Over the last decade, Dominican American Hollywood actress Zoe Saldaña has graced countless magazine covers and starred in numerous blockbuster films viewed worldwide. Her mixed-race body and her ability to visually represent both black and Latina identity have had broad appeal in the global marketplace. This transnational feminist cultural studies analysis of Saldaña as text argues that narratives of her racial identity as Dominican and her resulting racial malleability allow viewers to project a wide range of racialized fantasies onto her Afro-Latina body. It proposes that the fact that Saldaña’s blackness is in flux, depending on where she is read and whether she is read by US or Dominican racial logics, makes her that much more provocative to viewers. Ethnographic notes on her reception in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, illustrate the shifting significance of her identity as her image crosses borders. Examinations of Saldaña in print advertising, on Calvin Klein’s interactive website, and in the films Avatar (2009) and The Losers (2010) reveal how her racialized femininity can be mobilized as well as customized for viewers as they choose how to interpret her racial meaning. Saldaña’s visual ambiguity in black-and-white advertising has now been transformed into the ambiguity of exoticized nonhuman species and performed under blue and green makeup. Nevertheless, narratives about her identity that viewers carry shape how she is read and desired, even as an alien from an intergalactic future.

RESUMEN Durante la última década, la actriz de Hollywood Zoe Saldaña, dominicano-estadounidense, ha aparecido en innumerables portadas de revistas y ha protagonizado numerosas películas de gran éxito vistas en todo el mundo. Según se ha visto, su cuerpo de raza mixta y su capacidad de representar visualmente tanto la identidad negra como la latina tienen un gran atractivo en el mercado global. En el presente análisis de Saldaña como texto, que se fundamenta teóricamente en el feminismo transnacional y los estudios culturales, sostengo que las narrativas de la identidad racial de Saldaña como dominicana, y su resultante maleabilidad racial, permiten al público proyectar una gran variedad de fantasías racializadas sobre su cuerpo afrolatino. Sostengo que el hecho de que la negritud de Saldaña sea de difícil definición la hace tanto más provocativa para el público espectador, ya que depende de dónde la lean y de si la leen las lógicas raciales estadounidenses o dominicanas. Algunas notas etnográficas sobre su recepción en Santo Domingo, República Dominicana, constituyen un ejemplo de cómo cambia su identidad cuando su imagen cruza fronteras. Los análisis de Saldaña en publicidad impresa, en el sitio web interactivo de Calvin Klein y en las películas Avatar (2009) y The Losers (2010) revelan las maneras en que su feminidad racializada puede ser aprovechada y personalizada para un público que decide cómo va a interpretarla en términos raciales. La ambigüedad visual de Saldaña en la publicidad en blanco y negro ahora ha sido transformada en la ambigüedad de especies exóticas no humanas, y ha sido puesta en escena con maquillaje azul y verde. Sin embargo, las ideas preconcebidas que tiene el público sobre su identidad condicionan la manera en que se la lee y se la desea, incluso cuando hace el papel de alienígena de un futuro intergaláctico.

RESUMO Na última década, a atriz domínico-americana Zoe Saldaña apareceu na capa de inúmeras revistas e estrelou muitos filmes de sucesso exibidos em todo o mundo. Seu corpo mestiço e sua habilidade de visualmente representar a identidade tanto latina quanto negra demonstraram ter amplo apelo no mercado global. Nesta análise – proveniente dos estudos culturais transnacionais feministas – de Saldaña como texto, eu argumento que as narrativas de sua identidade racial como dominicana e sua resultante maleabilidade racial permitem que espectadores projetem um amplo espectro de fantasias racializadas sobre o seu corpo afro-latino. Eu argumento que o fato de a negritude de Saldaña estar em fluxo, dependendo de onde ela é lida e se ela é lida por lógicas raciais americanas ou dominicanas, a torna tanto mais provocativa aos espectadores. Anotações etnográficas sobre sua recepção em Santo Domingo, na República Dominicana, ilustram a mudança de significado de sua identidade à medida que sua imagem cruza as fronteiras. Averiguação sobre Saldaña em publicidade impressa, no site interativo da Calvin Klein e nos filmes Avatar (2009) e Os Perdedores (2010), revelam os modos pelos quais sua feminilidade racializada pode ser mobilizada, assim como customizada, por espectadores ao passo que eles escolhem como interpretar seu significado racial. A ambiguidade visual de Saldaña na publicidade em preto e branco é agora transformada na ambiguidade de um espécie não-humana exoticizada e performada sob maquiagem azul e verde. No entanto, narrativas sobre sua identidade que o espectador carrega informam como ela está sendo lida e desejada, mesmo como uma alienígena do futuro intergaláctico.

“No, here she would not be African American,” laughs Lilith, a twenty-four-year-old Dominican woman I interviewed in Santo Domingo in 2010.1 Lilith’s insights on race and color capture a dominant social discourse within which the racial identity of Dominican American Hollywood actress Zoe Saldaña is transnationally produced. When I tell Lilith about my research on the actress and the characters she portrays, she explains to me why Saldaña’s African Americanness seems improbable to her: “For us, those are the blacks . . . from Harlem.”

Saldaña’s Hollywood celebrity status effectively serves to lighten her Afro-Latina body, altering her racial and gendered significance in the Dominican context and its specific hierarchy of color. Lilith describes Saldaña as being typically categorized in the Dominican Republic as una india lava’ita, an expression that explains her brown skin as reflecting Indigenous heritage rather than blackness. “We say, ‘no, he’s an indio lava’ito,’ she’s an ‘india lava’ita,’ as if they were washed and are clean . . . as if the others were more or less dirty,” Lilith explains, demonstrating via Dominican colloquialisms how Saldaña’s class status has whitened her. However, Lilith also defines the term as signifying someone who has smooth and unmarked skin, along with cabello, qué sé yo, más crespo (hair, I dunno, more kinky/coily). The term thus refers to a phenotype, not just a racial origin.

“It is basically,” she scoffs, “like saying un indio blanco” (a white indio), a concept she recognizes in the moment as making little sense because of the contradictions within it if both racial categories are deemed inherently separate. Nevertheless, the term references the stickiness or fluidity of racial categories in the Dominican Republic and how people use them. Lilith tells me that Saldaña is “not black, not white,” but rather “the common color of us [Dominicans].” But her medium-brown skin tone is only one aspect of Saldaña’s identity that makes her legible to Dominicans as one of their own.

In the Dominican Republic, politicians and historians (often one and the same) have long invested in constructing a nationalist identity that disavows blackness. At the turn of the twentieth century, an ideology of the superiority of racial hybridity popularized by the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos circulated throughout Latin America and the Caribbean through the work of well-published political leaders invested in building nation-states. Despite the fact that Dominican bodies come in all shades, the term negro (black) has been reserved for and typically used to refer to Haitians in the dominant culture. Many attribute a widespread rejection of blackness by Dominicans on the island today to dictator Rafael Trujillo, who violently ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, though his influence was only one component of the racial project that historian April J. Mayes refers to as “hispanidad nationalism.”2 During an era in which the United States exported its own eugenicist theories abroad and Europe was enduring Nazi extermination projects, Trujillo indoctrinated Dominicans with a racial ideology through which to see themselves as superior to and separate from Haitians living on the same small island. Racial lines drawn by way of official discourse around who is Dominican rely on an ongoing ideological buttressing enacted through violence, government policy, and the circulation of myths and images, although, as Milagros Ricourt has argued, there are multiple racial imaginaries in the Dominican Republic.3 By and large, notions of race and mixed race are tied to very different narratives of identity there than in the United States.

Unlike the history of the “one-drop rule,” in which “one drop of black blood” (meaning any black racial heritage) legally determines you as black in the United States, Dominican identity is produced partly in juxtaposition to Haitian blackness. Sociocultural bias and the stories we tell ourselves about race in the United States and abroad (for instance, black people aren’t Latinx and Latinxs aren’t black) overdetermine what we actually see and how we read for race. This concept is crucial to understanding racial ideology in the Dominican Republic, where an estimated 80 percent of Dominicans are racially mixed of African descent, yet few Dominicans on the island identify themselves as black.4 Within such a racially mixed population, subtleties of phenotype are understood differently than in the United States and are more readily informed by surrounding information; racial boundaries are porous and negotiated from moment to moment. Of course, just as racial meanings in the United States are shifting along with our demographics, Dominican racial categories are being reconfigured based on interactions between cultural forces internal to and outside of the island. This is evidenced by changing racial and color categories and the articulation of new language and identity formations across the African diaspora.5 

Images of Saldaña’s body have circulated as part of a global economy of visual culture for more than a decade now. It is a visual economy that has long been invested in the objectification and consumption of Caribbean women’s bodies. Afro-Caribbean women experience their Caribbean-ness as a form of commodifiable difference that overdetermines them as subjects for consumption.6 For centuries, black bodies have been used to sell familiar products like pancake syrup, rice, and bars of soap. Whether depicted as cute and endearing, grotesquely distorted, or inherently dangerous, such images of blackness continue to echo across global media today, reinforcing the vulnerability of black people to horrific abuses on a global scale. In contrast, the type of blackness that Saldaña portrays is one that typically maintains a proximity to whiteness through what I will go on to explain as a nonthreatening “brown aesthetic.”

Since her roles in the blockbuster film franchises Avatar and Star Trek, Saldaña’s star has been steadily on the rise. Her popularity reflects a trend in US media that was well under way when author Danzy Senna declared the year 2000 the “mulatto millennium.”7 Not unlike other US Latinas in film at the turn of the twenty-first century, such as Jessica Alba or Michelle Rodriguez, Saldaña possesses a racial malleability that is of particular interest to those who imagine a racially mixed future. Angharad Valdivia has argued, “It is Latinas who are stereotypically amenable in the marketplace to the production of a commodified ethnic sexuality.”8 Interest in the bodies of US Latinas has coincided with a rise in the fetishization and visual consumption of other mixed-race women’s bodies across the expansion of global media.9 As a Dominican woman, Saldaña’s brown body has always already been written within the discourse of a Latin American and Caribbean racial imaginary in which she is not black but mulata, meaning mixed race of African descent. Yet in the early part of her career, Saldaña was portrayed in US print media as either black or Latina, making it difficult to conceive of her identity intersectionally. Which is to say, it was difficult to hold the idea of her being both Latina and black, or both Dominican and African American (Figure 1). At a time when far less was known about her background, US viewers experienced her as “passing” as either one identity or another.

FIGURE 1.

Zoe Saldaña on the cover of the June/July 2009 issue of Latina magazine, at a moment when she was just beginning to be read as other than African American in the US media. Source: Latina Magazine. June/July 2009.

FIGURE 1.

Zoe Saldaña on the cover of the June/July 2009 issue of Latina magazine, at a moment when she was just beginning to be read as other than African American in the US media. Source: Latina Magazine. June/July 2009.

As I demonstrate in this essay, Saldaña’s inadvertent passing or ambiguous identity creates an instability around her that leads viewers to enact a constant negotiation with racial boundaries.10 Her image forces viewers to question, consciously or unconsciously, the presumed divisions between who is Latina and who is black. Moreover, I argue, it is Saldaña’s very capacity for switching back and forth between what she signifies in terms of race that makes her especially provocative to viewers. In Judith Butler’s reading of Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929), she argues that the racial “vacillations” between darkness and light that Larsen depicts with her characters effectively draw in viewers by switching back and forth between alternate racial signifiers, functioning as an “erotic lure.”11 Saldaña’s racial vacillations become even more significant as her image crosses borders.

Insights about how racial meaning is produced across transnational visual discourse are revealed in the ways that Saldaña’s racial ambiguity is interpreted by viewing audiences in the United States and the Dominican Republic, making her a particularly rich site of analysis for the study of visual culture, mixed-race identity, and Afro-latinidad on film. Communications scholars have suggested that Saldaña exemplifies a type of “black Latinidad” or a “marginal Latinidad” that expands our notions of latinidad and positions her favorably in the global market.12 I argue, however, that her positive reception is based in part on the ability of her visual image to signify as multiple ethnicities at once, luring us in, as underlying narratives about who she is and where she comes from continue to shift and change. In addition, Saldaña’s on-screen identity is formed through both her proximity to blackness and her ability to distance herself from US blackness. For it is precisely because US viewers have come to know Saldaña as Dominican and therefore mixed race, I argue, that she can make claims on latinidad and blackness simultaneously.

I read Saldaña as a celebrity “text” in the manner that Richard Dyer has advocated, considering the dynamic life that her image takes on and the relationship between her racialized and gendered image and viewers’ perceptions of her identity on-screen and off.13 Through an examination of several popular depictions of Saldaña in films, advertising, magazine and newspaper articles, an interactive website, and more, I explore some of the narratives that images of her body carry for viewers, as well as the cognitive dissonances that emerge when her image crosses borders. I begin by demonstrating what it means to “read for mixed race” in visual representations of Saldaña. I first explore how the actress was labeled by media as Latina after previously being cast as a series of African American characters, and what kind of blackness she represents to viewers. I offer a close reading of how her racial malleability served as a tool in the 2010 film The Losers and also in the Calvin Klein “Envy” advertising campaign that same year. I conclude with an analysis of the significance of Saldaña’s mixed-race body as an extraterrestrial in the Avatar film franchise, of which we can expect four more sequels. As Neytiri in Avatar, Saldaña is blue and an endangered species, while as Gamora in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy she is green and the last of her kind. Her ability to serve as the blue or green screen onto which visual fantasies are projected, I argue, is something for which viewers worldwide have now been primed.

THE MIXED-RACE EXPERIENCE

By “mixed race,” I refer to a racial identity that rose to prominence in the United States in the 1990s. Those who have rallied around the term very often come from majority white, middle-class communities in which they grew up with one white parent and find the term useful to claim their multiple racial and cultural heritages.14 Mixed-race people may experience race in ways that are atypical of dominant notions of race in US society, challenging mono-racial categories of identity and often experiencing race as fluid because of their phenotypes. Such experiences of race are not uncommon for Dominicans, the majority of whom are mixed race of African and European descent. My close readings of representations of Saldaña acknowledge the space between the United States and the Dominican Republic in which racial ideologies are in constant contact yet shift rapidly. Experiences of mixed-race identity are uniquely shaped by racial background; for those racialized as a model minority it is equivocally different than for those racialized as black, regardless of their claims on multiracial heritage. My focus here is on the racial malleability of mixed-race people of African descent.

One defining aspect of what has often been referred to as the “mixed-race experience” is that of being racially ambiguous and thus chameleon-like, often shifting one’s identity as required by structures of power.15 Saldaña exploits her ability to shift how she signifies racially for the benefit of her own commodification. As she herself has said, “I’ve played a Na’vi [the fictional species in the film Avatar], and I’ve played an African-American, and I’m African-Latino. . . . Artists, we have to be chameleons. If the shoe fits, by all means put it on.”16 Actress Rosario Dawson has likewise stated that her racial ambiguity has been an asset in her career: “I can be Moroccan, Iranian, Egyptian, Puerto Rican, black and more. I blend.”17 Does the media so often amplify these comments because the actresses’ racial fluidity is unnerving? Saldaña has joked that even her own mother “mixed her up” with the actress Thandie Newton, who was pictured on a billboard for the movie Crash (2004). Newton, who is of black Zimbabwean and white British descent, is similarly brown in color, and equally thin and feminine in ways that Caroline Streeter has described as particularly necessary for the career success of black women in the entertainment industry.18 

Saldaña’s Afro-latinidad moves into the territory of stereotyped mixed-race identity each time she is scripted as exceptional and superhuman.19 Minelle Mahtani and numerous other critical race studies scholars have critiqued some of the dominant narratives of racial hybridity that, in their effort to push back against popular culture’s pathologization of mixed-race people, overcompensate by celebrating mixed-race identities as emblematic of the future.20 Mahtani names many of these stereotypes in a chapter title from her 2014 book Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality: “Mongrels, Interpreters, Ambassadors, and Bridges?” Saldaña frequently appears as a visualizable “bridge between two cultures.”21 In 2010 she secured global advertising contracts with Avon and Calvin Klein, while celebrating numerous film releases that year in the United States, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. Over the last decade she successfully positioned herself at the head of a transnational stream of popular culture spanning the United States and the Dominican Republic—two countries for which racial ideologies have been historically divergent even as their media consumption has converged. She is able to bridge “scopic regimes” between the two while starring in global blockbusters where representations of her body fluctuate in racial meaning.22 In Avatar, not only does Saldaña’s alien character serve as interpreter and cultural ambassador for both the protagonist and the viewer, she also falls into the trope of the “magical negro,” a cliché in which a black character serves the needs of a white protagonist as a sidekick, teaching them an important lesson.23 In this case she teaches the white male protagonist to love and value the natural world.

By “reading for mixed race,” I acknowledge that this is a central way in which mixed-race bodies function within transnational visual culture; here I study the function of Saldaña’s racial difference precisely because, as bell hooks reminds us, “Mass culture is the contemporary location that both publicly declares and perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgement of difference.”24 Thus it is particularly alluring that Saldaña can be both black and not black at the same viewing moment. She and other mixed-race Afro-Latinx stars like her offer a keen example of what Nicole R. Fleetwood names in Troubling Vision (2011) as “the productive possibilities of black subjects to trouble the field of vision precisely by presenting the black body as a troubling figuration to visual discourse.”25 In this instance, Saldaña is troubling because she cannot be pinned down.

The ethnographic research that I incorporate into my cultural studies analysis—interviews and participant observation that I conducted in Santo Domingo in 2010—underscores the reality that Dominican audiences read Saldaña’s racialized body against a different racial schema than US audiences—and differently than she reads herself. Dominican fans fiercely claim the self-identified “Jersey girl” when she touches down in Santo Domingo. However, they also expect her to reject blackness and readily embrace being called trigueñita, a term of endearment that denotes a color classification of neither white nor black but in between, even though her skin color may be read as darker than many who are identified as such. In fact, she has been widely quoted across the internet as having stated: “When I go to the D.R., the press in Santo Domingo always asks, ‘¿Qué te consideras, dominicana o americana? [What do you consider yourself, Dominican or American?]’ I don’t understand it, and it’s the same people asking the same question. So I say, time and time again, ‘Yo soy una mujer negra [I am a black woman].’”26 At the same time, she has stridently referred to herself as “Latin” on late-night US television, reminding us that these two identities are not mutually exclusive, but deployable in different ways at different moments.27 

The specificities of Saldaña’s gendered racial identity, in which she is not so much “mixed race” as dominicana, remain in constant flux when she (or her image) crosses borders. She is variously marked and marketed with the salient values of class, color, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality based on her physical location and her narrative location within the film she is starring in. These factors, along with other details revealed in interviews or appearances such as accent, body language, and family history, inform how audiences read Saldaña in terms of her race just as much as her phenotype.28 Saldaña’s Dominican-ness allows her to predictably serve as what Lorgia García-Peña describes in The Borders of Dominicanidad (2016) as “a screen onto which colonial desires and fears can be projected.”29 This is certainly the case in many of the films in which she has starred, from Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) to Avatar (2009).

MOBILIZING A BROWN AESTHETIC

On the pages of Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine in April 2010, Saldaña is embedded in what I refer to as a “brown aesthetic,” or a nonthreatening blackness that appeals to white beauty standards. A short article alongside her headshot joins a plethora of parallel visuals: the full-page advertisement for Disney’s animated film The Princess and the Frog (2009) featuring Tiana, their “first black princess,” and a Revlon lipstick ad with the face of mixed-race actress Halle Berry. In the same issue, a Cover Girl “Clean Makeup” ad features Dominican actress Dania Ramirez.30 In that full-page ad, children surround Ramirez, almost as props—the dark color of their bare skin contrasts with her brownness. Each of these images of black women in O magazine sends a similar message about hierarchies of color and the aesthetic into which Saldaña’s brown body fits: in order to sell a product, black women in particular must look young, delicate, “clean,” feminine, and light-skinned.31 The black body, feminized in these ways, is perceived as less threatening and more consumable. Of course, more often than not, one is lighter skinned if she is Creole from Louisiana, as with Tiana; if her mother is white, as with Berry; or if she is a Dominican celebrity, like Ramirez and Saldaña. Numerous other fair-skinned black female celebrities today, from Rihanna to Beyoncé, strive for the racial versatility that Saldaña’s body presents.32 

As Diana Taylor has argued, “The body in embodied cultural memory is specific, pivotal, and subject to change.”33 Likewise, the body embedded in the Hollywood film industry is subject to change as needed in order to appeal to consumers. This is particularly the case when casting directors continue to rely on narrow notions of what the racialized body might signify to the viewer. Like many popular non-Latinx black actresses in Hollywood who have parents of different racial backgrounds (for example Halle Berry, Yara Shahidi, and Amandla Stenberg), Saldaña has been regularly cast as African American characters. Although in online discourse she has been compared in appearance to Dawson (whose racial heritage is Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban, Irish, and Native American), Saldaña’s blackness is being read differently. For instance while Dawson was cast as Chicana activist Dolores Huerta in a Cesar Chavez biopic, Saldaña was cast as African American activist Nina Simone. However, Saldaña’s Afro-latinidad was not easily transferrable to Simone’s black identity. Saldaña’s narrative of Dominican cultural identity, her class privilege, and her diasporic experience make her uniquely other than African American on-screen, even while her brown skin, dark hair, and casting among other black non-Latinx actors in the United States means that she also remains legible for black audiences worldwide. Notably, when Saldaña has played black characters, she is regularly cast against white love interests, sustaining her proximity to whiteness and thus her palatability for the dominant culture.34 Although “crossover” has traditionally meant nonwhite performers who succeed in becoming popular among white audiences, Saldaña’s Dominican background has made her a crossover hit among many Latinx viewers seeking representation.35 

Over and over again, Saldaña’s visual image—understood in relation to other, whiter mainstream representations of latinidad—requires audiences to interpret her racial meaning on multiple registers and imagine her in multiple racial forms. How she is understood racially depends as much on the identity of the viewer and where they are located as it does on the character she portrays. In order to read images of Saldaña’s mixed-race body as mono-racial, one must rely on both the “narrative eye” and the “visual eye,” working in concert.36 As John Berger states simply, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”37 Likewise, what we already believe about race, along with our narrative about Saldaña’s racial identity, informs what each of us actually sees when we see her on-screen. It is the case that “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”38 Saldaña’s racially ambiguous image can accommodate multiple frameworks of racial meaning, not despite her racial background but because of it.

SPINNING LA DOMINICANA

In her debut film, Center Stage (2000), Saldaña played ballet dancer Eva Rodriguez, who was ambiguously “New York Latina,” much like the character Coco of the popular art-school film Fame (1980). While little is revealed about Eva’s ethnic background, Saldaña’s on-screen Afro-latinidad challenges previous representations of Latinas in mainstream films, in which fairer-skinned Puerto Rican actresses did not necessarily read as being of African descent. In contrast, Saldaña established a career with roles in popular black films such as Drumline (2002), where she plays a black college student at a fictional HBCU (Historically Black College or University), and Death at a Funeral (2010), starring Chris Rock. She was also selected to reprise the role of Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek (2009), first played by African American actress Nichelle Nichols in an era when it was almost impossible to find positive representations of black women on television.

It seems that Saldaña’s performances of blackness were not controversial until she was cast in the biopic Nina (2016), about singer and songwriter Nina Simone. Her transformation into the particular type of blackness that Simone represented would require that she don an Afro wig and a prosthetic nose and darken her skin; her performance has since been referred to as a “gentrified” image of the decidedly antiestablishment Simone.39 Angry public response to her casting suggested not only outrage at the fact that she would perform in blackface for this role, but that Saldaña’s blackness was inadequate. Racial logic that would cast Saldaña as Simone erases nuances of black identity such as regional culture, heritage, and class that racial narratives contain.40 Yet Saldaña’s mixed-race body appealed to a white woman filmmaker and her team of film studio executives for this black historic figure over many African American actresses who already represent the type of blackness that Simone embodied—the one that had politicized her. Although Saldaña, who at that point was understood by US audiences as Afro-Latina and identified as Dominican, could change her physical appearance to attempt to personify Simone, she could not shake the narrative identity through which audiences would view her body in this role. It was entirely distinct from the black identity that Simone embodied. Rather, Saldaña’s phenotype, class, and cultural identity as Dominican distances her from many of the negative stereotypes about US blackness that Simone fought against.

Representative of a type of nonthreatening blackness, as I have described above, Saldaña’s racially ambiguous brown body is read in contrast to increasingly visible and visualizable police violence against black bodies that can be witnessed online. Saldaña’s body, we are taught through her representation, is black but not that kind of black.41 In no way does her image accomplish the kind of political work that Paul Gilroy once attributed to images of African Americans on album art of the 1970s and 1980s. “The black body,” suggested Gilroy, “publicly displayed by the performer, becomes a privileged ‘racial’ sign. It makes explicit the hidden links between blacks and helps to ground an oppositional aesthetic constituted around our phenotypical difference from ‘white’ ideas of beauty and a concept of the body in motion which is the residue of our African cultures.”42 Rather, the proliferation of Saldaña’s image reflects how brown bodies like hers are not oppositional to dominant structures of power but instead easily assimilable into a visual discourse of consumable Otherness.

At five feet, seven inches tall, Saldaña is not of supermodel stature. On Santo Domingo television she appeared delicate, even a little wilted from the heat inside the Teatro Nacional de Santo Domingo, when she walked onstage to accept her 2010 Casandra Award for best Artista Estacado en la Extranjero (Artist Based Abroad).43 She beat out the Dominican Republic’s beloved Juan Luis Guerra. She accepted the award wearing a shimmery designer dress, while speaking a high-pitched Dominican Spanish mixed with English. By dancing merengue as the love interest in Guerra’s black-and-white music video for “La llave de mi corazón” (2007), Saldaña positioned herself as a dominicana-dominicana (an authentic Dominican woman), or at the very least a transnational crossover hit.

Of course, Saldaña is not the first Dominican Hollywood actress to be coveted by US viewers for the exoticized difference she represents. In many ways, her body on film functions similarly to that of twentieth-century Hollywood “screen gem” María Montez (1912–1951). Montez was a fair-skinned Dominican actress of Spanish descent, born in the southern coastal region of Barahona. Known as the “The Queen of Technicolor” and “The Caribbean Cyclone,” she was famous for her performances as Scheherazade in Arabian Nights (1942) and as The Cobra Queen (1944). Montez’s Otherness, which was marked by her accent and her purported Caribbean origins rather than her phenotype, appealed to US viewers.44 She starred in and transformed herself for Hollywood films that romanticized distant lands and their people: White Savage (1943), Gypsy Wildcat (1944), Sudan (1945), Tangier (1946). In the 1941 film South of Tahiti she played the character Melahi, and was billed as “visual excitement on screen.” Not unlike characters Saldaña performs, in her role as a “Mystery Queen of the Savage Tropics” Montez was marketed as “Wild! Exciting! . . . Her Love Tabu [sic]!” However, as Danny Méndez has shown, Montez navigated being alternately fetishized in Hollywood as either a “fiery Latina” or as a mysterious, dangerous, and attractive “oriental odalisque.”45 The ambiguity of Montez’s racial identity likewise captivated US audiences as an erotic lure. In the prologue to her biography, Arturo Rodríguez Fernández articulates the significance of Montez’s value as essentially a screen on which to project meaning: “Stardom is something like a priesthood. To enter it is necessary to give up many things. Maybe the most important endowment is that of your own identity. . . . The star remains without name, without origin, without ancestors. She invents a biography, they create your circumstances, dates and motivations. You are transformed into an object of sale and consumption.”46 Montez’s ambiguous biography—the narrative with which her body was to be interpreted—was therefore essential to her celebrity. By the same token, I want to suggest that the possibility of an invented identity for both Montez and Saldaña is rooted in their Dominican-ness.

Of course, in the diaspora different things are at stake for Dominicans in distancing themselves from local black identities. For example, as Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof has shown in the context of New York City, Dominicans socially position themselves in relation to African Americans and Puerto Ricans.47 Saldaña’s mother is Puerto Rican, by all standards making the actress Boricua too. Even so, perhaps Saldaña’s darker skin color makes her claims on the Dominican Republic more legible than those she might have on her mother’s homeland, even as her class and fame lighten her color in the racial imaginary of the region. But after her Dominican father passed away she spent several formative years growing up in the Dominican Republic before heading back to New York at age seventeen to study ballet and theater. Nevertheless, images of Saldaña in Dominican media throughout 2010 established her as decidedly not black in the Dominican understanding of the term, even while her films in simultaneous release in the United States and the Dominican Republic had her portraying black characters.

Saldaña’s regular presence on the island following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti and her frequent mention in Dominican newspapers throughout that year positioned her as local celebrity. She appeared in Dominican publications online and off, touting Avon products, or with donations for earthquake victims in hand. Photographs of Saldaña’s philanthropy captured her distance by class and by culture from Haitian blackness and the poverty with which it is associated. It played into a Dominican politics of respectability that served to lighten her in terms of the social significance of her color. In backlit Avon perfume ads built into bus stops along hot and dusty Santo Domingo streets, Saldaña appeared dressed in a pearly blue gown with a narrow waist—a near likeness of Barbie’s “ethnic” version of Erika from The Princess and the Pauper (2004). Angled down on Saldaña from above, the camera made her head look large, and her flowing black hair, big round eyes, and thin body appeared childlike and almost emaciated. It was quite different from perfume ads of a full-bodied Jennifer Lopez dancing salsa. Saldaña’s mixed-ness, along with narratives of class privilege and advertising campaigns that literally and figuratively lighten her image, effectively render her distinct from more persistent stereotypes of blackness and black womanhood that would make her level of femininity unthinkable. “The pretty, intelligent and talented rising Dominican actress is the perfect selection for the newest fragrance from Avon, which personifies the beauty and the elegance of a woman,” the Avon print ad read.48 Saldaña’s delicate brand of femininity compensates in a way for her darker coloring—a contrast that has long represented the Dominican elite.

Saldaña says of her own gender performance: “Even though I don’t feel feminine, for some reason I still enjoy making films in which I am the only woman and I am the sexy one.”49 In reality, multimillion-dollar global advertising campaigns and film producers will decide how she is marketed. Avon’s approach was to hyperfeminize her image in ads in the Dominican Republic. In other provocative photos from US magazines, print and online, Saldaña discusses her sexual appetite.50 Her value as a sex object bridges the needs of global media, simultaneously humanizing and exoticizing her brown body as she occupies the space of the mulata figure in Latin America and the Jezebel in US lore: an inviolable, hypersexualized blackness. In Saldaña’s only Dominican film to date, La maldición del padre Cardona (The Curse of Father Cardona, 2005), she plays the frisky brown-skinned daughter of an all-but-white landowning Dominican family. Her character, Flor, is chided by her parents for her gallivanting (that is, being sexually promiscuous, unlike her white siblings). Flor’s hypersexuality—as she aggressively pursues the young white priest who has just arrived in town—is part of the punch line of the film, confirming the significance of Saldaña’s shade of brown in Dominican society.

TAKING THE BAIT

Thanks to online fan clubs and the racialized fantasies of mainstream filmmakers, a range of beliefs about mixed-race bodies, blackness, and latinidad circulate around the internet via taglines, sound bites, quotes, headlines, videos, and enduring images that are regularly associated with Saldaña’s name and likeness. Yet the actress is almost never referred to in popular media as “mixed race” or asked to represent this particular category of racial identity, even though like so many mixed-race people before her, she says she is tired of being asked, “What are you?” “I find it uncomfortable to have to speak about my identity all the time” says Saldaña, declaring it “preposterous” to constantly draw conclusions about others based on race. “To me there’s no such thing as ‘people of color’ because in reality, people aren’t white, paper’s white.”51 Regardless of any color-blind notions of identity she professes in her interviews, in order to partake in a transnational political economy that has long been invested in the objectification of women of color, she is encouraged to assert her difference.52 Positioning herself as both black and Latina—and passing for one or the other as needed—helps her reach a larger market.

In her role in the summer blockbuster The Losers, her mixed-ness does even more. Saldaña plays the lone female lead in an action movie about a group of US special-unit CIA operatives sent to seek and destroy an enemy hidden in the Bolivian jungle.53 It turns out, they are the targets of a sophisticated plan by a psychopath named Max who seeks world domination. As the character Aisha, Saldaña plays a key role as sex object. Alternately scantily clad or decked out in tight-fitting clothing and toting large weapons, she asserts the type of “hotness” on which movie producers capitalize. Aisha’s aim is to seduce the CIA unit’s leader, Clay, so that his team will help her with her own suicide mission: to kill Max and thereby avenge the death of her father. Only after violently assaulting Clay—the hypermasculine white male lead who soon becomes her love interest—does she confess to being an undercover agent. Aisha appears to be a woman without a past—a blank slate, if you will. An entire team of CIA operatives can turn up nothing about her. This is a common trope for racially ambiguous characters.54 

While Aisha’s identity cannot be pinned down, the other characters are essentialized in service of the story line: black, white, Arab, Latino (the Latino male character has almost no lines at all). Saldaña repeatedly transforms her racial identity as Aisha. She starts out in the film speaking English with a native Spanish speaker’s accent, seeming to be an Afro-Latina woman in the context of Bolivia. We encounter her with a hat perched atop her head, echoing the style of the Bolivian chola, a racially mixed woman of European and Indigenous ancestry. Yet Saldaña’s own Dominican-ness in the film is erased, right down to the spelling of her name in the credits, where the tilde over the n is removed and with it the common Spanish sound of the ñ, while an umlaut is placed over the e in Zoë. From scene to scene, she also shifts back and forth between good and evil, as she and the group of operatives travel across the globe (Dubai, Nogales, San Juan, Miami, Mumbai, Los Angeles). Saldaña’s racial ambiguity is what allows her character to move with ease across so many racial, ethnic, and geographic borders in one film. Like many racially ambiguous black actresses before her—from Fredi Washington in Imitation of Life (1934) to Jennifer Beals in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)—Saldaña’s racial versatility is critical to the plot twist. It also makes her suspect.

We ultimately discover (spoiler alert!) that Aisha is the daughter of Fadhil, the “ruthless Arab villain” killed by Clay in the opening scenes. Thus, her “ethnic” name, like her ambiguously racialized body, does double duty, representing an Arab ethnic identity as readily as a black Muslim one. Throughout the course of the narrative, we constantly change what we believe about Aisha’s racial identity, and Saldaña’s. Each time the story shifts, so too does what our visual eye sees about the actress. Aisha’s indeterminate identity proves so unsettling to our “heroes” in the film that they order her killed on several occasions, yet she survives. Notably, as Hollywood film racial logic goes, it is precisely because Saldaña is not black in this film that she lives through to the end. In contrast, the one black CIA agent, Roque (played by Idris Elba), reveals his villainous ways and then predictably meets his death. Saldaña’s racial meaning in this text relies thus on specific narratives of racial identity that have become transnational in nature and, as I show in the next section, depend on viewer participation in race making as it intersects with gender.

SEPIA-TONED ON THE COVER

On the September 2011 cover of Ebony, a historically black publication, Saldaña is finally represented intersectionally as “Black, Latina, Fierce.” Yet there, too, her name loses the ñ, a marker of her latinidad; it is transformed into “Zoë Saldana.” Through the varied spellings of her name, her ethnic identity shifts in public consciousness from African American to Afro-Latina and back again, as she stars in yet more action films and joins the ranks of other Latina leads perceived as stereotypically hot-blooded and “fiery.” In Colombiana (2011), for example, Saldaña’s character Cataleya might be understood to be Afro-Latina because of regional context, but she is never referred to in the film as black. Even so, African American actress Amandla Stenberg portrays the younger version of Cataleya in the film.

Photographs of Saldaña looking coy, vibrant, or sexy can regularly be seen on the covers of Elle, Latina, Essence, Women’s Health, Harper’s Bazaar, O, and more. In cases where she is portraying the demographic that the magazine is targeting, she appears to be also simultaneously “passing” for a monoracial identity. When she appeared on the cover of Latina magazine in 2009, one fashion magazine website contributor effectively erased her blackness and her Dominican-ness, stating: “American actress Zoe Saldana [sic] graces the cover page of Latina magazine’s June/July 2009 issue. Zoe reminds us why Latin girls are so highly revered.”55 Her name is written on the cover as “Zoë Saldana,” while overlaying her image is the tagline of another article, “120 Reasons to love being Latina.” Yet in April 2010 the “Hollywood screen gem” was gracing the cover of Essence magazine, another historically black publication.

In Essence, Saldaña was once more identifiably black in ways that fit the aesthetic of a magazine overflowing with images of slender African American women of light complexion with windblown hair—from its Macy’s ads to hair-care product ads. The fact that she is nonetheless visually interpreted as Other emerges alongside her interview, subtitled “Sex, Love and Power,” for which three headshots of Saldaña are lined up along the bottom of the page. They have her first with her hands covering her eyes, then her ears, then her mouth, as she performs the familiar “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” trope that is so often depicted with monkeys in US kitsch. The series of photographs also eerily mimics line-up portraits of another era, used to scrutinize genetic indicators of race or pathological behavior. Race as biological remains a subtext alongside Saldaña’s image, no matter what magazine she is in. In the pages of O, the Oprah Magazine, Saldaña suggests that her affinity for Latin American culture is rooted in biology: “When you grow up Latina, there are certain writers you just automatically know: it’s part of your genetic composition. Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, and Federico García Lorca—I have a passion for these authors because they’re part of my culture. They’re a part of being Latina.”56 Her association of race and genetics (and culture) reinforces the false notion that race is hardwired as biological fact.

CUSTOMIZABLE IN BLACK AND WHITE

A black-and-white photograph of Saldaña clad in a lacy black bra and matching underwear appeared on a billboard along Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in October 2010. The advertisement had her looking seductively at the camera with “Calvin Klein” writ large across her breasts. It also directed viewers to the now-defunct website nothingtohide.com with promises of seeing “Zoe uncovered” there. The campaign launch for the Calvin Klein (CK) underwear line “Envy” was on the heels of Cuban American actress Eva Mendes’s underwear ads for CK in which she modeled garter belts with her body greased for the camera. One viewer’s comment online, that Mendes looked like a “Latina Cindy Crawford,” captures the ways that Latina models are viewed through a lens that measures their proximity to whiteness.57 In black-and-white photographs, their Otherness is both heightened and obscured. In black and white, Saldaña’s skin tone does not necessarily signify blackness: her straightened hair falls around her face similarly to Mendes’s, and whether her less-curvy body denotes blackness or whether Saldaña is the same brown color as Mendes is left up to the viewer’s imagination.

Had you visited the CK website for “Envy” in 2010, you would find yourself in intimate “conversation” with Saldaña as she tossed around in her underwear on your computer screen. Just as Lisa Nakamura writes of JLo’s 1999 video “If You Had My Love,” Saldaña’s role in the CK online ad campaign provided “multiple points of entry to the star, multiple ways of seeing and surveilling that are framed as exactly that, exploiting the interface as a visual culture that purveys an ideal and mutable female body of color, perpetually and restlessly shifting ‘just in time’ to meet fickle audience preferences.”58 In fact, the slogan on CK’s opening web page read: “What you uncover is up to you.” There CK produced a series of short videos in which Saldaña spoke about love, her childhood, and her body, while modeling various undergarments. Audiences could readily consume images of Saldaña’s body in a virtual space where the focus was very much on individual pleasure. A strip of black-and-white photographs of Saldaña ran vertically down the left-hand side of the page. If you scrolled across each one with your cursor, her image floated and bounced slightly at the whim of your manipulation. The video shorts were titled “zoe uncovers,” “zoe reveals,” and “zoe shares.”

Video footage of Saldaña on the page was so up close and personal it left her dismembered, her limbs mostly cut off the edges of the screen. With her knees pulled up toward her body, she filled the window with sharp angles, the length of her neck highlighted. Centered in these images was her midsection. Her breasts only just filled the bra she was wearing. Her eyes were encircled with a dark, smoky makeup. At times she was lying on her side with her head resting on a pillow; or crawling toward you on all fours; or pensive, with her fingertips at her mouth; or casually twirling her hair like a child. Saldaña spoke directly to the viewer: “I’m a really good crier,” she confided. “You know what’s even better? When a guy cries. It makes me melt.” When “zoe reveals” that she learned to ride a dirt bike at age nine, and that her dad taught her, the grown woman is seemingly reduced to girlhood. In an effort to transform her into a visually consumable product, the story she told transformed her into an object over which the viewer could exert power. Like a video game character, her image responded to your command. As Nakamura suggests of new media, there is a “blurred line between producers and consumers.”59 

In the end, Saldaña assures us, “I have nothing to hide”: “What do you want to know?” One might wonder, What is she hiding about her racial origins? Throughout, it is the viewer’s imagination that adds color and meaning to the body we see depicted in only black and white. Do we read her as Latinx? As Afro-Latinx? As black? It depends on what we want. Calling on the viewer to define her, Saldaña declares at the end of the virtual interaction, “The more I share with you, the more I feel like me.” The language suggests that she is in fact undefinable without the viewer’s participation—she does not know who she is without us; her true identity is dependent on our fantasy of what we want her to be. The neoliberal effect in which she is as customizable as a luxury automobile lingers, as does the unspoken question, What are you?

THE ETHNOGRAPHIC MOMENT AND AFRO-LATINIDAD IN GALAXIES FAR, FAR AWAY

At the National Theater in Santo Domingo, a couple hundred students attended a free screening of Avatar a year after its release. Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo, known locally as FUNGLODE, hosted the event as part of its annual international film festival.60 Students from five or six different private high schools around the city, all dressed in uniforms—blazers or button-down shirts—filed in for the event. A show of hands revealed that 85 to 90 percent of them had already seen Avatar, many more than once. They may have watched it illegally online through MegaUpload or bought a bootleg DVD from a street vendor. It had been released simultaneously at movie theaters in the United States and in the Dominican Republic, available even in 3-D in luxury malls in Santo Domingo. The version screened on this day was expertly dubbed in Castilian Spanish, not Dominican Spanish, with voices true to each of the characters. Following the screening, virtual production supervisor Glenn Derry and motion capture producer Candice Alger spoke to the audience.

In English, with a young Dominican woman translating their words into Spanish, the white American filmmakers reiterated that the main message of the film was one of environmentalism and explained how the digital animation was produced.61 Saldaña was excellent in her screen test, Derry told the audience. Her face was expressive of emotion and “Jim [Cameron] fell in love with her.” It was an added bonus that Saldaña was once a dancer and knew how to move fluidly, he explained. But filming only provided crude images of the action, and a digital design team then overlaid sophisticated details onto the characters in the film.62 Saldaña’s body thus quite literally served as a canvas onto which a futuristic phenotype and ethnic identity were projected. Each time the white US film producers spoke about Saldaña in response to questions, they pronounced her last name without the ñ as if her Dominican identity had been removed. Her name was then re-pronounced by the Dominican translator and audience members with the ñ in place once more, dropped and taken up again in the moment as needed. This created the sensation of an auditory tug of war between the two contexts in which Saldaña’s identity was being formed and claimed. The differing pronunciations of her name alone can make Saldaña more or less foreign to different audiences.

The extraterrestrial roles that Saldaña is known for, Lieutenant Uhuru in StarTrek and Neytiri in Avatar, seem to suggest that she is somehow supernatural in her unique form of blackness (Figure 2). “The New Black Beauty,” claimed the title of Saldaña’s October 2008 cover story for the popular Latin American magazine Mujer Única.63 The subhead that followed—“Come to life on the big screen, the first black woman’s role that changed the stereotypes on an intergalactic voyage with a multiracial passport”—encapsulates in one sentence Saldaña’s identifies as black, multiracial, and distinctly foreign. Her indeterminate racial identity emerges in the roles that she plays when her beauty and sex appeal are identified as otherworldly. This is reflected in her August 2010 cover story in GQ: “Loving the Alien Zoe Saldaña: How the Blockbuster Star of Star Trek and Avatar Put Sex into Space.”64 Indeed, such characters have brought her a large following of sci-fi fans.

FIGURE 2.

This image released by 20th Century Fox shows the characters Neytiri, right, and Jake in a scene from the 2009 movie “Avatar.” Saldaña is digitally transformed into a Na’vi yet retains an “ethnic look.” AP Photo/20th Century Fox, File.

FIGURE 2.

This image released by 20th Century Fox shows the characters Neytiri, right, and Jake in a scene from the 2009 movie “Avatar.” Saldaña is digitally transformed into a Na’vi yet retains an “ethnic look.” AP Photo/20th Century Fox, File.

To be named the 2010 Max Mara “Face of the Future” may have been an appropriate accolade for Saldaña. Yet with the enormously popular futuristic fantasy Avatar, director James Cameron tells an old story, not a new one. It is a familiar narrative of colonialism: the US origin myth, a twenty-first-century Pocahontas story with sophisticated digital special effects. Saldaña’s character is the sexually attractive female “Native Other” who offers the film’s white male protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a glimpse into the world of the Na’vi on the planet of Pandora.65 Cameron’s film reproduces a narrative of conquest that continues to haunt our present, and it is powerful precisely because of its familiarity.66 Such a “scenario” is told and retold so effectively as to make invisible the viewpoints of the conquered native people while privileging those of the conquerors through what Diana Taylor refers to as “percepticide.”67 

Sully’s mission as a human is to infiltrate the Indigenous society of Pandora disguised as one of their species. He is assigned this task by greedy white men determined to get their hands on the valuable mineral “unobtanium” buried below the planet’s surface. However, Sully falls in love with Neytiri and comes to realize the true value of the land, its people, and their culture. It is reminiscent of María Montez’s 1941 story line in South of Tahiti, in which three white men crash on an uncharted Pacific island and one falls in love with her, the daughter of a chief. Saldaña’s contemporary character is also the daughter of the tribe’s leader.68 Although Cameron’s version of the narrative provides a timely environmentalist takeaway, little is progressive about how alien bodies in Avatar are racialized for the purpose of exotification.

Saldaña says of her character Neytiri in Essence magazine, “She’s someone I would love to be when I grow up. . . . She’s so simple—the Na’vi are so simple. It was an absolute delight to give in to the fantasy that life could be so perfect.”69 Her comments evince no recognition that this romantic image of people of color as closer to nature is about more readily objectifying and dominating them.70 When we first meet Neytiri, she is creeping through the forest with a bow and arrow. Long brown braids dangle in front of her breasts, barely covering them. Although blue in color, the Na’vi speak with an accent that signifies a familiar Otherness for viewers, and Neytiri soon becomes a trustworthy “Native informant.” Through digital manipulation, Saldaña is nearly unrecognizable. As her blue body moves through the surreal landscape, one must stare at her face to find her lips and eyes familiar, while her movements and stature are recognizably Saldaña’s. Beads and feathers tied to the ends of her braids further flag her as ethnically different, and mark her as Indigenous. In Avatar, as in so many other Hollywood films, “Exoticism solipsizes its object for the exoticists’ pleasure, using the colonized ‘other’ as an erotic fiction in order to re-enchant the world.”71 Extraterrestrial though she may be, Neytiri is successfully eroticized in the film as sexually attractive to human audiences—yet different enough to be worthy of rigorous study by human scientists.

Saldaña met Cameron’s criteria for the lead character in that she provided what Avatar concept designer Jordu Schell refers to as “the beauty of a kind of ethnic face.”72 Schell’s job was to design the creature into which technology would transform Saldaña through the use of “digital makeup.”73 When asked directly, “Was the sexiness something James Cameron emphasized with you?” Schell responded in no uncertain terms about what inspired the look of the Na’vi that he helped create: “Well, he wanted them to be very beautiful. And I do believe that, at some point, he said something to the effect of . . . the audience has to want to fuck her. I mean, Jim is very plain in his language. . . . So I made something that, I don’t know if I really particularly wanted to fuck it, but it was certainly a beautiful alien.”74 The conquest narrative requires sex as part of the dominant culture’s experience of Otherness. As bell hooks writes, “Fucking is the Other. Displacing the notion of Otherness from race, ethnicity, skin color, the body emerges as a site of contestation where sexuality is the metaphoric Other that threatens to take over, consume, transform via the experience of pleasure.”75 In this case, the mixed-race body appears to inherently allude to acts of miscegenation, even when digitally remastered. With Neytiri, we are served a digitized visual fantasy of Saldaña that is much aligned with the gaming culture in which an Avatar fan base has exploded. Beneath the blue of Saldaña’s digital makeup, stereotypes about her sexual accessibility still signify, and are highlighted in her portrayal of a feminine Other in a narrative of conquest. Even when submerged in the blue of new film technology, Saldaña’s racial identity signifies something more, and viewers’ desires for her supernatural Otherness remain at the fore.

EN FIN

Public desire for Saldaña’s Afro-Latina body does not make discourse around racially mixed black women’s bodies any less racist or violent. While her popularity may reflect a changing demographic and a desire for proximity to blackness, it is not an example of racial progress, but rather a “false compliment,” one that exotifies for the purposes of consumption by a white supremacist global culture.76 Celebrity production, and with it the commodification of difference, continues to require racial otherness as a global good. Saldaña’s transnational representation illuminates the blurred edges of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and color while reiterating popular discourse about mixed-race and Caribbean women’s bodies. Moreover, her popularity reflects the level of social acceptance in the public sphere that she is granted as a nonthreatening and sexually available woman of color whose gender performance caters to a white male gaze.

Today, technology cultivates a new level of individualism through which we are conditioned to seek out the detailed customization of everything we desire—from what we drive, to what we eat, to what we view on Netflix, or on devices that personalize our social media feeds. In similar ways, Saldaña’s racial ambiguity allows her to perform seemingly magical racial transformations for our visual eye and our narrative eye that align with our individual racial ideologies. Just as her character Aisha bounces across the planet and Lieutenant Uhura traverses galaxies, when Saldaña herself moves back and forth between the United States and the Dominican Republic, how and what her racial identity signifies shifts as quickly as the language and culture with which she expresses herself. Saldaña’s racial ambiguity does new work in a contemporary transnational culture of the visual by performing as a screen on which contemporary viewers are constantly negotiating their beliefs about race and about blackness. Because her mixed-race body is already imagined as a surface on which racial meaning is unstable, it is not surprising that Hollywood now casts the Afro-Latina actress as characters that are blue or green in color with increasing frequency.

Saldaña’s Afro-Latina body remains affixed to shifting structures of power that inform transnational ideologies of how we view her, in constant negotiation with existing narratives of blackness and Dominican-ness. Seeing her in futuristic shades of color, however, as I have argued, does not divest her from the racial narratives that she carries as a Dominican actress. In fact, it is the “green screens” of Hollywood that have made Saldaña superhuman in her most recent films. Today those screens are constructed in “chromo-key blue,” the color furthest on the spectrum from a red most common in human skin tones. “Chromo-key blue,” writes Soyoung Yoon, is the color “of digital world-making that speaks to fantasies of space travel: the possibility of positioning a subject against any background, in any place.”77 Chromo-key blue and green screens, which Saldaña has grown so accustomed to acting in front of, allow filmmakers to digitally fill in scenes and context after filming. Thus, her racialized body today is no longer context specific in what it signifies racially, but quite literally a floating signifier. Context follows after filming, added in as whatever the filmmaker wants it to be. The blue bodysuit that Saldaña wears to perform her movements in Avatar makes her blue body a placeholder. The fact that Saldaña serves as a blue chroma-key screen onto which our racial beliefs can be projected is a visual reality that certainly troubles what we see when we claim that what we are seeing is Afro-latinidad.

Rachel Afi Quinn
University of Houston
Many people have provided invaluable feedback and encouragement over the years as I worked to craft this essay. My thanks go out to Lori Brooks, Evelyn Alsultany, Jillian Baez, Vanessa Díaz, Jasmine Mitchell, Diana Pérez, and Eesha Pandit for their thoughtful feedback, along with several anonymous readers who significantly improved the work. I am also grateful to Grace Morris, Nina D’Andrade, and Kim Greenwell for their editing skills. Without the Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship I would never have returned to writing this essay. And thank you to the editors of Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture, where this piece has found a welcome home.
1.
I conducted this interview in Spanish in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, September 14, 2010, as part of my dissertation research. All translations from this and other sources are mine unless otherwise indicated.
2.
April J. Mayes, Mulatto Republic: Class, Race, and Dominican National Identity (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014), 2–5.
3.
Milagros Ricourt, The Dominican Racial Imaginary: Surveying the Landscape of Race and Nation in Hispaniola (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 6.
4.
Scholarship addressing Dominican racial ideology includes Ginetta E. B. Candelario, Black behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Kimberly E. Simmons, Reconstructing Racial Identity and the African Past in the Dominican Republic (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009); Silvio Torres-Saillant, “The Tribulations of Blackness: Stages in Dominican Racial Identity,” Latin American Perspectives, 25, no. 3 (1998): 126–46; Ricourt, The Dominican Racial Imaginary.
5.
For a focus on this among Dominicans in particular see Kimberly E. Simmons, Reconstructing Racial Identity and the African Past in the Dominican Republic.
6.
Angelique V. Nixon, Resisting Paradise: Tourism, Diaspora and Sexuality in Caribbean Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015); Mimi Sheller, Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies (London: Routledge, 2003); Krista A. Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
7.
Danzy Senna, “The Mulatto Millennium,” in Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural, ed. Claudine C. O’Hearn (New York: Routledge, 1998), 12–27.
8.
Angharad Valdivia, “The Gendered Face of Latinidad: Global Circulation of Hybridity,” in Circuits of Visibility: Gender and Transnational Media Cultures, ed. Radha Sarma Hegde (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 69.
9.
Mary Beltrán, “Mixed Race in Latinowood: Latino Stardom and Ethnic Ambiguity in the Era of Dark Angels,” in Mixed Race Hollywood, ed. Mary C. Beltrán and Camilla Fojas (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 153.
10.
Elaine K. Ginsberg, Passing and the Fictions of Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 2.
11.
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Psychology Press, 1993), 172.
12.
Isabel Molina suggests what she calls “black Latinidad” is of value to capitalism under what Jodi Melamed calls “racial neoliberalism,” but Molina does not account for the simultaneous distancing from blackness that Saldaña’s positionality as a Dominican offers. Isabel Molina, “Commodifying Black Latinidad in U.S. Film and Television,” in Popular Communication 11 (2013): 211–26; Jodi Melamed, “The Spirit of Neoliberalism: From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism,” Social Text 24, no. 4 (89) (2006): 1–24. On the significance of Saldaña’s “Afro-Latina/o racial ambiguity and flexibility” see also Keara Goin, “Marginal Latinidad: Afro-Latinas and U.S. Film,” Latino Studies 14, no. 3 (2016): 344–63.
13.
Richard Dyer and Paul McDonald, Stars (London: BFI, 1998).
14.
This identity-based movement in the US emerged around the 2000 Census, which would finally allow mixed-race individuals to “check one or more” boxes for their race and is framed by a body of literature that anthologizes the testimonies of mixed-race people. Nevertheless, mixed-race identity constructions have been rightly critiqued for shifting the narrative from one of marginalization to an articulation of one’s racial uniqueness in a celebratory trend that undermines other minority movements. See for example Kimberley McClain DaCosta, Making Multiracials: State, Family and Market in the Redrawing of the Color Line (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Kim M. Williams, Mark One or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).
15.
See Jill Olumide, Raiding the Gene Pool: The Social Construction of Mixed Race (London and Sterling, VA: Pluto, 2002); Minelle Mahtani, Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).
16.
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, “Zoë in Wonderland,” Ebony, September 2011, 115. The subhead reads, “There’s Something About Zoë: Black, Latina, Fierce . . . Fall in Love with Hollywood’s Newest Star.”
17.
Lynn Hirschberg, “The Kid Stays in the Pictures,” New York Times Magazine, February 19, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/22/style/tmagazine/22rosariow.html.
18.
Caroline A. Streeter, Tragic No More: Mixed-Race Women and the Nexus of Sex and Celebrity (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 87.
19.
Mary C. Beltrán, Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 161.
20.
Mahtani, Mixed Race Amnesia, 20. See also, for example, Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, ed., “Mixed Race” Studies: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2014); Olumide, Raiding the Gene Pool.
21.
Lise Funderburg, Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk about Race and Identity (New York: W. Morrow, 1994); Maria P. P. Root, ed., The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier (Landham, MD: Sage, 1995).
22.
In order to consider the range of mitigating factors that determine how Saldaña’s image is being racialized in multiple ways at once I am using Christian Metz’s useful concept of the “scopic regime” as taken up by Martin Jay in “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 3–4.
23.
Sharon Willis, Poitier Effect: Racial Melodrama and Fantasies of Reconciliation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
24.
bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Cambridge, MA: South End, 1992), 21.
25.
Nicole R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 18.
26.
L’Union Suite, “Actress Zoe Saldana L’Oreal Commercial Confirms She’s Haitian,” August 18, 2014, https://www.lunionsuite.com/actress-zoe-saldana-loreal-commercial-confirms-shes-haitian/.
27.
Introduced as “Zoe Saldana” (rather than Saldaña), she was interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel’s show in May 2009, when US audiences were only just learning about who she was and where she came from. See YouTube, posted May 7, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeSd9pzAMdE. She identified herself as “Latin” and from New York, but went on to further describe time spent in the Dominican Republic. YouTube comments by Dominicans (see for instance jgarciadr’s note) expressed pushback around how she depicts life on the island as well as debates around Dominican identity and whether or not she is black.
28.
Beltrán, Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes, 8.
29.
Lorgia García-Peña, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation and the Archives of Contradiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 6.
30.
Ramirez has a TV and film career, starring in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), The Sopranos (2006–7), and other US TV shows such as Heroes (2007–8); she also starred in Dominican duo Wisin y Yandel’s “Dime Que Te Pasó” (2008).
31.
Streeter, Tragic No More, 73.
32.
Mixed-race solo pop artists Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys are known to have played into their racial ambiguity in ways that Saldaña does today. Each singer has been depicted in a black-and-white photograph on one or more of their album covers, their wavy hair framing their faces. These images gesture to their proximity to whiteness, thereby broadening potential consumer audiences by allowing a wider range of viewers see themselves in the artists’ images. Caroline Streeter’s chapter “Faking the Funk: Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and the Politics of Passing,” in Tragic No More offers a detailed analysis of these two artists; she explores blackness as cultural capital for these mixed-race black women.
33.
Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 86.
34.
Saldaña has played the love interest for white actors in numerous films beyond the many mentioned in this essay, for example Mila Kunis in After Sex (2007), Bradley Cooper in The Words (2012), and Ben Affleck in Live by Night (2016).
35.
On crossover see Mary C. Beltrán, “The Hollywood Latina Body as Site of Social Struggle: Media Constructions of Stardom and Jennifer Lopez’s ‘Cross-over Butt,’” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 19, no. 1 (2002): 71–86.
36.
I attribute my engagement with this notion of the “narrative eye” to a conversation I had with scholar Christina Sharpe in 2006. It does of course draw on art critic John Berger’s argument about our socially produced ways of seeing in Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1972).
37.
Berger, Ways of Seeing, 8.
38.
Berger, Ways of Seeing, 7.
39.
Aaron Overfield, “An Open Letter to Anyone Who Cares about Nina Simone,” October 29, 2012, http://www.ninasimone.com/2012/10/an-open-letter-to-anyone-who-cares-about-nina-simone/.
40.
Philosopher Paul C. Taylor argues that Saldaña’s casting in this role erases Simone’s anti-colorist and anti–white supremacist political work, which Simone enacted in part through the adornment of her body. Paul C. Taylor, Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2012), 298.
41.
Fleetwood, Troubling Vision, 2011.
42.
Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (New York and London: Serpent’s Tail, 1993), 246.
43.
The Dominican award was recently renamed El Soberano.
44.
Jack Smith, “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of María Montez,” Film Culture 27 (Winter 1962–63): 28–32. For a reading of how Montez negotiated the stereotypes around her identity as the first Dominican Hollywood star see Danny Méndez, “María Montez: The Unnatural Actress and the Consumption of the Early Dominican Diva,” Small Axe 22, no. 2 (2018): 115–27.
45.
Méndez, “María Montez,” 125.
46.
Arturo Rodríguez Fernández, “Prologue,” in Margarita Vicens de Morales, María Montez: Su Vida (Santo Domingo: Editora Corripo, 1992).
47.
Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
48.
“Zoé Saldaña, imagen de Eternal Magic nueva fragancia de Avon,” Hoy.com, May 10, 2010, accessed May 23, 2010, http://hoy.com.do/lo-nuevozoe-saldana-imagen-de-eternal-magic-nueva-frangancia-de-avon/.
49.
“Zoe Saldana, una maleducada sexy: la protagonista de ‘Avatar’ confiesa que le encanta eructar,” La Voz Libre, April 19, 2010, accessed May 23, 2010, https://hemeroteca.vozlibre.com/noticias/ampliar/60127/zoe-saldana-una-maleducada-sexy.
50.
When Saldaña stated in an April 2010 interview for Essence that she could not live without sex, it became global news—in articles in English and Spanish, online and in print. See for example “Zoe Saldana reconoce que no puede vivir sin sexo,” El Mundo March 11, 2010, http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2010/03/10/gentes/1268247124.html.
51.
“Celebrities: Zoe Saldana on ‘Star Trek,’ Race and Sexuality,” BET.com, May 13, 2013, http://www.bet.com/video/celebrity/2013/zoe-saldana-on-star-trek-race-and-sexuality.html.
52.
Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 89.
53.
Based on a comic book series, the Warner Bros. film delivers an edgy visual aesthetic that relies on a “good guys versus bad guys” dichotomy throughout—even when we don’t know who the bad guys are.
54.
The lead character Cataleya that Saldaña portrays in the action film Colombiana (2011) is also a woman without a past.
55.
Chandoo, “Zoe Saldaña in Latina Magazine,” Magxone blog, June 4, 2009, accessed August 24, 2010, web page no longer active.
56.
Mamie Healey, “Books That Made a Difference to Zoë Saldana: Death at a Funeral and Avatar,” O, The Oprah Magazine, April 2010, 131.
57.
“First Look: Eva Mendes’s Steamy Calvin Klein Ads” People, June 17, 2009, https://people.com/style/first-look-eva-mendess-steamy-calvin-klein-ads/.
58.
Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 27.
59.
Nakamura, Digitizing Race, 18.
60.
These statements and those that follow come from the author’s own ethnographic notes from the screening, which took place on November 18, 2010.
61.
The translator was Cristina Zapata, a Dominican UN youth ambassador who had studied film at NYU.
62.
After praising the film, Dominican students asked astute questions in both English and Spanish, such as “How much were the actors paid?” and “Why did they choose these actors?” When an adult in the audience asked how much the film cost to make, there was an audible gasp in the room when the producers responded, “$300 million.”
63.
“La nueva belleza negra: Encarnará en la gran pantalla al primer personaje de mujer negra que cambió los estereotipos en un viaje intergaláctico con pasaporte multirracial,” Mujer Única, October 30, 2008, 34–35.
64.
Chris Ayers, “Loving the Alien Zoe Saldaña: How the Blockbuster Star of Star Trek and Avatar Put Sex into Space,” GQ, August 2010.
65.
The initial cultural exchange is much like the Ewok village encounter in Return of the Jedi (1983).
66.
A measure of the film’s success and its transnational reach is its worldwide box office revenue, which by January of 2010 had already surpassed Cameron’s previous epic blockbuster, Titanic (1997).
67.
Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 119.
68.
In Avatar, Sully ultimately leads a heroic military effort to defend the planned destruction of life on Pandora. It is a war movie at its climax. From a pioneering scientist (played by Sigourney Weaver) to the skilled helicopter pilot (played by Michelle Rodriguez), it portrays women as hopelessly emotional beings whose ethics (conveyed as sentimentality) get them killed.
69.
Nina Malkin, “From A to Zoe,” Essence, April 2010, 114.
70.
Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 69.
71.
Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 21.
72.
Lauren Davis, “Avatar Concept Designer Reveals the Secrets of the Na’vi,” io9.com, September 8, 2009, http://io9.com/5354315/avatar-concept-designer-reveals-the-secrets-of-the-navi.
73.
Rachel Abramowitz, “Avatar’s Animated Acting,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2010, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-feb-18-la-et-avatar-actors18-2010feb18-story.html.
74.
Davis, “Avatar Concept Designer Reveals the Secrets of the Na’vi.”
75.
hooks, “Eating the Other” 22.
76.
Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, 21.
77.
Soyoung Yoon, “Beware the Light: Figure versus Ground, White versus Black (Blue), Or: Sondra Perry’s Blue Room and Technologies of Race,” Millennium Film Journal, no. 65 (Spring 2017): 30–37.