevin,” who is the protagonist’s childhood friend and a supporting character. Given that actor Mahershala Ali is an African American actor playing an Afro-Latino in the film, his performance alongside Jharrel Jerome (an Afro-Latino portraying an African American in the same film) calls into question the markers or cues given to actors to highlight different aspects of their characters, and what the absence of these markers then symbolizes or communicates. Thus, the issue seems to be less Ali’s being African American and playing an Afro-Latino, than the fact that the elements that are given to him to define the “non-African American” part of his character are limiting and suggest that Blackness is to be read as African Americanness if lacking the explicit mention of nationality or use of Spanish. Or, alternatively, that African Americans and Afro-Latinxs are interchangeable. Both are possibilities which erase the complexities of what it means to be Afro-Latinx.
Another way Afro-Latinx representation is called into question is in instances where Afro-Latinx actors play African American characters. To explore these instances, I looked to the Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, created, co-written, and directed by Ava DuVernay.
Following the tragic story of the five New York teens accused of the rape of Trisha Meili in Central Park, DuVernay portrays the injustices within the legal system that unfairly convicted and incarcerated Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise when they were just young boys. The casting for the show was particularly interesting. Jharrel Jerome is of Dominican descent yet was cast to play both young and adult Korey Wise, who is African American. The fact that his Afro-Latinx identity as an actor does not interfere with his ability to portray an African American character speaks to how distinctions between these groups call for explicit representation beyond simply the visual. This versatility of corporeal representation, while great for actors, reinforces a visual default of Black characters on screen being read as African American. On the bright side, given his recent Emmy award for his performance in the series, Jharrel Jerome’s platform as an actor and his now very public acknowledgement of his Afro-Latinidad are moving us away from a narrow image of Latinidad or complete erasure of Afro-Latinxs in the industry.
Providing an interesting and parallel casting decision, are the actors chosen to play young and adult Raymond Santana. Freddy Miyares, who is of Honduran and Cuban descent, and Black and Puerto Rican actor Marquis Rodriguez play adult and young Raymond Santana, respectively. Real-life Raymond Santana is Afro-Latinx. However, the portrayal of Santana in the series seems to skirt around discussions of Blackness within this character’s identity and through the series’ casting. Both Rodriguez and Miyares are Afro-Latinx, but it must be noted that they are also of relatively fair complexion. Miyares is visibly lighter-skinned and in the mini-series has short hair, two aspects which could be seen as diminishing his likelihood of being “read” as Black. The mini-series further reinforces this erased Blackness because Miyares’ (playing adult Santana) speaking of Spanish at home is highlighted over discussions of his Blackness, which are further erased by his being light-skinned. Again, the Afro-Latinx identity is limited to language here and omits conversations surrounding Blackness and colorism in familial spaces. Although Rodriguez, Miyares, and Jerome are all Afro-Latinx, Jerome, who is phenotypically darker than Miyares, is cast to play an African American character while Miyares plays an Afro-Latinx character, effectively perpetuating popular understandings of Latinxs as “mixed” rather than dark-skinned Black people.
A second instance of an Afro-Latinx actor playing an African American character is Jharrel Jerome playing Kevin in the film Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins. Although Jharrel Jerome himself identifies as Afro-Latino, his role as Kevin in the film leaves audiences to read only his Blackness, as there are no references made to his parents, descent, or any further conversation on his race and/or ethnicity.
Aside from the explicit use of a Spanish name and mention of Cuban descent observed in Mahershala Ali’s character, “Juan,” should we assume the absence of any other Afro-Latinxs in the film without this kind of explicit mention of language and nationality for any other character? That the story takes place in Miami provides a cultural context and implies a proximity to Latinidad, which is suggestive of further Latinx influence or the presence of other Afro-Latinxs in the film. However, Jharrel Jerome’s character does not present any “cues” of Latinidad and thus this identity is not centered and is left represented only through the mention of nationality in Juan’s character alone. Even Juan’s representation proves one-dimensional, ultimately reinforcing that Black characters accompanied by no mention of language or nationality should be automatically read as African American.
Despite already limited instances in which we see Afro-Latinx characters, representation falls short even when Afro-Latinxs play Afro-Latinx characters. The television series, Insecure, is a show recounting the life of comedian and actor Issa Rae, exploring her navigation of personal, artistic, professional, and romantic spaces while centering Black women’s experiences in Los Angeles, California.
As an avid viewer, I was surprised to learn that one of the characters, known as “Dro” is Panamanian! My surprise left me questioning my perceptions of Latinx characters and the narrow way I realized I had been picturing Latinidad, as well as the way I had pictured Latinidad specifically in Los Angeles, likely due to the reinforcement of erasure from mestizxs and homogenizing portrayals in shows like Modern Family and One Day at a Time. Dro’s character is played by actor Sarunas Jackson, who was raised by a Panamanian mother and African American father.
Dro–whose full name in the show I learned is Alejandro Peña–became most visible as Afro-Latino in the fifth episode of the show’s second season, when we meet Dro’s parents. Both “Molly” (played by Yvonne Orji) and Dro’s families are reunited during the renewal of Molly’s parents’ vows. During this scene, we meet Dro’s parents, and we hear–you guessed it– Spanish. Just like in Moonlight, this scene can be easily missed. Dro’s parents exchange a few lighthearted jokes in Spanish with Molly, and as quickly as they appear, they leave the scene. There is not even mention of a country this time. Audiences therefore seem to be expected to take the use of Spanish as enough of a portrayal of Afro-Latinidad.
Shifting to his experience as an actor, Jackson has been very vocal about the hardships he has faced as an Afro-Latinx actor confronting narrow portrayals of Latinxs in the TV industry. He explains, “For instance, there's a show that's out right now that my manager was trying to get me to go out for, but they were like, ‘Oh, we want Latinos.’ My manager responded, ‘He is Latino.’ It would just be easier for them to say they want Euro-Latinos or European descent than Afro descent. But they don't want to say that because they know it sounds ridiculous. It's mad disrespectful because Latinos come in all shapes, colors and sizes.” Sarunas’ account clarifies exactly the issue of the imaginary of the Latino pervading and guiding representation in the TV and Film industries and the vulnerable position in which it leaves actors to take roles that will please the needs of directors, despite potentially disagreeing with their choices for the final work.
Another example of the imperfections of representation even when Afro-Latinx characters are being played by Afro-Latinx actors can be seen in the Netflix show, She’s Gotta Have It, aired for the first time in November 2017. Based off Spike Lee’s 1986 film, the show follows Brooklyn artist Nola Darling (played by DeWanda Wise) as she struggles to face the harsh realities of being a Black, queer, polyamorous woman in her childhood neighborhood of Fort Greene, New York, which is slowly being gentrified. The character I will look at is Mars Blackmon, played by Anthony Ramos.
Throughout the show, we see Mars engage with hip hop and see his sister practicing Yoruba healing and worship. These two elements introduce connections to the African diaspora through ancestral ties to Yoruba practices while also centering an African American experience through discussion and musical use of hip hop. However, despite Mars being Puerto Rican and from New York, the overlap of Puerto Rican and African American history in these urban spaces and their common struggles are dodged outright (Gray, 149). When describing his parents, Mars says, “Thank you God, for blessing me with my many skills in this culture known as hip hop. I’m so thankful for my black father Monty…and my Puerto Rican moms, Lucy.” Here, Mars’ role becomes another missed opportunity for Afro-Latinidad to include Black Latinxs rather than attributing their Blackness to an African American parent. In this way, the character of Mars perpetuates the supposed mutual exclusivity between Blackness and Latinidad. Laó-Montes also writes extensively on this reproduced conundrum in media, addressing the industry’s repeated “[division of] blacks and Latinos as sharply distinct and even opposing definitions of identity, culture, and politics” (Laó-Montes, p.129). What’s more, there have been mixed feelings about Anthony Ramos–although also being Puerto Rican–being chosen to play a Black and Puerto Rican character because of his being very light-skinned and potentially white-passing. While Afro-Latinxs come in all shapes and sizes, a main reason for Afro-Latinx being a term of its own is that the homogenizing nature of Latinidad is often not serving those who are marginalized and not seen–those who are of the Latin American diaspora who are darker-skinned and/or read as Black and are disenfranchised as a result within oppressive racist structures. To therefore have someone like Anthony Ramos represent Afro-Latinidad is defeating the purpose of its visibility. Furthermore, the fact that he can successfully play an Afro-Latinx character without being questioned in the show speaks to the fact that his experience as an Afro-Latinx is not highlighted and lacks depth with respect to race, colorism, and narratives of ancestry and migration.
Another interesting complexity of media representation is the potential disconnect between some actors’ Afro-Latinidad and their representation on screen. Zoe Saldaña demonstrates an example of willingness to have her body used fully as just that–a body and a canvas for any signifier chosen by those hiring her. One performance that stood out to me was her role in the film La Colombiana, released in 2011 and directed by French director Olivier Megaton.
What I found most interesting was the explicit yet very superficial use of nationality to contextualize the protagonist, Cataleya. Not only does the title of the film translate to “the Colombian (woman),” but the film’s cover has actress Zoe Saldaña, who interprets the lead role of Cataleya, holding a gun to her forehead as almost a religious object, as if in prayer–what I interpret as violence and killing being equated to the sacred, to faith. In the beginning of the film, the humanity and innocence of her childhood is overshadowed by violence, and her sexuality in the rest of the film is seen as her weapon. Having seen her parents killed by a dangerous drug lord before her very eyes, Cataleya makes a religious vow to avenge her parents’ death and lives her life with the sole purpose of hunting down those in the same drug ring. Additionally, given her position as a self-trained professional killer, we do not see the full extent of her Afro-Latinidad in a U.S. context, as she remains in isolation for the most part, running to and from her projects of murder.
This film plays with national aspects of Latinx identity, yet the use of body is also significant to note. While Zoe’s body is visibly Black, her character’s use of Spanish and deliberate (and yet superficial/caricatured) national identity paints a narrow picture of Afro-Latinxs. The film as a result fails to give proper representation to Colombian and, more importantly, Afro-Colombian women. Another issue is the use of nationality and Spanish to emphasize Cataleya’s Afro-Latinidad. However, there is no further exploration of this identity. Instead, throughout the film, Saldaña’s body is referred to solely as a sexual object. Her love interest, and only human interaction outside her family, is the only way viewers receive any mention of how she is perceived externally. To make matters worse, this perception is a mostly physical description rendered through the male gaze. This love interest, who appears white and does not have a name in the film, recreates Cataleya to viewers as “5’6’’, brown eyes–well...hazel actually. Dark hair. Thick, shiny. Incredible body, killer smile. I think about her all day long.” To make matters worse, his friend responds, “Dude, you’re in love.” Not only is this image of Cataleya extremely superficial, but his friend’s insisting this description is enough to confirm “love” reduces Cataleya’s notable defining traits as a human being to just her body, the physical. This limit further highlights the fact that Cataleya as a character does not present the complexity of being Afro-Latinx. In a film centering an Afro-Latinx character, somehow her Afro-Latinidad remains completely absent, except for small sprinkles of Spanish. Even though there is a family in the film, there is no mention of colorism and no discussion of Cataleya’s being Black in the infamously stratified context of Colombia. Also disappointing, is that despite the film taking place in both Colombia and the U.S., the depth of Cataleya’s intersecting identities and migratory experiences are completely unaddressed.
In an interview with Saldaña speaking generally on her career as an actress, she explained her approach to casting and accepting roles: “As an artist, I need to be multifaceted. I need to be that chameleon that transcends and becomes something else. And I need to make people believe it so that I can take you on this journey with me. I accepted that. I took advantage of that for many years through not really, you know, talking openly about my heritage.” Saldaña portrays a different side of being an actress by distancing herself from her “heritage,” which I have taken to mean her Afro-Latinidad. Many articles talk about Saldaña’s choices and roles, in particular as related to her body (Quinn, 44).
It is interesting to note that Saldaña has starred in the superhero film Guardians of the Galaxy and the fantasy movie Avatar, in which her characters have green and blue skin (respectively) and in which she has effectively, avoided discourses on racial representation and acknowledgment of her Afro-Latinidad.
Saldaña elaborates, however, in an interview with Hiplatina.com, on her experiences as an actress: “So, how do I say this? It is a confession in a way. I lost sight after a while of whether I was trying to hide [my Afro-Latinidad] or I was trying to avoid it. I was always proud of it, but my fear was that if I came with all this pride that you were only going to see me as such and you were only going to cast me as such. And there’s so much more to me.” Saldaña in fact is not avoiding her identity at all, but rather seeing the unfortunate limits Sarunas Jackson highlights as well: regardless of how you see yourself, directors are casting based on their views with the public eye in mind. The very reason Saldaña seems to avoid her identity–both racial and ethnic–in these artistic spheres demonstrates, therefore, the vicious cycle that is the lack of representation of Afro-Latinxs in media. Because Saldaña has experienced limited perceptions based on how she is racialized, she has adopted a flexibility in visual portrayal that is not limited by her race or ethnicity. Ironically, this choice to not publicize her identity arguably erases Afro-Latinx presence further, reinforcing hegemonic imaginings of Latinidad and allowing directors to continue engraining a particular image of Latinxs in their work and recreating one-dimensional depictions of the few Afro-Latinxs more willing to play Afro-Latinx roles that may emerge.
What is the takeaway here? Well, although we have seen that there are various forms in which TV and film attempt to represent Afro-Latinxs, most still fall short. For one, there is an absence of discussions related to colorism within family circles. There is a general incapability among directors of understanding that the Blackness of Afro-Latinxs does not have to be tied to an African American parent. Miles Morales, in the Spiderman Into the Spiderverse film, has a Latinx (nationality not specified) mom and an African American father. Mars Blackman has a Puerto Rican mother and a “Black” father (his use of Black in relation to Hip Hop in the show suggests his father is African American). Another limit is that there are no discussions on experiences with immigration. None of the characters I spoke about who were cast to be read as Afro-Latinx touched on the subject of movement, of borders, or of migration. Transnationalism being such an important part of the Afro-Latinx identity, its absence in discourse in media leaves audiences with only visual and superficial differences to make distinctions between African characters, African American characters, and Afro-Latinx characters.
In any case, the reality is that representation should be nuanced because Afro-Latinidad is nuanced. Representation does not exist in a vacuum; other factors playing into representation are power dynamics inherent to the film and TV industry, as actors are already in a difficult position to find roles and then, if obtained, to have freedom or much of a say in how to portray their character. Lastly, Afro-Latinxs are not alone in their fight for proper representation. The issue of meaningful representations of Afro-Latinxs belongs to a much larger conversation about proper representation in the media. African American representation is facing a similar problem, demonstrated in one instance by the release of the film Harriet, about Harriet Tubman, yet starring a British lead actor. Another instance is the release of the film Nina, about late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone, played by the Afro-Latina actor Zoe Saldaña. Again, stories of African Americans played performed by Afro-Latinxs and foreign actors (when there are plenty of African American actors here in the U.S.) bring up the question of who has “claims” to represent these subjectivities in a space that insists on dividing Blackness and Latinidad. Within this broader context, the issue remains that portrayals of Afro-Latinx lack complexity and depth and remain mostly one-dimensional and superficial.
What would a more meaningful representation of Afro-Latinxs in TV and film entail? As I mentioned earlier, the characters above lack depth; thus, representation would benefit immensely from Afro-Latinxs’ backgrounds being more central to the narrative of the show or film. Another improvement would be development of a character in their awareness of their identity and the unique experiences they have with colorism in familial contexts, migration, and practices linking them to relatives and others who may have different transnational perspectives on Afro-Latinidad. Part of this depth might come inherently with my other suggestion: having more Afro-Latinxs actually playing Afro-Latinx characters in roles that center them as a main character, as protagonists, and not just as interesting plot-propelling or comedic-relief side characters. Even if it is not Afro-Latinx actors playing Afro-Latinx characters, if depth is written and incorporated in media based on careful research by the director, representation can still be meaningful.
Andrea can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Denzin, Norman K., and Herman Gray. “Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for ‘Blackness’.” Contemporary Sociology, vol. 25, no. 5, 1996, p. 688., doi:10.2307/2077600.
Jones, Jennifer A. “Afro-Latinos; Speaking through Silences and Rethinking the Geographies of Blackness.” Afro-Latin American Studies, 2018, 569–614.
Mirabal, Nancy Raquel, and Agustín Laó-Montes. Technofuturos: Critical Interventions in Latina/o Studies. Lexington Books, 2008.
Molina-Guzmán, Isabel. “Commodifying Black Latinidad in US Film and Television.” Popular Communication, vol. 11, no. 3, 2013, pp. 211–226., doi:10.1080/15405702.2013.810071.
Perez, Stephanie Melissa. “‘I Got You’: The Modern American Family and Latinx Reconfigurations in Netflix’s One Day at a Time.” (Thesis) California State University, Los Angeles, 2019. https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/pubnum/13880415.html
Quinn, Rachel Afi. “Spinning the Zoetrope.” Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture, vol. 1, no. 3, Mar. 2019, pp. 44–59., doi:10.1525/lavc.2019.130005.