clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Luke Cage and the secret significance of a swear jar

New, 53 comments

A show by and about African American folks didn’t erase Harlem’s shared heritage

Netflix

If you’ve watched Luke Cage, you know that the show has a long running gag about coffee — or, at least, about "coffee." And that’s why, when actress Rosario Dawson was asked about the sparks that flew between her Claire Temple and Mike Coulter’s Luke at New York Comic Con’s Iron Fist panel, she capped off her answer by cheering a single word: "Bustelo!"

That might be a reference that’s lost on you, but it wasn’t lost on me — or on the man near me who responded with an equally cheerful shout of "Boricua!" And that’s kind of a perfect microcosm for the way Luke Cage included Harlem’s Latinx history in its story — a thrill of recognition, followed by a moment wondering if anybody outside the culture even realized that was a reference.

A portion of idiotic white viewers have complained that Luke Cage didn’t have enough characters for them to identify with, unable to come to grips with the idea of a superhero show that isn’t primarily for a white audience. I went into the show prepared to be a little out of the loop on many of its references because I know Luke Cage isn’t primarily for me. But what I got was a show that established for the first time that Claire Temple, the Agent Coulson of the Marvel Netflix shows, is Afro-Latina — just like Rosario Dawson, the actress and New York native who portrays her.

Luke Cage doesn’t just have Latinx characters involved in its plot. It does something dear to my heart, something that many other productions that prominently feature Latinx actors don’t do — I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. It clearly established its dark-skinned, light-skinned and brown-skinned characters as Latinx. Theo Rossi, who plays Shades, runs a production company called Dos Dudes Pictures and identifies as mixed-race. Still, until his first name was stressed several times in the later half of the season, I was worried that between Hernan Alvarez’s use of a nickname and Rossi’s light skin, many viewers would assume Shades is white — even though someone had pretty prominently called him "boricua" in the first few episodes.

Brave and noble lords

The word boricua brings us back to that New York Comic Con panel, and the way Luke Cage included New York’s Latinx culture and history in subtler ways, with references that were probably lost on most people who’ve never lived in a place with a large Puerto Rican or Cuban population — like parts of Harlem. Boricua is a widely-used slang term for some who is Puerto Rican, deriving from the native Taíno name for Puerto Rico, Borinquen (which means "Land of the brave and noble lords," naturally). I’m familiar with it because half my family are boricuas.

And because I know a thing or two about the history of Puerto Ricans in New York City, I know the extra context of the moment when Mama Mabel gets righteously pissed at Pistol Pete for trying to cut a deal with the Puerto Rican mafia behind her back. It’s hard to pin down exactly when those flashbacks take place, but in any case, Mama Mabel would have lived through the post-war boom in Harlem’s Cuban and Puerto Rican population and the subsequent rise of crime and poverty as Spanish Harlem hit its mid-century decline. Harlem’s Puerto Rican gangs would have been a keenly felt threat to what Mama Mabel clearly considered the true black heart of the neighborhood: her operation. There’s a lot more there than the vague and ominous references to "the Cartels" a viewer might get on another show.

But back to Bustelo

Café Bustelo is quintessentially New York, and its origin is a veritable Bingo card of the Latinx experience in the city. The Cuban-style coffee was created by a Spanish immigrant who grew up in Cuba and moved to Puerto Rico just in time for the US Congress declare every citizen of Puerto Rico a citizen of the United States. Gregorio Bustelo and his wife began their coffee roasting business after moving to East Harlem, and their Cuban-style blend caught on with other Cuban ex-pats in the neighborhood — and with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and eventually with the rest of the city.

Today, you can find Bustelo in every bodega in the five boroughs, so it’s no wonder that it’s one of Luke Cage’s most significant props: Pop’s swear jar (which itself is a reference to Prince), an empty can of Bustelo coffee. Of course Pops drinks Bustelo. He’s from Harlem.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one whose last Latinx character of note was a guy whose van plays "La Cucaracha" when you honk the horn — and in the superhero genre as a whole, Latinx superheroes are few and far between. Latinxs weren’t the focus, nor should we have been, in the mythic origin story of the MCU’s first leading black superhero. But Luke Cage didn’t erase the presence of Latinxs in Harlem, or our contributions to its history and culture either, and that felt remarkably good to watch.