In The Heights doesn’t get to define me

I have watched In the Heights 4 times to be exact and have cried every time. Today I got to see it on a big screen with some of my dearest friends and still cried! The soundtrack to the original play has held me so many times when I needed a little bit of hope, so I knew I was going to love this movie.

There has been a lot of criticism of Lin Manuel (whom I adore!) and this film because of the erasure of Black Latine folks in the movie, and I am someone who is critiquing the film as well. I could talk about the concept of latinidad and its connectedness to whiteness, I could talk about colorism, anti-blackness and even fat phobia, but I don’t want to. Not because I can’t, but because other people are doing a much better job at explaining the situation, like here, here and here.

The erasure of our blackness is nothing new, just recently the Argentina president came under fire for pretty much suggesting Argentina was the “better” country because they came from Europe, forgetting that Argentina too is Indigenous and Black.

In The Heights is a movie where I can see my story in almost every character, where one liners move me to tears, where seeing the Peruvian flag during El Carnaval del Barrio gives me a smile and tears fall while my feet move to the rhythm and it reminds me of the joy we carry in our veins. I genuinely do love talking and educating folks on the complexities of being from Latin America/being a Latin American descendant, but I also want to write for me.

Unfortunately I watched the video where Rita Moreno completely dismissed us (Afro Latine folks) for opening up the conversation on anti-blackness. She later apologized but the damage had been done. I mentioned on twitter that I will not be scapegoating her because she only said what so many Black Latinos have been hearing our whole lives, she just happened to say it on national tv in front of an audience, but how many times have we heard that exact sentiment at family reunions? at church? At the dinner table? Not from other people but truly from our own people? Too many times to count.

There’s only so many “how can you be Black and be from Latin America/speak spanish?” one can take. Fighting for my identity is something I no longer do. I simply am who I am, with or without approval.

My belief system tells me that I could spend all my time reacting to the anti-blackness or I could learn to imagine a new world to create and co-create spaces and words where we are loved fully in our blackness. I am choosing the latter so I co-created this poem, with the love of my African Peruvian ancestors, of Peru Negro and Victoria Santa Cruz, the words of Langston Hughes that beautifully haunt me and even some references to In The Heights.

Amor Negro

Sazón, sabor, un aleluya!
flavor, taste, a hallelujah
A hallelujah to be Black

Salsa, merengue, landó
impossible without our Black ancestors
who danced even when the white man
created hell on earth

They whispered a prayer to God
maybe She heard their cries
“Seremos libres, seremos libres”
And they told stories as they too learned to roll their R’s.

¿Y de donde vengo yo?
Yo vengo de la tierra roja
from the bright colors of hope

I come from the day they thought
they could stop the drums
but our ingenuity won,
and the Cajon was born
the sound of resilience carried on

Y por que Dios quiso
yo nací negra
like the night full of stars
Curls that run like the rivers to the oceans
glowing skin in the sun

Negra like the ink that writes a new story
bleeding words no else dared to say
Negra like the energy of galaxies
renewing our souls into stars.

Y si nadie mas te dijo hoy
If no else dared to say it today:
Todo el mundo brilla per que estas aqui.

So to you, the Afro diaspora of Latin America.
I say you belong, you are seen. you are loved
you make us who we are.

And to my abuelita, the wash-woman,
I have many songs to sing to you
And to my abuelito, the guitarist and driver.
I wish you could see all the places I’ve been.

Asi que si – Negra soy.
Con sabor y esperanza
I’m still here.