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How Latino is Dominic Toretto? And why does it matter?

The series has played with his identity so much, he’s become Dom Toretto, Latino Voltron  

Dom Toretto stands in front of his home while Rita Moreno, playing “Abuelita” holds his face affectionately Image: Universal Pictures
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

To the inquisitive mind, the Fast and Furious films are brimming with mystery. How, curious viewers may wonder, does the Family bend the laws of nature to their will? Where did they study to gain sufficient mastery of engineering and physics to pull off their impossible stunts? Who trained them to be masters of both mixed martial arts and firearms? For my part, I’ve made peace with never knowing the answers to these questions, in case the truth is in fact some dark Lovecraftian secret that drives me to madness or car-related criminality. However, there is one Fast Mystery I must solve: Is Dominic Toretto Latino?

Watching a Fast and Furious movie frequently involves negotiating how seriously to take it. On the one hand, it’s sensible to see them all as tongue-in-cheek goofs, especially given some of the stuff mentioned above. On the other hand, some of these films have real heart — even if the big emotions and oft-repeated mantras about family aren’t always supported by the scripts.

But Dom’s ethnicity is worth taking seriously, because it’s obvious that the people behind the franchise have thought about it and leveraged it in increasingly thirsty ways. And the purpose Dom’s identity does or doesn’t serve can help us understand the role the franchise plays in the cinematic landscape. Are the Fast and Furious movies sincerely attempting to reflect a large portion of their audience? Or is Dom’s shifting background a cynical ploy to try and rope more brown people into theaters? Or maybe something in between, a weird collision between the personal and commercial that results from the ways America commodifies identity?

The United Nations of Dominic Toretto’s origins

Like a lot of things in the Fast and Furious franchise, the answer to the Dom question has changed over the years. In 2001 series-launcher The Fast and the Furious, Dominic and his sister Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) appear to be coded as Italian American, mostly due to their surname and the fact that they’re played by white-passing actors. (Diesel also played the Italian American Adrian Caparzo in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, his breakout role.)

None of that really matters in this first film, though, because above all else, the Torettos are Angelenos. They’re creatures of the LA sprawl, mixing it up with Chicano hustlers and Asian American gangs, drinking Coronas and racing alongside a competition that’s as diverse as the Los Angeles outskirts they live in. Dom interacts with everyone in this film with a working-class ease; in one scene, Mia describes her brother as “like gravity,” meaning that people are just drawn to him. In The Fast and the Furious, it really doesn’t matter what ethnicity Dom is — on the streets, no one cares. What matters is that he’s respected.

Nine films later, the Dominic Toretto of Fast X is a very different guy in a lot of ways. He’s older and less dynamic. Stoicism is his main mode, and his potentially rich inner life has been filed away until he’s mostly just a figurehead to build movies around. But the biggest change to his character is how three most recent films have made a point of retconning him as Latino. What kind of Latino? The films have a pretty clear idea at first, and then they get real weird.

In movie number eight, 2017’s The Fate of the Furious, Dom honeymoons in Cuba with his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and helps his cousin Fernando (Janmarco Santiago) get out of a scrape with a loan shark, which strongly suggests the Torettos are Cuban — something Diesel said in an Instagram video while filming in Havana. So far, so good.

Dominic Toretto leans against his Charger at night in Fast X Photo: Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures

2021’s F9 trots out more Hispanic bona fides, casting Mayans M.C. star JD Pardo to play Dom’s father, Jack Toretto, in a flashback, and Maori actor Vinnie Bennett to play a very Latino-coded young Dom alongside him. Ironically, this film complicates Dominic’s loosely established Latinidad by introducing the very white John Cena as Jakob Toretto, Dom’s lost brother.

It’s possible to infer a few explanations for this — a white-passing mother, or different mothers altogether, for example. But the curious thing about all of this is that, as far as the Fast movies are concerned, Latinidad only seems to matter as far as it relates to Dom. It’s something to attach to his character for the sake of his legend — but it somehow doesn’t touch his newly established brother, nor his sister, Mia, who has been in the series from the beginning.

Fast X does very little to reconcile any of this. Early on, the film adds another page to Dom’s Latino Lore, casting legendary Puerto Rican actor Rita Moreno to play his grandmother. Moreno, credited only as “Abuelita” in the film, is treated like a Boricua Pope, elevating Dom to Latino Sainthood with her blessing. Later in the film, Jakob returns, but not in a way that gives any insight into his relationship with Dom and their background — and then he dies, which means we’ll never find out if he ever had Abuelita’s famous maduros.

A note about Vin Diesel

Mark Sinclair, better known by his stage name Vin Diesel, has always been cagey about his ethnic background. Born to a white mother and a father he has said he does not know, Diesel credits his Black stepfather, Irving H. Vincent, with raising him. Diesel has largely kept his personal life out of the press, but he’s also openly acknowledged his ethnically ambiguous appearance. (His early short film, Multi-Facial, is about the difficulty of auditioning for roles as a man who casting directors cannot easily categorize.)

Furious 7 Vin Diesel Image: Universal Pictures

Diesel, like anyone, is entitled to his personal life, and it’s perfectly reasonable for him to take on any role he feels equipped to handle as an actor. That doesn’t absolve him of scrutiny, particularly when his background, explicitly stated or not, is leveraged to establish his biggest franchise as a beacon of Hollywood representation.

As the Fast and Furious films have grown in popularity, so has its studio’s acknowledgment of the franchise’s audience. Beginning with Furious 7, these movies’ non-white audience has become a major point of discussion among studio executives in trade publications, since the Fast movies are the only modern blockbuster mega-franchise centered on a multicultural cast.

This complicates the character of Dominic Toretto, and Diesel’s portrayal of him. Is Dom’s retconned Latinidad an homage to the film’s Latino audience, or a cynical exploitation of them? Is Diesel being mercenary by exploiting his own racial ambiguity, or is he leveraging it to try and make a genuine connection with his audience? Only Diesel really knows.

I, however, am free to take the character he has built and do what, to me, is a vital part of being Latino: judging movies for getting shit wrong.

The Dom-inican Republic

With all this taken into account, Dominic Toretto’s Latinidad reads as an attempt to make the character something that Latin Americans categorically are not: a monolith.

In the Fast and Furious movies’ scattershot attempts to make a character cater to the audience following him, they’ve haphazardly reached across the Latin diaspora and beyond, without much care or consideration.

Jakob and Dominic Toretto face off in F9. Photo: Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures

Per these last three films, a viewer could read Dominic Toretto as a Cuban man with a Mexican father, a white brother and sister, and a Puerto Rican grandmother. He’s a guy who has made homes in the Dominican Republic (in Fast & Furious), Brazil (in Fast Five), and Los Angeles. None of this fictional biography seems to mean anything to Dom, or to the people around him. The various cultural backgrounds his character grazes all have unique, compelling histories that could inform his story, and that of the Torettos, but they do not. And these movies are supposed to care about family!

The people making these movies are aware of the irony. F9, for example, made a few gags about how non-Torettos are frequently drawn into Toretto family drama. But hanging a lampshade on the problem doesn’t make it less of a problem. If the Fast family are just there to bounce off Dom with little identity of their own, is that really much better than being tokenized? They come across as Boy Scout badges to pin to his tank tops, with more and more cultures sending a representative to join the crew and confirm to the audience that yeah, Dom is a down-ass white (passing) boy.

At the very least, this shallow approach to representation makes the presence of the Fast family feel transactional: The Fast and Furious movies get to have a cast of Diverse Car Avengers, and Dominic Toretto gets to be the face of the franchise while standing for things he may or may not actually embody.

Dom (Vin Diesel) crouches on one knee as car debris blows up around him in F9 Image: Universal Pictures

Dominic is an implied Latino, but these stories could gain so much by making him a specific Latino, and answering some of the very basic questions that are integral to an individual’s experience and expression of Latinidad.

What generation immigrant are Dom, Mia, and Jakob? Did their dad come to America first, or their grandmother? Did they all have the same mother, and if so, who was she? What brought the Torettos to America? What about those circumstances made getting behind a wheel so important to them in the first place? And so on and so forth. This is the kind of speculation filmmakers invite when they make vague gestures at a character’s cultural background, as opposed to keeping “family” as a tongue-in-cheek theme. It would be fine if these films were merely vehicles for spectacle with a priority of putting people of color behind the wheel. It’s less satisfying to engage with the cultures those people are supposed to represent so haphazardly and lazily.

As he exists now, Dominic Toretto just feels like a grab bag of demographic data, where Latino/Hispanic is just a checkmark on a survey, implying that all of us have the same culture and come from the same place: The Dom-inican Republic, where we all drink Corona and hang out with Don Omar. Is Dominic Toretto Latino? Yeah. He’s the perfect Latino — for marketers. He’s Schrödinger’s Cuban, someone you can build a franchise around and get all of the benefits of having a person of color in the lead and none of the downsides, offending no one. Dominic Toretto is only a Latino if you follow the sazón-flavored bread crumbs the movies have laid out. But to anyone else, he’s just Vin Diesel — a guy who could be a lot of things, but remains most valuable as the guy who gets multicultural asses in theater seats.