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Reflection: 'In The Heights' and Afro-Latino erasure

Lin Manuel-Miranda's latest is stirring up controversy on the silver screen, occasioning an explanatory reflection from BCM's resident Afro-Latino, Gunnar Gundersen.

In The Heights, the hot new movie musical adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway show, debuted in theaters and on HBOMax last week.

Controversy was stirred up when an Afro-Latina on The Root interviewed the cast and director asking why there was not a dark-skinned Afro-Latina lead in a movie about a neighborhood with a strong Black Dominican presence—especially with respect to the Latin population of Washington Heights.

Let’s just say that the answers were underwhelming.

Lin-Manuel Miranda eventually issued an apology, with a promise to do better in the future. While it is problematic that a 40-year-old Latino artist and supposed Latin-culture expert is not already aware of a 500-year-old struggle for equal dignity and representation, the wording itself was good and seemed heartfelt. Sadly, many defenders did not follow his lead.

Rita Moreno, of West Side Story fame, in an interview with Stephen Colbert, demanded that Black Latin Americans drop it:

"I'm simply saying, can't you just wait a while and leave it alone?”

But Afro-Latins then have to ask: how much longer must we wait?

Songs that connect us to culture and experience are powerful. And they can help shape and define our identity. Indeed, part of the hype surrounding In The Heights was its status as premium content providing high-profile representation of Latin people. There was much to commend in the movie regarding Latin sounds and cultural touchpoints.

But there is no doubt that serious engagement with Afro-Latin culture and peoples was missing, to the point of painting a misleading picture of the Latin community.

There is a Venezuelan song that defines the moment when I really understood what it meant to be a Black Latino—to be at the heart of Latin America, to be instrumental in its very existence, and yet utterly despised and rejected.

I don’t remember how old I was, but I distinctly remember the scene. I wanted a snack. So, walking to my parents’ kitchen, I remember hearing the familiar sounds of Venezuelan music coming from my mamá’s radio. But there was something unfamiliar: I heard her crying.

I asked her what was wrong, and she told me to listen to the song. El Negro y El Catire. It recounts the last heroic moments of Pedro Camejo, nicknamed El Negro Primero because of his bravery in throwing himself first into the fray.

He was friends with a reportedly White general, José Antonio Páez (though many reports say he was at least Mestizo—i.e., of indigenous and White ancestry). In his last fight, the decisive battle of Venezuelan independence, Camejo received a mortal wound to the chest. He returned to bid himself goodbye to his weeping general, "for he was dead".

pero el catire lloró but the blonde cried
porque que con el pecho abierto because with his chest torn open
el negro le dijo adiós, the black man [Camejo] told him
adiooooos goodbye, goodbye
porque estaba muerto because he was already dead

Now, I had known of my African ancestry. I knew I was both Latino and Black. But I had not truly absorbed what this meant—especially in the Latin context, in my family history, beyond the fact of my heritage and the cultural elements and contributions of my ancestors to Latin food and music.

So I said: it was sad, but why are you crying? Because, my mamá told me, this is it, this is always our story: at the front, at the lead, dying first and left forgotten and unloved. And that is when I learned about my real family history.

A brother of my great-great-grandfather, murdered for being engaged to a White woman by her father. I learned of my ancestor’s desperate response in a world without justice, fleeing his hometown afterward, his attempt to build a life, a business—and succeeding. But with the trauma eating him alive, destroying everything he built, the stability of my family, and my abuela’s childhood.

Why did I not know until now? This epic, this tragedy. I could tell you about the Avilas at a young age. The Frietes. My White, European ancestors. Ironically, these are the White families that sexually exploited and left my Indio ancestors to fend for themselves. Like many Latin families, we had developed a pathology of openly discussing and adopting the histories of the White European ancestors who abused, oppressed, and rejected our matriarchs.

And yet, despite his faults, we never talked about the Black man who tried to lead his family to liberation—the family that was instrumental in passing on the Catholic faith. It was not the Portuguese side.

Here, in my own family, I had come face to face with erasure and pain, the deep pain of the stories you think you need to hide. The ones that you think are shameful, because you are Black and your people had to find a way to survive brutal oppression.

The stories White Latins armed with Mestizo mysticism do not want to hear because it makes their myth of post-racial utopia a lie. So when you try to share the trauma, there is something wrong with you, not the people that created the oppression or continue to be scandalized by hearing your family history today.

Brother and sisters, I cried too. I cried for my family, for all the Black people of Venezuela. We and our ancestors are not merely forgotten: we are erased. Our stories cannot exist and the current image of Latin America continue. Our erasure is an essential ingredient to the White-dominated understanding of what it means to be Latin American both inside and outside the Latin community.

I at first felt empowered by learning my family’s story. We were survivors. We did not just take racial oppression lying down. We survived. But I found that when I tried to share my story with non-Black people, many were repulsed. The last time I tried sharing it outside the Black community, with a senior partner at a firm I worked at, he responded: “So you’re related to a murderer?”

(I told you my ancestor did not take his brother’s murder lying down.)

I never shared my story again, until the murder of Ahmaud Arbery—thanks to encouragement from a wonderful Black woman and friend. I refound myself and my story.

But this erasure in miniature has happened writ large for 500 years. The clave, the distinctive sound of so much Latin music, are sacred African beats. But who are the main faces of Latin music? Leading patriots were Black and died for independence, only for their descendants to be treated as second-class citizens or worse. Portraits and biographies of the White and rich abound, but the Black men and women, who leapt first and purchased Latin freedom with their blood—after building its wealth with their bodies—are erased.

There is a beautiful poem by a Venezuelan poet, Andrés Eloy Blanco, published in 1959, called Pintame Angelitos Negros ("Paint Me Black Angels"; Eartha Kitt does an amazing performance in English). It is a cri de coeur from the poet to other artists, and my favorite excerpt is this one:

“Pintor de santos de alcoba,
pintor sin tierra en el pecho,
que cuando pintas tus santos
no te acuerdas de tu pueblo,
que cuando pintas tus Vírgenes
pintas angelitos bellos,
pero nunca te acordaste
de pintar un ángel negro.”

Essentially, "How is it that you can paint such beautiful angels and Virgins, but you never remember to paint a Black one?"

The poet says, of that kind of artist, that he must not have his land or his people in his heart, if he forgets to paint Black angels.

Gunnar Gundersen is an attorney in Newport Beach, CA. He serves in his parish council and choir, is a published essayist, and regularly lectures on natural law and the American Founding. He is also the first Ordinariate member of the Knights of Peter Claver and is starting their first council in Orange County. Follow him on Twitter at @GBGundersen.

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