White Latinidad Is Not The Representation Win Hollywood Thinks It Is
Hollywood, if it’s white people you want just say that.
Mainstream Latinidad has always felt alien to me. For one, I found it always seemed like it was concerned with explaining itself to white people while also distancing itself from Black people. What’s more, I could never see myself in the forced dialogue of Latinx-centred shows. To be honest, I still can’t find myself in the exploited mija and the strategically placed Bustelo cans in shows that are dique pa’ la gente. It feels like the worst kind of hand-me-down: gifted, cheap and ill-fitting; and as with most “gifts,” I’m supposed to say thank you.
As I watched this year’s Oscars nominations be announced, the nods were surprisingly not abominable with at least nine historic firsts. However, people were quick to comment on the lack of Latinx representation. While true, one significant moment remained disregarded: Shaka King, director and co-screenwriter of Judas and the Black Messiah, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. King is of Panamanian descent, but as history shows, Latinx folks and Hollywood will not see this as a Latinx win, and in this denial, will continue to negate the presence and nuance of Blackness in Latinidad.
I really hope Latinos celebrate Shaka King's Oscar nominations but hope what we take away is recognizing the neglect Afro-Latinos encounter and realize our knee jerk reaction of "what about me/us?" comes from a place colonial trauma and becomes toxic af when left unaddressed.— GENÆR-0 (@onetwogee) March 15, 2021
Mainstream Latinidad has managed to render the Afro-Latinx identity nearly invisible. There’s no denying that when it comes to Latinx-centred stories, Hollywood graduated from the elementary narratives of drug-lords and unscripted maids and janitors to more dynamic stories that explores family, gender, sexuality, and class — but, unsurprisingly, not race.
Afro-Latinx stars like Sarunas Jackson Jr. (Afro-Panamanian), Tessa Thompson (Afro-Panamanian and Mexican), Lupita Nyong’O (Kenyan-Mexican), and Jharrel Jerome (Dominican), are never seen as Latinx. Their roles are nearly all devoid of ethnicity or nuanced heritage, which sends a message that any Black person on a screen is African-American by default — an assumption that perpetuates the Afro-Latinidad erasure and sustains the stereotype of the Black monolith. While white Latinx actors are freed by their race, and Mestizx actors are freed by the “absence” of Blackness thereof, Black Latinx actors and actresses are confined to it.
If not for the mirrors in my house, the telenovelas I grew up watching would’ve convinced me that I didn’t exist. For decades, the most popular Spanish-language networks advanced the myth of a raceless Latinx population through predominantly white telenovela stars — a myth that gave birth to the quintessential Latinx identity in modern American film and TV. While this white-washing is the standard in Latin American cultures, it’s unsettling in a different way here in the U.S. Unlike in Latin America, where white Latinx and Mestizx actors dominate film and TV as an extension of their position of power and privilege in society, in the United States, non-Black Latinx actors represent marginalized people and are the “diverse” additive in a overwhelmingly white industry - even though they, too, are white. In other words, when Hollywood asks for a “diversity hire,” white Latinx actors are the go-to — they are beneficiaries and, somehow, victims of the white supremacy that has been upheld in their favour. White Latinx folks are convenient; they placate the consciousness of the film and TV industry when it finds itself cornered by demands of diversity, without sacrificing whiteness. White Latinx folks don’t disrupt the palette.
The chameleon nature of whiteness gives white Latinx actors like Anya Taylor-Joy — who is of Argentine descent — the freedom to play Emma in the film adaptation of Jane Austen’s celebrated novel and win the Emmy for Best Actress in a Limited TV Series for her portrayal of Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. That’s not to say she didn’t deserve the roles or the accolades that followed, but it’s important to acknowledge the privilege of being able to portray two white female characters of differing non-Latinx ethnicities and then be heralded by Variety magazine as the “first woman of colour” to win in an Emmy category (Taylor-Joy herself told Vulture in 2018 that she identifies as white). It should also be noted that when Afro-Latinx actors do win, like in 2019 when Jharrel Jerome won the Emmy for Best Lead Actor in a Limited Series for his work on When They See Us, white Latinx audiences didn’t celebrate it as a win of their own. In fact, John Leguizamo — who was also in When They See Us — went on to criticize the award show for its lack of Latinx representation (he was subsequently called out for not seeing Jerome’s nomination and subsequent win as a Latinx win).
Evidently, white Latinidad isn't interested in diverse, inclusive representation in Hollywood. Instead, it’s interested in being afforded the exclusive, chameleon liberties of whiteness — at the expense of non-white Latinx people.
It doesn’t just come down to casting. Diverse Latinx representation needs to exist behind the scenes for there to be effective change. If Afro-Latinx people are not present in writer’s rooms and storytelling is left to non-Black Latinx writers, the same tired stories will continue to be told. Showrunners, studio heads, producers, and directors are in charge of hiring staff writers, casting directors, and greenlighting diverse casts and nuanced scripts; as such, diverse Latinx representation must exist at this level as well.
The new class of Hollywood “changemakers” include Latinx celebrities who are pushing for change, but they are the same Latinx stars who have been granted access into Hollywood because of their proximity to whiteness. Many of them have internalized anti-Black rhetoric that propagates in Latinx communities. There are Latinx-centred luncheons, writers rooms, and initiatives with the same white and racially ambiguous faces at the centre of them. The fight for diversity and inclusion cannot solely be championed by people who continue to benefit from their proximity to whiteness and self-professed distance from Blackness. What does diversity even look like to white people whose ethnicity and ambiguity affords them the ability to fluctuate between the standard and the marginalized?
"What does diversity even look like to white people whose ethnicity and ambiguity affords them the ability to fluctuate between the standard and the marginalized?"
The task of authentic Latinx representation is being placed in the hands of both white Latinx people who seek to centre themselves in the U.S. media the way that they have in Latin America, and the non-Latinx white executives who want to make Latinidad palatable for a white audience. Yes, Latinx people are making strides in the fight for more humane and nuanced representation of Latinidad, but at the expense of an already marginalized group of people both in the U.S and Latin America.
The Latinx market is often described as a niche market in Hollywood. In truth, it is anything but — it is sprawling and diverse, white and non-white, and encompasses a spectrum of experiences. If nuanced representation means allowing Latinidad to be the prism through which we explore intersections of gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality, then authentic representation means looking at all the ways gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality intersect with race.
Networks and streaming platforms say they want to represent the Latinx experience but so long as the want for whiteness eclipses the need for authenticity, at the expense of Afro-Latinx people, the output will pale in comparison to the real thing.