Despite discrimination and segregation, black characters have become an ubiquitous part of American television and film. However, there’s a part of the African diaspora that’s still fighting for recognition and representation–black Latinos.
While there are limited roles for Latinos in Hollywood in general, there’s an even smaller percentage of black Latinos who are working in Hollywood. At one point in the not too distant past, it was hard for black Latinos to be able to play characters who belonged to both sides of their identity.
Crystal Shaniece Roman faced that same struggle when she was working as an actress. After facing an uphill battle of dealing with roles that either asked her to play just black or just Latina, she decided to create her own New York-based production company, the Black Latina Movement.
I spoke with Roman recently about her company, her time in the industry, and how she feels the tide for black Latina representation is shifting towards the better.
How did the Black Latina Movement get started?
I’m based in New York and I was an actress at the time, for about seven years. I was realizing that there wasn’t a space for women were black Latina or Afro Latina to express themselves. You had to pick or choose–either you had to pick a Latin role or play just the black role, and it was becoming more frustrating because there weren’t roles that were complex enough to show women who can be in places and both worlds. I decided to take a leap of faith and start a company that would hold those kind of roles and that kind of representation.
What are some of the projects that have come out of the Black Latina Movement?
We have Black Latina the play, which was a one-woman show and grew into a five-woman musical. We tour with that show, we’ve performed at the Smithsonian, we’ve performed at Penn State University, USC [University of Southern California], it tours nationally for Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month and Black History Month. It’s a popular show. And we have The Colors of Love which is a play we transformed into a webseries, and it’s on YouTube now. It’s about four couples of color just trying to navigate through love, success, family, unemployment, just different types of issues all people go through but showing visually the representation of couples of color.
And we have a few other projects–we just wrapped up Cecelia the Celibate, which is a romantic comedy about a woman, a black Latina, trying to find love in New York minus the sexual element. Obviously there’s humor in that because dating becomes different in a world that is hypersexual and has a [sexual] expectation after a certain amount of dates. We get to see how she gains control of her sexuality and how she tackles different dates.
What are some of the types of pressures black Latina women are facing in Hollywood?
I would say as time has progressed, I’m sure it’s gotten easier, but there are still a lot of struggles just like with black women there are a lot of struggles. There’s representation but it’s moving at a snail’s pace. I feel like you don’t want to take whatever they’re giving us, but you still want to be appreciative of the barriers that have been broken down. There’s just this idea of pushing these images and saying not every Latina looks this way or that way.
It’s trying to push to get the variety of what we look like and I think that’s the story of all black women, not just black Latinas. If you’re black Asian or even if you’re not a woman of color, any woman deals with the idea of not looking the way society wants you to look–the way your body is, the way your hair is. For us it’s just a little bit harder because there’s this idea that Latin women are white. So there’s this idea that there are no Latin women who identify as white or with society not feeling comfortable with that representation because in their mind, they’ve already put us in a box that Latin women are white, when that’s not the case.
Do you think that with the emergence of people like Amara La Negra and other Afro-Latina actresses who are talking about being of the African diaspora and Latina, they’re helping making change in Hollywood and the entertainment industry?
Yes because I think there’s this idea that you have to be one or the other. There are a lot of misunderstandings as to what an Afro-Latina or black Latina is, so there’s so many types, different sectors of what representation of that is. You can be Latin by both parents and you’re black because you could have two Afro-Cuban parents. You could have two Brazilian parents. So that plays a big part, and coming from living in the U.S., when you look at all the inner cities in the U.S., when you’ve taken the two biggest minorities, African-American and Hispanic, who have co-mingled for decades, you’re going to create a child that is black Latino, with a parent who’s African-American and a parent who’s Hispanic. So, that also creates that type of person. You’re playing in both worlds. An Afro-Latina whose parents are both Cuban can identify with a Afro-Latina whose mother is African-American from the south and maybe her father is white Latino or white Dominican or white Puerto-Rican. They’re not the same demographically, but they understand living in these two worlds of being black and being Latin.
With people like Amara and a lot of the actors who have been out for a while like Zoe Saldana, Laz Alonzo, Gina Torres, they’ve been around for a while doing this, so now it’s just becoming easier to [see them as both in roles] because they’ve always had to pick or choose and now they can be in a role and be both and not feel weird. I’m sure there are still going to be issues and pushback, but it’s becoming so known and there are so many faces now, it’s undeniable–you have to accept us.
What level of colorism do you think plays into the level of success certain Afro-Latina actors might get, like Zoe Saldana and to a certain extent Gina Torres? Because with Amara, where she’s coming from, she has to talk about both being an Afro-Latina and being a dark-skinned black woman as well. What do you think is the relationship with colorism and black Latina actors in Hollywood?
I think a large part of why they probably haven’t been as successful as we would like them to be is because in the Latino community, colorism is huge. Because of touring with the show, we’ve been able to meet so many different people, and a lot of our black sisters would say to us, “We didn’t even know you had the same issues we had and it seems like you guys are having the issues we had in the ’60s and the ’70s.” Not to say colorism isn’t in the black community, because it is, but the way it is in the Latino community is so horrible and it’s so deep. It’s been repressed for so long whereas I feel people in the black community have been so liberated at times, even now with the natural hair movement and natural body movement and all those different movements.
Latinos are so far behind still because they will still perm and straighten their hair and do all those things just to fit into this box, so I’m sure a lot of Afro-Latinos have been overlooked for roles because they’ve been darker. There’s this idea that Latinos are white, and that’s the ongoing thing that countries have pushed–a lot of the countries have just wanted to push the whitewashing of actors, actresses, news anchors, etc. That’s been the premise for a lot of the struggle with Afro-Latinos. The same is true for the black community, but by the same token, we’ve accomplished so much when you see movies like Black Panther and those fights that have been won. Afro-Latinos are getting there, but there’s still so much colorism that it’s so hard to really get it together and say “This is the way we look.” Maybe in another five years, things will be different.
I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining because there have been a lot of advances, but we’re still far behind and there’s still so much to go. I’m sure there have been so many instances in which [actors] have had to choose and that’s what made me not want to do it either and become a producer and write. I want to create these characters that are so complex because as women, we are so complex, we shouldn’t have to be just one thing.
This is bringing to mind shows from Latin America that are becoming popular in the U.S., like Celia, 3% from Brazil and others. Of course, there are slow advances, but it seems like these shows might be able to break some of the colorism barrier that’s in Latin America. What do you think?
I think that it just takes one little twist. If you just put one aspect into something, it changes the whole conversation. I remember watching Insecure, and the guy Molly is dating (Dro, played by Afro-Panamanian actor Sarunas J. Jackson), when he’s first on the show and you see him, you think he’s a light-skinned black brother. But at some point in the show, you come to find out he’s an Afro-Latino when she speaks Spanish to him. I remember with that episode, there were so many blogs writing about it. That reveal of his of his background had everybody saying “Wow, they had an Afro-Latino” on the show. I’m sure he as an Afro-Latino felt grateful for that because when you think about cities, you’re going to have the mixing and mingling of the two biggest minorities. It’s nice to see that.
It just takes a little bit of us thinking outside the box and not making everything black and white. There are so many complex characters and many different types of people. I have to say from an American perspective, the black community has done a wonderful job with [fighting for representation] and I think Afro-Latinos have to take a page out of that book because when you have a show like black-ish and Tracee Ellis Ross is light-skinned, and Anthony Anderson who’s brown-skinned and they have a family, it’s beautiful.
Where do you see Hollywood when it comes to representation of the African diaspora as it relates to Afro-Latinos? Do you think they’ll finally realize the nuance they need to have to portray Latino characters in all of their complexities, or do you think it’ll be more of the same?
I definitely think it’ll change because there are so many people who are now allowing themselves to be free in both worlds. I think there was that fear of “I have to pick in order to get work.” Now, those barriers are no longer there. Even when you look at someone like Cardi B–she’s huge. She’s become this huge success and she’s an Afro-Latina. When you see people who are coming on board who are saying, “I’m not going to pick, I’m going to be me, I’m going to be authentic,” people like her who are not afraid anymore and are breaking those barriers, I think it’s going to come to a place where [Hollywood has] no choice but to write these stories because these characters and the community is so undeniable, you won’t be able to prevent it. You can’t stop this. ♦
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.