Zoe Saldana, Lauren Velez, Tatyana Ali, Melissa de Sousa and Gina Torres are the names of some of the most successful dark-toned 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. Latina marketability in Hollywood is intertwined with colorism. Fairer Latinas not only earn more Latina 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 Afro-Latinos, and isolates them by failing to promote the diversity of Latino skin tones and national 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 both, then you are asked to choose between the two, because to be biracial or bi-national is apparent too complex.
Cuba, Panama and Columbia are only a fraction of Latin American countries that’s included within the African diaspora. Nonetheless, women who generally represent those nations on screen are no darker than Sophia Vergara; and Latina women who also identify as Black are slated to exclusively portray African American roles, and are excluded from roles that are advertised to Latinas. The “choose one” attitude of directors is one that has been reported by many Afro-Latina actresses, though the choice is usually made for them.
The book Negra & Beautiful: The Unique Challenges Faced By Afro-Latinas quoted Panamanian writer, poet, activist, and Founder and Director of Encuentro Diaspora Afro in Boston, Yvette Modestin, saying: “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 the Dominican nurse Carla on Scrubs helped to modernize the perception of Latinos and Afro-Latinos in Hollywood. She remains committed to her dual identity as both Black and Latina. Lauren Velez, one of the few Black Latinas in Hollywood to have a prolonged career, indicated that initially she couldn’t get Latina roles because she was Black, but forced her way into those roles. As a result, however, it has become impossible for her to acquire African American roles, because she has somehow transitioned into being seen as Latina due to certain success.
Latinas being hiring based on skin color is not an act perpetrated by white directors, but Latino directors as well, which Afro-Panamanian actress Melissa de Sousa once attested to. She once stated 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 apparent in Hollywood –and have an opportunity and access to realistically display ethnic experiences.