What West Side Story Reveals About Latinx Criticism
What West Side Story Reveals About Latinx Film Criticism
It seems like every time a Latinx show or movie premieres, we find ourselves once again having the same conversation. Right now it's West Side Story, although a moment ago, it was Encanto. It always starts the same. There's the call to watch the thing because if it doesn't succeed at the box office, we may never get another shot. There's the lifting up of the creators as heroes, rising stars, trailblazers, etc. Then there's the criticism: what's wrong with it, where does it fall flat, and who was left out. Next comes the backlash to the backlash, and then it's on to the next.
It's certainly a reasonable response to the lack of Latinx representation in media and publishing. We're nearly 20 percent of the US population but almost invisible in domestic story-making: I'm talking just five percent of the publishing industry, five percent of leads on films and shows, and 2.5 percent of the people behind the camera. And that's true despite the fact that we overindex as movie-ticket buyers and Netflix subscribers, not to mention being "key" to overall economic growth in the US.
And it's not just that we don't get to tell our own stories; it's also that we're not usually paid to evaluate them. Criticism is overwhelmingly white, with just 18 percent of critics being people of color despite making up more than twice that amount in the population. We don't know how that 18 percent breaks down, but I did a quick count of staffers at the top 10 newspapers with "critic" in their titles, and only two out of 64 were Latinx. That's three percent.
Those voices, and their absence, shape how we talk about culture. It puts the Latinx community on the defensive, puzzling over too few pieces to represent our diversity. So how do we break this loop? To find out, I spoke to three leading Latinx critics about the state of representation today, their journeys and philosophies, and their ideas about how to have more meaningful conversations.
We Need to Work on Our Community
"We can call for representation all we want, [but] the reason why it hasn't happened is because we haven't fixed our own house yet," said Clayton Davis, Variety's film awards editor and the president/founder of the Latino Entertainment Journalist Association. He went on to explain the "constant qualifiers" we put on each other to prove our Latinidad, whether it's skin tone, Spanish proficiency, blood quantum, or dance moves. Think of the "Mexican test" in Gentefied where Chris attempts all these outrageous feats to prove he's part of the group. That sort of thing is rampant.
And it's only more complicated for Black, Asian, and Indigenous Latinxs. Calling out this particular pain, Davis noted, "you can interact with racism from white people, and then come to a Latino community and get that same racism from your own people. And now, your sense of community has gotten even smaller." Cup of Soul founder and Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic Kathia Woods asked, "Why do we all have to look a certain way? . . . We have to start challenging some of these creatives. Why is it that the Black girl only gets to be the friend? What is her job? Do they even have a job other than just to be the friend that shows up?" On the Indigenous side, Woods points to the vitriol and long break between projects that Oscar-nominated actor Yalitza Aparicio experienced, despite the near-universal acclaim for her work in Roma.
Indeed, colorism remains a big problem. Just look at the conversation around Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights. Originally hailed as the ultimate manifestation of Latinx representation, the film was brought down several pegs when Black Latinxs took it to task for not featuring any dark-skinned Latinxs despite taking its inspiration and name from the largely Black Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights.
All of which raises the question of whether "Latino" is even a viable category anymore. If we're so different and if, as Davis put it, "we treat each other the worst," should we even continue to claim this group identity? Author, editor, and activist Myriam Gurba, perhaps most known for starting the backlash to the white-authored tale of Mexican immigration American Dirt, said she feels "flattened" by the pan-Latin grouping. But she knows "people who belong to the Latin American diaspora need organizing tools, and organizing tools are always going to be imperfect . . . [Latino] is one banner under which people can assemble. Can they do so in a way that isn't harmful? Or that doesn't perpetuate forms of oppression that are widespread throughout Latin America? I don't know. I think it is possible, but it involves a lot of internal accountability."
Let's Create Our Own Table
The problems are big and structural, but that doesn't mean there aren't things we can do to undermine them. Gurba said, "We're only going to be afforded a few seats at the table. And they're not going to be the best seats. We're going to get wobbly chairs that we're going to fall off of. So I'm much more interested in building my own table."
Each of the critics I spoke to has done this in one way or the other. Davis may now have an establishment job at Variety, but he got that role after creating and running his own independent platform on the subject for years. Woods says she created Cup of Soul out of her fatigue dealing with white editors. Now, she "always tells people: what you're hiring is me, in my Blackness, in my life. Meaning me being a mom, being a wife, being a woman over 40, that's who you're hiring, and don't think that is going to turn into something else all of a sudden." For her part, Gurba edits Tasteful Rude, a publication of the Brick House cooperative, which "eschews politeness in favor of truth-seeking" and which she uses to "publish folks who I know are doing work that matters, work that should be read very widely, but who aren't going to be able to stroll in through the front door of big publishing."
And Make More Good Trouble
Gurba had the most inspirational, subversive insight: She's "performing against the notion of the good immigrant, the good Mexican, or the good girl. If we collectively do that, if we collectively disobey, instead of focusing on representing ourselves in the most respectable, most sort of glowing way, we stand a better chance of disrupting the large structures that are making us hungry for representation." And we can see others of similar minds making an impact, like Josie Meléndez Hernández noting the colonial problems in West Side Story again and again, Mala Muñoz critiquing Netflix's Selena: The Series for undercutting the famous singer's power, and Felice León straight up asking the talent behind In the Heights why there are no dark-skinned leads. If we want progress, we have to reject the white ideas around goodness and worth and instead revel in our beautiful, complicated differences. That's how we will get to where we want to go and have fun along the way.