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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever unearthed deep colorism within Latino communities

Tenoch Huerta Mejía is breaking barriers as Namor. White Latinos are bristling.

Namor, played by Tenoch Huerta Mejía.
Izzie Ramirez is the deputy editor of Future Perfect, Vox’s section on the myriad challenges and efforts in making the world a better place. She oversees the Future Perfect fellowship program.

As viewers return to the futuristic, fictional country of Wakanda, the latest Black Panther movie is once again the focus of complicated and heated discussions about representation. Except this time, casting decisions have run headlong into the knotty politics of Latino representation.

While most American audiences see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever as a win for Black and Latino communities — with the introduction of underwater king Namor played by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta Mejía — the reaction in Mexico has been much bumpier. Last month, newscasters for Mexico’s ADN40 channel complained that the movie’s focus on darker-skinned Latino actors is a form of discrimination against white Latinos.

“The only thing they achieve is to separate people more,” said host Vaitiare Mateos in Spanish. “The people in a production must be selected for their talent and not for their skin color.”

For centuries, colorism, or the discrimination against those with darker skin tones within the same group, has haunted Latino communities across the Americas. The echoes of the Spanish caste system still impact everything from health outcomes to job opportunities. That violent history is something that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever tries to address; the characters portrayed by Latinos are intended to be Mesoamerican and that’s key to the story, which grapples with the horrors of colonialism.

Namor and his Talokan countrymen are connected to the Maya and Aztec cultures, and to a time before the Spanish were able to systematically oppress Mesoamerican people and their lands. To escape smallpox and certain death, the Talokanils went underwater (with the help of an in-world magic plant). There, they shielded themselves from slavery.

It’s important to note here that Latinos are not a monolithic group. There are Indigenous and Black Latinos as well as mixed and white ones. There are also Indigenous groups who don’t identify as Latino at all but live in Latin American countries. The Black Panther actors do not all identify as Indigenous, but some do have Indigenous or mixed ancestry. (Most Indigenous groups agree, though, that to identify as Indigenous requires more than a distant ancestor — there has to be lived experience and community acceptance.) Regardless, to cast white Latinos as the Talokanils wouldn’t have been the right call.

The ADN40 clip is now going viral on TikTok, where creators are highlighting how, within Latin media, lighter-skinned (especially white) actors are cast at much higher rates than darker ones. If you grew up on telenovelas, you would know that the lead characters were almost always green- or blue-eyed, and anyone who was a “moreno” would be relegated to goofy sidekicks or nosy maids. American entertainment, too, comes with its own typecasting of Latinos.

In the grand scheme of things, fretting about representation in corporate superhero movies might seem like misplaced attention. But colorism is a nasty disease within Latino communities, in the US and elsewhere. It’s a multilayered problem that for so long has been pushed to the side or ignored. We have a chance to hash that out now.

As Angie Gutierrez, a political science professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who teaches a course on the politics of Latino identity, said, “Going forward, if we want to really address this, we’re going to have these difficult conversations.”

The Black Panther sequel cast darker-skinned Latinos. And that’s a problem?

First thing’s first: spoilers are ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie and you decide to keep reading, that’s on you. (Or you can skip this section!)

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

While Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is primarily about grief, it’s also about forging and failing to find solidarity. The premise, more or less, is that ever since the now-deceased King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) revealed Wakanda’s wealth and strength to the rest of the world, other nations clamor for their primary resource: vibranium, a super-powerful (fictional!) metal. Because Wakanda, rightfully, does not trust these other countries, they refuse to share it, leading to attempts at theft and mining of the ocean floor. That’s where Tenoch Huerta Mejía’s character, Namor, comes in.

Namor — the leader of Talokan, an underwater Mesoamerican society — approaches Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) after his people dismantled an American-made vibranium detector. Like Wakanda, Talokan is vibranium-rich, and has spent centuries keeping this a secret from other nations. Namor pleads for help and political allyship (read: Please kill the scientist who is responsible for the detector) out of desire to protect the Talokanils, who had already escaped colonialism’s trenches. When things go sideways, the two nations are pitted against each other, despite their shared appreciation for one another.

However, this is not the “separation” that the ADN40 hosts and other white Latinos are upset about. In their eyes, the controversy lies with the fact that Marvel only cast darker-skinned Latinos with Indigenous features or who are Indigenous themselves. There are several layers to this knee-jerk reaction of “forced inclusion,” said Alejandra Chávez Menendez, a Mexico City-based DEI consultant for LMF Network. According to her, the historical intertwining of classism, racism, and colorism has led to a response rooted in discomfort.

“The stories that we watch have been framed from a white-, male-, straight-centric viewpoint,” said Chávez Menendez. “So when things deviate from that, the first reaction is rejecting that because we’re just not used to it.”

Huerta Mejía has spoken several times about the perception of white Latinos around casting decisions in Latin America. In a June interview with Vice, he told reporter Emily Green about the hurdles he has faced in Mexico when pursuing roles. “They need thieves, they need kidnappers, they need whores,” he told Vice. “So they call the brown-skinned people to make them. And we fit under that stereotype. They are always calling me to make the same character. It’s the bad guy — always. But I always make a different version. Because for me, it’s a person. I create a new personality, a new character each time.”

Namor, for sure, breaks some of those stereotypes, despite being the “bad guy.” Like Killmonger before him, Namor is strong, sympathetic, and sexy. He’s powerful and admirable, with a deep sense of loyalty. He’s not meant to be seen as entirely evil. And even with his miscalculations, it’s hard to walk away from watching the movie without sharing Namor’s sense of pride in what he has built for his people.

In the US, Latino roles are hard to come by. Only around 8 percent of roles in American movies go to Latino actors, according to a 2022 Hollywood diversity report, conducted by the University of California Los Angeles. Huerta Mejía is not the first Latino Marvel character; Salma Hayek and Xochitl Gomez, who are both Mexican, had key roles in Eternals and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, respectively. The Star Wars franchise, too, had Pedro Pascal, Oscar Isaac, Diego Luna, and Benicio del Toro. Yet, even in American media, these roles tend to go to those with lighter skin. Huerta Mejía’s casting, alongside Yalitza Aparicio in the 2018 film Roma, has been indicative of a recent push to include morenos and indígenas.

“Representation is not about just having Latinos with dark skin up on screen,” Chávez Menendez said. “It’s not just about having them or a quota. It’s about the type of roles.”

The myth of mestizaje

It’s easy to apply an American lens to discrimination; there is so much of it there. But to truly understand the ugliness that has emerged in the aftermath of the movie’s release, it’s necessary to untangle the differences in the way colonialism was executed.

In what later became the United States, Anglo-Saxon colonizers wanted to kill and erase the “Indians” who were living there in order to create a sanctuary for white Protestants, said Niria Alicia, a Xicana Indígena community organizer and climate activist. “It was a very Puritan way of colonization where they didn’t mix, versus what happened in Latin America,” Alicia said.

The Spanish, who were coming to Mesoamerica from Spain, had already experienced intercultural and racial mixtures via the Moors and other racial groups. So they then mixed with Indigenous and Black peoples, sometimes violently, and imposed a caste system to subjugate others, with white people at the top.

Namor, underwater.

“In their mixture, they could still favor whiteness by creating those caste categories,” said Alicia. “They couldn’t just so easily get rid of everybody. They had to make sure that they put [those groups] at the bottom of the pyramid and reminded them that that’s where they belong.”

The caste system still lingers today but is intentionally ignored and denied by Latin American countries. A large part of that is because ignoring differences was fundamental to creating a national identity when so many countries were fighting for independence against Spain. In Mexico, specifically, nation builders claimed that everyone was mestizo: To be Mexican is to be mixed. The myth of mestizaje was born.

And while, yes, most people are mixed (myself included), what happens when there is no explicit addressing of the structural inequities caused by centuries of colorism is that it becomes accepted classism.

“In the case of Mexico, if they see people with darker skin color or from Indigenous communities, it’s more likely they’ll be less educated, come from low-income backgrounds, and probably have less opportunity for social mobility,” said Chávez Menendez. “This feeds into classism, which is differentiating access and treatment of people based on your socioeconomic background.”

Discussions around the reality of economic and social outcomes — in addition to things like representation — has led to a sense of defensiveness for people who have benefited from a culture of silence, like the news anchors at ADN40.

“This forces us to reckon with 500 years of violent history where white Latinos are getting to see the violence of the caste systems that their ancestors were responsible for creating,” Alicia said. “It also forces us to reckon spiritually with how unsuccessful colonizers were in their attempts to eradicate us and forever make us inferior to them. They now have to reckon with our power and their unsuccessful genocidal efforts.”

For the record: If white Latinos don’t see themselves in the Talokans, they can still find plenty of representation with the Spanish colonizers, who are depicted in an accurately unflattering light.

Surface-level representation alone won’t get us far

Since white Latino newscasters have opened the can of worms that is colorism and separation in Latino communities, it’s worth finally talking about the other problems wriggling around. There’s the representation the actors bring — which is good and challenging around discussions about colorism — and then there’s the representation the Talokanil characters bring. “It really isn’t just a matter of descriptive representation in terms of having someone like me, but having those viewpoints actually reflected back,” said Gutierrez, the UT professor. “That’s what’s crucial.”

That’s where Black Panther could use more attention and criticism. To an American audience, the Talokanil can feel exciting since it seems like they “survived” colonialism and “maintained” their culture. But that falls into a trope of situating Indigenous peoples in the past tense. There are millions of Indigenous peoples living in Latin America. The Maya, which the movie draws heavy inspiration from, still exist. (I am no authority on the depiction of Indigenous groups, but I have to expect that creating the Talokanil from an amalgamation of cultures will probably lead to a flattening of those respective groups in the collective American understanding).

There’s also, frankly, the race war of it all; the Talokanil versus the Wakandans. While this conflict does resolve itself, more or less, there’s something to be said about how the pressure from Western, predominantly white nations creates an environment where colonized peoples feel like they have to fight each other for resources or support. As Alicia told me, “It’s the neocolonial tactics of they no longer have to, you know, beat us and kill us — they just have to feed us these stories that we are each other’s enemies, and then we do the dirty job for them.”

I don’t think a Disney movie will ever fully be able to grapple with that dynamic well. This isn’t the primary concern around the film, but it does seem like a more legitimate line of complaint than “not enough white Mesoamericans.”

At the end of the day, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a movie operating within an American paradigm and understanding of world cultures. It’s not going to revolutionize the way Latinos talk about other Latinos or about Indigenous peoples on its own. If we really want to create better futures, not just in fiction but in real life, we need to rip off the bandage around colorism ourselves.

“The first step to move the needle is acknowledging the problem and that racism and classism in Mexico and Latin American countries exist,” Chávez Menendez, the DEI expert, said. “Then challenging [yourself] to set the tone — that’s a hard one because it’s about getting uncomfortably honest with yourself.”

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