This past week it was announced that Henry Zaga, from 13 Reasons Why, was cast as Roberto da Costa aka Sunspot in the New Mutants movie. Some have celebrated the casting because Henry Zaga is Brazilian like Sunspot. If Sunspot was a white Brazilian than maybe Henry Zaga would have been perfect, but he’s not. Instead, Sunspot is one of the few Afro-Latinx heroes in the Marvel Universe dating back to his first appearance in 1982.
The New Mutants first appeared in Marvel’s Graphic Novel #4 in 1982 and were created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod. The original team members were Wolfsbane, Cannonball, Karma, Mirage, and Sunspot. Like the original X-men book, New Mutants, would focus on these teenagers as they learn to control their powers and fight villains like the Hellfire Club.
Roberto da Costa aka Sunspot is an Afro-Brazilian mutant whose powers are the ability to absorb solar power and transform it into physical strength and energy. He can also take a solar form which turns him all black, to better absorb solar energy, and gives him the ability to shoot concussive blasts and fly.
Sunspot’s powers first manifested during a soccer game where a rival team member hurled racial insults at him calling Roberto a “halfbreed”. This was due to the fact that Roberto’s father, Emmanuel da Costa, is Afro-Brazilian and his mother, Nina da Costa, is a white Brazilian.
Since 1982 Sunspot has appeared on multiple teams including X-Force, US Avengers, X-men Evolution, and most recently was featured in the movie X-men: Days of Future Past. With each new variation he has also been increasingly whitewashed. To the extent of being almost unrecognizable from his original appearance. Now this isn’t new. Tons of characters change and grow, but it’s one thing to give someone a new haircut or costume. It’s a completely different one to change Sunspot’s appearance from having dark skin and curly hair to progressively looking more white and European.
Henry Zaga, a white Brazilian actor, being cast to play Roberto da Costa is whitewashing pure and simple. Sunspot’s Afro-Brazilian identity is directly tied to his very origin and the manifestation of his mutant powers. To deny his race is to deny who he is as a mutant,superhero, and as a person; the son of a black man and white woman.
Unlike other heroes whose racial identity isn’t crucial to who they are as a hero, Sunspot’s is. This alone is reason enough to keep Roberto Afro-Brazilian, but it’s even more important when you look at the erasure of Afro-Latinxs in the media. The erasure of Afro-Latinxs in the United States and Latin America is evident when Gina Torres, an Afro-Cuban actress, isn’t cast to play Latinxs in movies or tv shows although she is Latinx. It is evident when you look at telenovelas where white Latinxs are portrayed as rich and well educated while Afro-Latinxs are shown as lower class or are nonexistent. When mothers tell their daughters to marry white men to “mejorar la raza” or better the race. When black hair is called “pelo malo” or bad hair. It’s seen when Afro-Latinxs are questioned on their latinidad and have to prove themselves to be considered Latinx.
The racism and anti-black attitude that Afro-Latinxs face is deeply rooted in history and the belief that being Latinx is being of Indigenous and European descent. While at the same time ignoring the history of slavery and the African influence on Latin America. Even class status during colonialism was based on a person’s parentage; with the more European you were, the higher up you were in the casta or caste system. This also meant that the lighter a person’s skin color the more European they were assumed to be. Although today we do not call people Criollos, Zambos, or Mulatos, people still follow that same caste system.
Latin American countries are just now recognizing their Afro-Latinx populations. It was only in 2016 when Mexico announced that they would add “black” to the 2020 census which as of now counts for approximately 1.38 million Mexicans. Brazil, in particular, has a strong Afro-Latinx population with those that identify as being of exclusively African descent at 7.6% or 15 million, and 48% who identify as mixed race or being both of African and European descent. This is due to Brazil being the country to import the most slaves between the 16th and 19th century. Brazil imported nearly 5 million slaves and was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888.
By casting Henry Zaga, Fox and Josh Boone are sending the message that a black man, an Afro-Brazilian man, was not good enough to be a superhero. The message that to be a hero they needed to change Sunspot’s history and make him white. Sunspot’s origin, with his powers being a response to the racial violence he faces, will no longer have the same impact, if they include it at all. Instead, Roberto will have the privilege afforded to him not only by his father’s wealth, but also by his skin color. Being both black and white no longer matters because he doesn’t look black and would no longer face the same racism as seen in the comics. Fox had the opportunity to give Afro-Latinxs the representation they deserve. A group that is hardly represented in Latinx media and even less so in the United States. Instead of taking this opportunity Fox has opted to take away that representation.
Now, Sunspot will be just another white billionaire who becomes a hero.