Even in 2019, it’s not often we see Afro-Latinxs highlighted in film, TV, or mainstream media. What’s even rarer is to see a film or series set in a part of Latin America that consists of predominately Afro-Latinxs, despite the fact that there’s a large percentage of Afro-Latinxs throughout Latin America. But Spike Lee is about to change that in season two of his Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, inspired by the 1986 comedy-drama. The lead character Nola Darling, played by DeWanda Wise, goes through a period where she has to decide if she’s going to “remain true to her creative ideals or give in to the corporate world.” Through that journey, she finds herself in Loiza, Puerto Rico, the heart of Puerto Rico’s Black culture. It remains to be one of the largest Black populations on the island and Spike wanted to showcase that. He also made a point to include Afro-Latinxs actors in the series including, Afro-Puerto Rican actress Laneya Wiles.
Wiles plays the character of Mrs. Jennifer Garcia on the show. “It’s funny because I actually auditioned for season one for a different role back in 2016, when they were doing auditions and said they were going to have the film adapted to a series,” she tells HipLatina. “I originally auditioned for that and was disappointed that I didn’t get the role. But then I got an audition in May of last year for the role of Mrs. Jennifer Garcia. It’s a whole speech my character gives.”
Wiles who isn’t often casted for Latina roles, was especially excited when she learned that her scene was going to be shot in Loiza, Puerto Rico and that Spike was looking for an Afro-Latina to play Mrs. Jennifer Garcia.
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When @makeupninja and @lawandapierrehair were hooking me up for my scene in @shesgottahave Lawanda's buried in my dense hair, but I remember she gave me the best trim on set. She had me in love with my hair, too bad it was too windy and all that bounce had to be contained… So ready for May 24th! #sghitoo #shesgottahaveit #netflix #puertorico #nola #setlife #actorslife #pr #loiza #spikelee #spikeleejoint #JenniferGarciaSpeaks
“I loved that it was specifically shot in Loiza and that was completely intentional. What I was told was that Spike wanted to draw attention to the Afro-Latinx community in Puerto Rico because Afro-Latinxs are often ignored. And there definitely isn’t enough acknowledgment of the fact that there are actually a lot of Black Latinos in Puerto Rico,” she says. “I know with my role he was definitely looking for someone who could look like they were from Loiza, which was inspiring to me as a Black Puerto Rican because I don’t often get roles or gigs that target Latinas.”
As much progress as we’ve made in terms of shining some much-needed light on the Afro-Latinx community, in the acting world, casting agents and filmmakers still often look for Latina actresses that meet the stereotypical idea of what a Latina looks like, which often equates to light skin, Eurocentric facial features, and dark straight hair.
“Spike is all about inclusivity and elevating Black voices, which is really refreshing especially because, in my acting experience, I’ve been to many castings where they just considered me a light-skinned Black person versus an Afro-Latina. Which is why when I was younger, I only auditioned for Black girl roles. I would randomly get an audition for a Latina role for a commercial but I would never book them because I didn’t have that ‘Latina look,'” she says. “It’s only been fairly recently that I’ve been auditioning more for Latina roles because folks are finally starting to realize that a lot of Latinas actually do look like me and not just Dominicans or Puerto Ricans but a lot of Latinas from across Latin America. But for years I’d show up to the audition and they never thought I looked Latina enough.”
Wiles’ father is African American and her mother is Afro-Puerto Rican, so not having a Spanish last name was another thing that often got in her way of landing Latina roles. interestingly enough, it didn’t hurt her at all when she was auditioning for She’s Gotta Have It. She was also thrilled when she learned that the character she was auditioning for is a strong Puerto Rican educator.
“I was beyond happy because of the message behind what I was hired for. It wasn’t like other Latina roles I’ve auditioned for in the past, where I was supposed to be a maid. I’ve auditioned for a lot of roles that still fell into the stereotypes of what it means to be a Latina,” she says. “But with this role my character is strong, she’s empowering, and she’s a teacher. I loved that I got to play that kind of character.”
Because the series takes place in Loiza, Spike made sure to include other Afro-Latino characters including Anthony Ramos, who is also of Puerto Rican descent, and who we all know from Hamilton and recently being cast for the In The Heights movie, as well as Santana Caress who plays Lulu on the show.
“For me, it felt like finally someone is highlighting us because for years our voices have been unheard. It’s also exciting because you’ll learn a lot about Loiza and the Black culture there by watching this series,” she says. “It was really important for them to highlight the African influence in Puerto Rico. It was also cool to see the island highlighted in a positive way especially post-Hurricane Maria. The show definitely touches on the history of Puerto Rico and how that’s affecting the island now and things regarding the hurricane are definitely mentioned because we shot this after the hurricane hit.”
The series definitely captures the beauty of the island while showing Nola go through an evolvement period where she’s trying to explore art in different ways, whether it be her photography, painting, or drawing. As far as seeing more Afro-Latinxs actors in film and television, Wiles acknowledges that we’ve certainly made some progress but will like to see so much more.
“I’m happy for the progress we’ve made in terms of diversity but of course, we still have a long way to go. For years I feel like we weren’t being portrayed or recognized at all and when we were, it was often in a negative light. I’m also tired of seeing us casted in the same kind of roles as criminals, witches, maids, or the hot feisty Latina,” she says. “I definitely appreciate that I’m finally seeing less of that. I love seeing Afro-Latina actresses like Tessa Thompson. I’d love to see her playing more roles as a Latina.”
Wiles says that like many multiracial, multicultural kids, growing up Afro-Puerto Rican certainly came with its fair share of challenges. For starters, she experienced a lot of people trying to tell her who she was and trying to choose her identity for her.
“My experience growing up being Black Latina was interesting because, in my home life, I didn’t know any different. In fact, for years I wasn’t even aware of the fact that being Black and Latina was seen in society as mutually exclusive because in my family being both was normal. My mom is Puerto Rican but she’s Afro-Latina and her family in Puerto Rico they’re all Afro-Latinos. She’s brown-skinned and has very curly hair like me — she’s Black and I’ve always understood that,” she says. “But once I started going to school that’s when I started to learn that people have a very particular idea of what they think Latinos look like or even what Black people look like because, for instance, I often experienced being told I wasn’t Black enough from the Black community because of my lighter skin. So I wasn’t Latina enough for the Latino kids and I wasn’t Black enough for the Black kids either. It was hard and it got to a point where I had become convinced that I didn’t look Latina at all until I took a trip to Puerto Rico in 2001 and met my family out there and realized they all look like me.”
But things are finally changing and Wiles thanks celebs like Tessa Thompson and Lala Anthony for elevating Afro-Latinas voices. She also thanks Spike for using this series as an opportunity to showcase Loiza, Puerto Rico.
“I appreciate anyone who is pushing to let people know that we exist. I love LaLa Anthony. She doesn’t have the “look” you see in Telemundo or Univision telenovelas, but she’s 100 percent Puerto Rican, 100 percent Latina, and proud. And she has spoken out about it and her Afro-Latina identity many times and I think that’s important,” she says. “I know in a few years we will see more of an organic change, you can’t avoid it — it’s just happening. We exist, we demand to be seen, and more and more Latinos are continuing to migrate to the states.”
We couldn’t agree more. She’s Gotta Have It season 2 hits Netflix on Friday, May 24. Check out the trailer below!