What is colorism and what is behind the criticism of ‘In the Heights’?

After some date changes for its premiere, finally has arrived In the Heights to movie theaters in Mexico and the rest of the world. In the world of musicals, it was one of the most anticipated films as it had the name of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind Hamilton.

Miranda wrote the script for the musical more than 20 years ago when the Puerto Rican artist was just 19 years old. His intentions were to give a story on stage to a community that has had little space on Broadway. A few years later, he managed to hit the stage with positive reviews of his work. The next step seemed obvious: an adaptation to the big screen.

Anthony Ramos (right), plays Usnavi de la Vega, star of ‘In the Heights’. / Photo: Warner Bros.

After 16 years, Miranda said yes and brought to the screen the story of Usnavi de la Vega, a young man who lives in Washington Heights en Manhattan where there is a Hispanic / Latino majority. The protagonist, who takes over a store, faces a decision that could change his life: close her business to go to the Dominican Republic after she learns that her grandmother left her an inheritance.

The premiere has arrived with some negative criticism in relation to a term we know little about: colorism. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself has responded to these criticisms of the thank the honest opinions, taking note not to repeat the same mistakes in future projects.

But what is colorism, what is its relationship to Latinidad and why is In the Heights in the middle of this?


The little or no representation of marginalized groups in the cinema is a conversation that had been pending since many years. Little by little, approaches have been sought on the subject to recognize, first, that it is a problem directly related to racism and discrimination.

From here, several points have been revealed that are worth exploring; However, the common denominator or the basis of the problem lies in the lack of representation behind and in front of the cameras for issues of racism (Afro-descendants or indigenous, for example) and discrimination (LGBT community or people with disabilities, for example).

Anthony Ramos with Corey Hawkins and the cast of ‘In the Heights’. / Photo: Warner Bros.

The Latino community has been one of the most affected as for the representation on the screen. According to the USC Annenberg of the University of the University of Southern California, 3 percent of the 100 highest-grossing films released from 2007 to 2018 had a leading man or co-star [email protected]

A 2019 analysis revealed that [email protected] [email protected] they were the least represented racial and ethnic group on screen. And not to mention the lack of a Latin presence in the direction, production, and other aspects that make up a film behind the camera.

At least 18 percent of the United States population is made up of [email protected] This is very serious because in addition, Latinos tend to be represented under stereotypes that are precisely racist and discriminatory: poverty and criminality.

Mexican actress Melissa Barrera as Vanessa alongside the character of Anthony Ramos. / Photo: Warner Bros.

A movie like In the Heights, you will always be welcome to present a Latino majority in your cast that sets aside the stereotypes of the community that have done so much damage. Latino roots are seldom celebrated in film, as they are often criminalized or downplayed to expand the development of the main characters and their own origins.

However, there is a concept that has been talked about with the premiere of In the Heights: colorism.

What is colorism?

Colorism is quite a complex concept. The term He was born in 1983 when Alice Walker, an African American woman, described him as “preferential treatment for people of the same race based solely on their skin color“. Over time, the colorism has expanded and does not only refer to the skin, but to the hair, eye color, and nose and lip size.

In short, colorism is when a distinction is made between members of the same marginalized group based on one of their physical characteristics such as skin color: the lighter the color, even if the skin is brown or black, it is “better”. Lupita Nyong’oAfter publishing a children’s book, she said she suffered from colorism in her native Kenya: We were a predominantly black society, but it still obeyed Eurocentric beauty standards.

Lupita Nyong’o / Photo: Getty Images

As to [email protected] [email protected] in the cinema, the reality is that colorism has been present. To give you an idea, according to the same USC Annenberg report, 17 women starred or co-starred in those 100 productions … and 5 of those 17 productions had Cameron Diaz as the lead.

Cameron Diaz is a white and blonde woman of Cuban and Spanish descent., which points to a lack of representation of the huge variety of latinas there are not only as part of the population of the United States, but in general.

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Cameron Diaz is retiring from acting.

In the Heights, we mentioned, it has a cast consisting mostly of [email protected], but what happens is that it was left behind with the representation of Latinidad. Where is the variety of the community like Afro-Latinos or indigenous people? Yes, there are Afro-descendants among the extras, but why not in the lead roles?

This is the reason why In the Heights has been singled out as a really overwhelming movie in terms of colorism, which has been called a variant of racism: yes, we represent ourselves without the need for whitewashing, but we attend to beauty and social stereotypes when integrating protagonists with whiter skin or denying the protagonism to Afro and indigenous people.

Cast of ‘In the Heights’ during a musical number. / Photo: Warner Bros.

Latinidad in all its forms

A couple of years ago there was a controversy in relation to Rosalía and an award ceremony. The Catalan singer won in the category of Best Latin Video at the MTV Video Music Awards. [email protected] [email protected] they pointed out that it was a mistake for a European artist to take a Latin category.

On this side, maybe, we can understand the difference between [email protected] e [email protected]; However, for the United States they are practically the same: both terms are used to define groups of Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other communities that have their roots in countries where Spanish is spoken.

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Rosalía / Getty Images

This is not only a topic for award ceremonies in the music industry, but for that 18 percent of the population in America. First, yes, 18 percent of Americans are of Latino / Hispanic origin, but there is a huge variety of ancestry that not only serve the name of the country, but also the communities within the countries themselves.

To speak only of Latinos or Hispanics is to reduce a huge community that for decades has tried to identify itself beyond the language. So the Latino community is extremely broad and has not been represented, on the screen, in any of its forms. Just one: Latin woman and man who speaks English with some Spanish words.

In the Heights It is quite an achievement, but it is necessary to point out the lack of representation of Latinity. It is good that colorism is pointed out because it is a hidden reality and of which little has been said, worse still is the time to analyze and reflect on how the representation of marginalized groups can and should be increased, leaving aside racial judgments and dynamics of discrimination inside and outside the United States.

Lin-Manuel Miranda in ‘In the Heights’. / Photo: Warner Bros.

Interview with Melissa Barrera

We had the opportunity to talk with the Mexican actress Melissa Barrera, star of In the Heights, about her character as Vanessa, the work within a musical film, the presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda and all the challenges that a production like this entails. Here we leave them complete: