Zoe Saldana, Lauren Vélez, Tatyana Ali, Melissa De Sousa and Gina Torres are the names of some of the most successful darker-hued Latinas making key appearances on the big and small screen. Women such as Judy Reyes, Dania Ramirez and the aforementioned actresses have helped to update the image of what it means to be Latina on television or in film. Nonetheless, difficulties for Afro-Latinas persist. Marketability in Hollywood is intertwined with colorism. Fairer Latinas not only earn more roles, but Afro-Latinas are often pushed to solely play African-American parts, forced to stifle a part of their ethnic identity. Failure to devise more roles for Afro-Latinas in Hollywood is problematic because it perpetuates the social invisibility of such individuals, and isolates them by failing to promote the diversity of Latin skin tones and backgrounds.
Hollywood homogenizes ethnic groups of color, simplifying race on screen by creating a sense of uniformity. Brown is brown, unless it’s black. If you happen to be both, then you are asked to choose between the two, because to be both is apparently too complex for people these days. How sad.
Cuba, Panama and Colombia are only a few of the Latin American countries that are included within the African diaspora. Nonetheless, women who generally represent those nations on-screen are no darker than Sofia Vergara; and many Latina women who also identify as black are slated to exclusively portray African-American roles (or the ambiguous kinds), and are excluded from roles that are advertised to other Latinas. The “choose one” attitude of directors and others in Hollywood is one that has been reported by many Afro-Latina actresses, though the choice is usually made for them.
In the article, Negra & Beautiful: The Unique Challenges Faced By Afro-Latinas by Damarys Ocana Perez for Latina, Panamanian writer, poet, activist, and Founder and Director of Encuentro Diaspora Afro in Boston, Yvette Modestin, interviewed on such issues:
“It doesn’t help that despite the high-profile black Latinas making it in Hollywood and other industries, black Latinas are rarely seen as such in movies (many black Latina actresses play African Americans on screen) and in ads, which generally depict Latinos as light-brown hued. The effect on Afro-Latinas, Modestin says, is the creation of a “very schizophrenic world” in which many are not understood or accepted.”
Dominican Judy Reyes, who played nurse Carla on Scrubs, helped to modernize the perception of Afro-Latinas in Hollywood, and she remains committed to her dual identity. Lauren Velez (born to black Puerto Rican parents), one of the few black Latinas in Hollywood to have a prolonged career (remember her in New York Undercover?), indicated that initially she couldn’t get Latina roles because she was also black, and Hollywood only viewed being Latina as one type of way: “Hollywood’s idea of a Latina was Mexican.” She says that she inevitably forced her way into those roles. As a result, however, it has become hard for her to acquire African-American roles, because she has somehow transitioned and has been somewhat pigeonholed into being seen as just Latina due to certain success. Even Afro-Panamanian actress Melissa de Sousa once claimed that even many Latino directors don’t want to cast Latinas who are darker than Jennifer Lopez or Shakira.
The internalized racism orchestrated by members of the Latin community and the black community works to cripple an effort to get the American public to see the diversity within black, Latino and black Latino cultures; particularly at a time when successful directors of color are becoming more prevalent in Hollywood–and have an opportunity and access to realistically display a wide variety of ethnic experiences. Let’s stop looking at Afro-Latinas as one or the other, and only that, and instead, embrace all that they have to offer.