What I learned this week is that you cannot dismiss someone else’s pain and think it’s going to be alright.
It happened in several ways but the most public was watching the great Rita Moreno sit with Stephen Colbert on The Tonight Show being interviewed about the movie musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda “In The Heights” and completely making matters worse by not accepting other people’s pain and just outright dismissing it.
Rita Moreno dismissed people’s criticism about issues they had with In The Heights – and to watch an icon basically tell you to suck it up because we should be grateful with the scraps we’ve been given was just painful to hear on so many levels.
The truth is Lin-Manual Miranda had already handled the situation beautifully. He had put out a statement acknowledging people’s criticism of the lack of Afro-Latinos cast in lead roles in the play and I personally felt that was decent enough. Look, the fact is, it’s his story. His interpretation. His art. He can write and cast it however he wants too. I think about my own story which is told in Canela, my first book. It is filled with mostly White folk. Someone once asked me why I didn’t make the characters People of Color to be more supportive of “our people” and I had to tell them, “Because that’s not how my story happened.”
When I was growing up, in my neighborhood, one of the most influential people in the neighborhood who “ran” one of the most prominent street groups – otherwise known as gangs back in the day – was a White guy. Jackson. The story is interesting because I grew up in a neighborhood full of Latino, Black (lots of Afro-Latinos), and White folk. What we all had in common was poverty. I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts – Jamaica Plain to be specific. In my neighborhood there was a heavy emphasis of people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic… and my mother was from Central America (Honduras). But my neighborhood also had lots of Irish, Italian… Jackson was of German descent. But the point is I grew up around so many different races and cultures, and it would be hard to cast any one differently without taking away from the point of the book. It’s a story about a neighborhood coming together to help a child not fall through the cracks. And just like In the Heights, my neighborhood was also a pretty fascinating community. The neighborhood was your home. In my story, which is a story about how I grew up – changing any of the main characters who are White would just be so wrong.
In that way, I understood what Lin did. Had to do in a sense. It’s his art. The problem of course is that people forget, Hollywood is also a business. And Lin’s stature now is not of just some starting out newbie playwright. He also has a responsibility. Not just to his story, but to the larger ethos. He has so much power and influence that whatever choices he makes as an artist, he will inevitably disappoint someone. It happened with Hamilton as well. Here was this amazing great Broadway show – a musical about politics and the history of our country – that changed so much – and people found all the flaws in the story with Alexander Hamilton and, of course complained about it. Fair enough. Again, this is Lin’s interpretation – this is Lin’s art. It was cause for learning and discussion. And the best art, does exactly that. He handled that criticism beautifully as well.
My point is our story is ours to tell. Surely there will be consequences and some people will not relate to it and others will find all the flaws and mistakes and point them out. But if you can help people SEE something they hadn’t seen before or if you can make people have a discussion they once would not have even considered, then isn’t that the best that art can do?
In business, as in life, you should never dismiss someone’s pain. If someone tells you that they wished you had used your power to depict Washington Heights with more Black people because that’s who actually lived there, then you should acknowledge that and move through it. That’s what Lin did. He was kind and comforting about how his art could have been even better if it had been cast with more people who reflected the diversity of who ALL Latino/Hispanic people are…
Let me provide a personal recent example. This just happened to me the other day – I was taking my garbage out and all these construction workers were huddled eating their lunch in the back alley talking in Spanish and having a well-deserved good’ole lunch break. In Spanish, I interrupted them respectfully and asked if I could move a board that had been blocking the garbage bin. As always happens to me, these men, these Latino men, were stunned first to realize that I spoke Spanish. It then dawned on them that I was – am – Latina. I said to them (in English), “Ah, you didn’t realize I was Latina, huh?” And what followed next is what always happens – they asked all the questions: Where are you from? Your mother? Your father? Then they tell me how they might have thought I was Latina but they were not sure… They thought I was “just” Black (meaning African-American).
That’s the problem. Right there. These are Latino men, mostly from Mexico and Guatemala – one from El Salvador and the assumption they have – EVEN THOUGH THEY KNOW THEIR COUNTRY IS DIVERSE IN SKIN COLOR – have also bought into the idea that everyone, especially Latina women, look like Jennifer Lopez, Rita Moreno, Sofia Vergara, and Selma Hayek. And this is not a diss to my Latino hermanos at all. If anything, it’s to show how deep the inability to SEE ME and people like me goes…
I was lucky growing up. I was never confused by my skin color. I was clearly confused by other people’s reaction to it, but I was young when I was taught simply, that the color of my skin was the color that everyone wants in the summer, cinnamon. In Spanish, the word is “canela”. Sun-kissed is what my mother would tell me. It was at that young age, I learned that my skin-color was a “gift from God” I was born with, but it would be a long time before I would understand people’s hatred towards me because of my skin color. And it would be an even longer time before I understood what racism is and how deep it goes…
Some of the most painful memories I have of being Black and Latina is being dismissed because of it. I’ve dated men, only to be dumped because I wasn’t “Black” enough or the right kind of “Latina”. I’ve gone on acting auditions and been asked, “Why are you here for this audition? This is for a Latina woman not African-American.” I’ve had people question my Black-ness, question my Latina-ness and yes, always question my American-ness.
This is why it matters. Never dismiss people’s pain because you do not understand what they’ve walked through – what they may be walking through right now. Rita Moreno was wrong. She tried to clean it up later and I accept that. She is an icon who has done more for the Latin community than most – and let’s remember it was during a very different time in our country than today. She is 89 years old. And I bring that up to clarify, she’s been dealing with racism for a long time… Clearly, it should have never happened in the first place – she’s someone who should have known better. But you know, humans do, what humans do and some of us are flawed. Even icons. And for that, I accept her statement and still respect her 100%.
The good news is, there is a movie with a beautifully diverse cast and a wonderful director, Jon M. Chu. If you’re not a fan of musicals, you may not enjoy “In the Heights“. I’m just being straight up about that. I loved it. But whether you see it or not, Lin-Manuel has made us all have a conversation. And in my humble opinion, that truly is the best that art can do.