The Gentrification of In the Heights

From the second it started, In the Heights grabbed me by both arms, pulled me in and carried me away into my idea of film heaven. It was as if a wave of joy, amazement, validation and pride washed over me in the way only waves can do when they take you out in the Rockaways and you finally land gasping for air, but also laughing so hard that nature just took you out and on an unexpected ride through its secret adventures prepared for only a select few…

In the process of having my breath taken away by the excitement and sheer alegría that my world was front and center, I also got a grim reminder of the way my world sees me and where I am on the Latin American (and North American) totem pole. I’m Indigenous to Central and South America; I was born in Panama, raised in NYC. I remember all my dolls and barbies were beautiful in a way that I was not. I have dark hair and I’m brown-skinned. I have big lips, but not big hips (or trasero for that matter). I remember very clear messages I received from early on: light skin was coveted; light hair was mesmerizing; and, light eyes were a gift from the gods. Santo Clos forget about me the year I was made, because I got none of the above…

But this isn’t about what I got or didn’t get. It is about what I saw on screen: a gorgeous film that was moving and so satisfying to a poor girl from the ‘hood. However, it was also a film that reinforced these negative thoughts I had and received while growing up in NYC in the 80s. The two main female characters were forces to be reckoned with: a smart as all heck Afro-Latina and a *beautiful* and creative Euro-Latina. I definitely identified with the smart Afro-Latina, but I immediately noticed that the *beautiful* other main character looked like Wonder Woman. She was stunning and talented, but she looked more like she belonged in a fashion show as a model from my experience with beauty. She didn’t have the caramel or coffee-colored skin I associate with beauty. She also didn’t have the hips and thighs that I longed for growing up. When I was a teen, I was always asked by guys about my friends with big hips and thighs, so I remember those features of beauty very well…

In a world that glorifies and praises the Kardashians for the features that Sarah Baartman was exhibited as a freak over, it would’ve been so satisfying to see not just darker skinned actors in the lead roles of this movie, but also darker skinned lead women with hips and thighs, and full lips and curls, dagger nails and heels, and skinny jeans with the latest kicks. Because, to be honest, that’s how I see Latin beauty still. Yes, it’s music and dancing, good food and drink. But, it’s also how the sun sets on our brown and black skin and brings out the caramel and coffee sweetness of our melanin. It’s how the salty waves of the Caribbean Sea become the best hair care product ever for perfect curls. And, it’s how that rhythm cries out from deep within all of us: Yo soy la voz y la luz de la tierra donde nací, la belleza eterna de mi diverso país.