Maybe Rita Moreno Isn't the Best Person to Talk About Black Latinxs

The actor said that people calling In the Heights colorist should "leave it alone."

Maybe Rita Moreno Isn't the Best Person to Talk About Black Latinxs
Screenshot:CBS/The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

Rita Moreno is an icon of screen and stage, a Puerto Rican actress, dancer, and singer whose career has spanned over 70 years. From 1961’s West Side Story to her acclaimed sitcom One Day At a Time, which ran from 2017 to 2020, Moreno’s resume is undoubtedly impressive, her impact unmistakable. But Jesus Christ, never let this woman talk about Afro-Latinxs ever again.

On Tuesday, during an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Moreno bristled at the controversy surrounding Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, a film adaptation of his beloved Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. Since its debut on Thursday, there has been a flurry of controversy about the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinxs in the film’s major roles, a conversation which initially went viral with an interview conducted by Felice León, Jezebel’s colleague at our sister site The Root. In the Heights takes place in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood known for its large Dominican population.

Dominicans represent every color and shade imaginable. Many Dominicans are undeniably Black (even if they don’t want to admit it). So where were all the Black Dominicans who couldn’t pass a paper bag test?

Miranda has since issued an apology for the representation gap. “I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback,” he wrote.” “I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.”

But Moreno thinks the criticism is nonsense.

“You can never do right, it seems,” Moreno said. “[Lin Manuel Miranda] is the man who literally has brought Latinoness and Puerto Ricanness to America. I couldn’t do it. I would love to say I did, but I couldn’t. Lin Manuel has done that really singlehandedly.”

In an attempt to soften Moreno’s comment, Colbert said, “Are you saying that, while you may understand where people’s concerns come from, that perhaps it’s misplaced in criticizing him in this?”

Moreno didn’t bite: “Well, I’m simply saying, can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone? There’s a lot of people who are Puerto Rican, who are from Guatemala, who are dark and who are also fair. We are all colors… this is how it is. It would be so nice if they hadn’t come up with that and left it alone, just for now! They’re really attacking the wrong person.”

At best, describing Black critics as petulant people who don’t know how to shut up and wait is a Notes App Apology waiting to happen. Black people have always been told to wait at the convenience of others’ comfort. Moreno isn’t telling us anything we haven’t heard before, often from people who are more powerful and consequential than a performer.

While representation in media is important and inspiring, it has its limitations. A Black man winning an Oscar isn’t going to help curb racist policing, and more Asian women on television won’t end the exploitation of Asian immigrants in service industries. The last decade has been marked by well-meaning people relying on media representation as activism, and, frankly, having a few more dark-skinned Black actors in In the Heights will likely make very little material difference for Afro-Latinxs. But though it’s prudent to be cynical about the ways marginalized people are used for shallow displays of progress, Moreno’s comments act as a reminder that media representation can, in fact, act as a reflection of our culture’s values and progress; perhaps not a perfect reflection, but a reflection all the same.

Having Moreno reckoning with her limited perceptions of what it means to be Latinx on national television may not change policy or change the world, but it certainly shows how powerful Black voices can be. And that alone makes this ordeal worthwhile.

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