In the Heights, but where is the history?

In the Heights is a film adaption from the same-name musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who later produced the famous Hamilton musical. Released in 2021, the movie is directed by Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, and the story focuses on the Latino community in Washington Heights, Manhattan, which is one of the largest Latino immigrant communities in the US.

Despite its extraordinary crew and critical recognitions, the movie landed with a box office of 43 million in contrast to its 55 million budgets. Major criticism from the audience included underrepresentation of the Afro-Latino residents, and less-than-catchy tunes. The casting issue is straightforward and the latter one we will leave to the interest of music theory experts. Here we will be discussing the “catchiness” of the characters in the movie, since the plot of this piece arises from the characters, and choreography and lines will be fixed in no time once the plot and character designs are in proper place.

The movie starts with a walkthrough of the Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights(“In the Heights”). By all the residents singing the same verse repeatedly, audiences are presented with the picture of a small and close community sharing many values. Then the lens center in on individual characters and their personal “suenito”, or small dreams.

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In the Heights movie poster. From left: Venessa, Usnavi, Nina, Benny

Usnavi, who got his characteristic name from the first thing his parents saw landing in the US, is a second-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic running a corner store or bodega, and wants to go back to the DR to revive his late father’s business. Vanessa, to whom Usnavi seems to have a feeling for, is currently working in a beauty salon but wishes to be a fashion designer downtown. Nina, who has brought honor to the neighborhood as a Stanford admittee, is already dropping out in Freshman year due to unbearable racism at school and not wanting to end her father’s business for her expensive tuition. Benny is an employee at Nina’s father’s company, and is looking for a second chance on Nina.

In The Heights: The 10 Best Performances From The Cast Ranked By  Cinematography
The blackout in the movie was based from the actual power failure that happened in 1999(Wikipedia).

While the characters’ individual struggles are common ones in the immigrant population, they are also being shrouded by larger-scale problems to the community such as gentrification and ethnic conflicts. What I felt when watching the movie is that the storyline switches so often among the characters and their problems that I didn’t have the chance to sympathize or contemplate on any of them. It felt like the writer wanted to cover the entire immigrants checklist and ran out of space to go into details with the movie already being 2 hours 22 minutes. Every character is given a personal goal, but the goals were just there from the beginning, and we don’t know why they had those goals.

For example, we don’t exactly know why Usnavi, who spent most of his lifetime in Washington Heights, wanted to inherit his father’s pub in DR long after his father died——he was not even sad when seeing the place he grew up in got wrecked by a hurricane; nor do we know why Vanessa was interested in high fashion and how she became the talented artist as portrayed in the movie——but we do know that she was not very determined in that dream as in the end she gives up her downtown life to be with her boyfriend (*rolls eyes*).

Why the 'In The Heights' Movie Changed the Broadway Show's Ending
Vanessa and Usnavi(I did not realize they were the main couple until the second half)

Nina, whose romantic relationship with Benny was the only one that made sense in the movie, was struggling about whether to continue her education at Stanford. As a student in an American university, I feel that the racial discriminations mentioned in the movie (of Nina being searched when her roommate is missing valuables was because of her race in the first place) are at least a decade away from the present, and universities now are doing great at including students from all backgrounds. I am not saying that racial discrimination does not exist at all, but that they should have come up with a better example (I had been an Asian in a mostly-white school, I know what I am talking about). Even if the racial discrimination made sense, it would still not have been a satisfying motive for Nina dropping out of Stanford (she told her dad that the racial discrimination, not economic difficulties, was the real reason she wanted to drop out), unless the writers wanted to depict her as wanting to stay in her comfortable enclosed community without facing the real world, which would not have been a likable trait.

Nonetheless, there was one line in Nina’s story that caught my attention. When Nina was mistaken as the server at the donors’ party, she said that the non-white servers looked at her with the what-side-is-she-on face. Whether purposefully or not, this line put forth the ethnic identity issues and the expectation to take a side that multicultural individuals face every day, especially if their home country and the country of residence are not in the best relationship (I am from China and living in the US, ehem). Again, the problem was over in the movie before any discussion or a second mention.

In contrast to the main characters, the side characters seemed to have more of a personal history and thus motives. For example, Nina’s dad wanted Nina to stay at Stanford because she now has the opportunity of education that was taken away from him. This is personally relatable to me as my mother was accepted by Johns Hopkins University 30 years ago but was not able to go because her visa application was rejected, and now I am at a university in the US to continue the dreams of both her and myself. The point is, everyone lives with the history of their family and their culture, although definitely not by reciting one’s ethnic history in a gossip session like that by the salon ladies in the movie.

How 'In the Heights' pulled off subway song 'Pacienda y Fe' - Los Angeles  Times
The brilliant staging using the NY metro in Abuela’s number “Paciencia y Fe”, after which she rested eternally. This is the only number in the movie that I want to watch multiple times.

The memorable number of Abuela, the grandma of the neighborhood, tells her life story as a child growing up in poverty in Cuba, coming to the US with her Mama to find jobs, and working low-income job while people looked down at them. Knowing from the movie that she is now economically stable and has a big found family that cares for her, her line “Mama what do you do when your dreams come true?” shook me. As mentioned before, I myself as well as many immigrants inherit our dreams from the previous generation, and it is easy to lose ourselves under the heavy weights of family and cultural history, one mental struggle many immigrants face but is overlooked in the movie. The death of Abuela was the emotional climax of the movie because she connected all the characters and the community together, but the emotion did not linger as the story quickly moved on again.

In the Heights was a good attempt at giving its audience a picture of the underrepresented Latino community and immigrants. However, it only brushes on the surface of their life and difficulties despite its message of “small dreams” and “asserting dignity in small ways”. Miranda’s later work, Hamilton, was much more a success with its ready-made characters and motives from history, contrasting to the shortcomings in original character design of this piece, and its absence of personal, family, and cultural history.

Carnaval del Progreso: Almost There, But Not Quite

After watching the PBS documentary and unexpectedly coming across a bootleg that featured the original Broadway cast (YouTube always comes in clutch when you least expect, I must say), I became more aware of what Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights intended to do and what it meant for the performers and members of the creative team who were involved. The musical intended to not only showcase the vast diversity of Latinx people and their culture but to provide opportunities for Latinx performers to portray characters that shed a positive light on the many heritages and traditions Latinx people celebrate. And after reading the show’s libretto and taking a glance or two at the YouTube-recommended bootleg, I believe I accomplished these goals. In the Heights does a satisfactory job of highlighting a concept known as multiculturalism. The production most certainly allows spectators to gather awareness of the presence of Latinx identity and the communal cultural heritage that exists in the real-life neighborhood of Washington Heights. However, the story dramatization forces parts of the plot and character representation to become more superficial rather than profound.

Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Into the Heights was a flagship for Hispanic representation on the Broadway stage when it debuted in 2008. Miranda and Hudes’s production was one of the first of its kind to showcase the robust and diverse community of Washington Heights. The show portrays how a collective set of similar beliefs binds together the Latino immigrant community despite community members hailing from different regions of Latin America. The choice to fuse traditional Broadway storytelling with Latin-inspired dance, unapologetic Spanish-speaking characters, and emphasis on the immigrant story advance an intuitive plot that explores what it means to find belonging amongst a close-knit community where cultural differences are welcome. Not only does the musical do this, but it also examines how this sense of belonging functions in an overarching, modern American landscape. Into the Heights employs character relationships, production and design elements, and ensemble performance to demonstrate how multiculturalism, the coexistence of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities, fosters a unique and diverse set of individuals who all find universal belonging in the production’s setting, Washington Heights.

The musical number “Carnaval del Barrio” was one of the most enjoyable numbers to watch. The song emphasizes and celebrates the importance of fostering a cohesive and diverse community amongst its Hispanic characters. The number especially brings to light the importance of helping bring up members of the community during moments of doubt and adversity. During this song, Daniela, the local hair salon owner who comically doubles as the unofficial town crier, rallies members of the Washington Heights community during the hottest Fourth of July, which just so happens to coincide with a citywide blackout. Daniela commands her community to lift its spirits despite the circumstances and join her in song and dance. She wrangles the idling ensemble members into an impromptu neighborhood celebration while singing in not just English, but in Spanish as well. As Daniela seamlessly flows between the two languages, she demonstrates the unique, multicultural characteristic that defines the community of Washington Heights. Her bilingual fluency functions as a bridge that joins the neighborhood’s collective Latino heritage with the American landscape they currently occupy. Daniel’s Spanish functions as a tool that reminds everyone of their heritage and where their families have been before, while English operates as a reminder as to why the characters find themselves in Washington Heights in the first place. Daniela’s ability to speak Spanish does not hinder or prevent the fluency of which she speaks English or vice versa.  The performance of the two languages complements each other, offering insight into a community that is just as proud of its ethnic roots as it is to be celebrating Independence Day in the country they call home. Daniela’s words reinforce the multiculturalist message that In the Heights aims to recreate accurately. Daniela successfully demonstrates that Latinx culture and American culture can coexist and create a distinct experience that adapts the cultural values and practices of each character’s heritage into a new setting.

An image from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 production In the Heights featuring Miranda (center left) as Usnavi and Andrea Burns (center right) as Daniela.

As the number progresses, the ensemble members slowly begin to join Daniela in her Latin celebration. They start off dancing relatively slow and constrained, restricting their movements to simple two-/three-step Latin choreography. Although the ensemble performance remains scaled down during this point of the production number, the Latin influence in their footwork and hip movements is apparent. Together the ensemble, although not positioned in a distinct formation, sway and move their feet in time with the music as if they are a complete unit. While each ensemble character is distinctly separate from the other and performs differently from one another, the timing of their movements altogether unifies them. Each character’s individuality serves as a representation of the wide range of Spanish-speaking countries and territories they represent. Although the ensemble’s dance steps represent various styles and steps of Latin dance, the ensemble appears united as the members all move to the same beat and feed off of each other’s enthusiasm. The ensemble movement effectively functions as a mechanism that fosters bonds amongst the individuals that makeup Washington Heights, once again emphasizing the variety of cultural and ethnic identities amongst Latinx people that can coexist within a singular community. Each body that operates functions as a sect of the multiculturalism that makes up the greater community.

From this point on, the “Carnaval del Barrio” choreography continues to grow with more energy and enthusiasm. Progressing from simple steps and hip sways, the ensemble members burst into highly involved Latin choreography that consists of energetic spinning, punctuated clapping, and enthusiastic flag-waving. During this moment, the three flags that the ensemble members dance with represent the countries and territories of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. These flags are waved proudly above the ensemble’s heads and shaken with vigor, signaling the multi-national pride that exists as Washington Heights proudly celebrates. While each of these flags represents a different country, the synchronous dancing once again unites each individual together. The dancers’ uniformity sends a message that differences in national origin do not prevent community formation. Instead, In the Heights contests that community prospers from collective celebration and recognition of cultural differences.

There is no doubt that “Carnaval del Barrio” is a celebratory explosion of Latinx pride and dance. Unfortunately, I believe the recognition of distinct Latinx culture begins and ends here. Outside of the national flags that hang from the fire escapes and the occasional Spanish interjection, everything else about the characters’ situation seems fairly normal. And let me be clear, normal is not used here with a negative undertone. Normalcy can be good. Normalcy, in this case, can help an audience member relate to the characters within the story, a concept referred to as universality. Universality recognizes that as humans, we are just that, human. We are all the same regardless of our skin color, the traditions we engage in, where our family is from, or the religion we choose the practice. However, it is possible to simultaneously acknowledge that we are all humans that deserve to be treated as such and recognize that society affords different groups of people distinct life experiences. Into the Heights does a great job at conveying the former. But the latter? Not as much.

The Into the Heights finale left me leaning more heavily into the normalcy narrative. I perceived the characters from Washington Heights, everyone from Usnavi to Vanessa to Nina to Sonny, and the real-life group of people they represent as people who deserve to be treated with decency. And if this was the sole narrative Miranda and Hudes wanted to achieve with their work, then they definitely have achieved that goal. However, as someone who was under the impression that In the Heights would educate them on the diversity that exists in Latinx immigrant culture, I was unfortunately underwhelmed. While I did learn about Washington Heights and the diverse community that calls this neighborhood home, I am still left with the bigger question of what distinguishes this group of individuals from each other. While Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic are all represented either visually or through character exposition, the differences in culture in each of these countries are never explicitly explored. Although all of these countries are lingually united, I can’t imagine that a Cuban would full-heartedly agree that Mexican culture is the same as Cuban culture. Yes, Miranda’s characters are Latinx, but Latinx people are not a monolith. And going forward, future theatrical work should actively work against this idea.

Criticism and all, Miranda still manages to create a body of work that provides representation to those who have historically been underrepresented on the Broadway stage. In the Heights successfully subverts negative Latinx stereotypes and offers Latinx performers an opportunity to engage with their cultural heritage through a publicly enjoyed art medium. In the grand scheme of Broadway and entertainment at large, Miranda succeeds in introducing Latinx multiculturalism to a broader audience. Granted, Broadway typically caters to a majority white audience that may or may not perpetuate the same process the musical warns about (ahem, I’m looking at you, Gentrification), but I digress. In the Heights certainly has not been the last Latinx-inspired story to hit Broadway. On Your Feet!, the jukebox musical that retells the life of the legendary Cuban singer-songwriter duo, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, graced the Great White Way in 2015. And I am sure once Broadway starts back up after the pandemic, positive portrayals of Latinx communities will only become more frequent and representative over time. It may not be perfect, but In the Heights is an important stepping stone towards the Latinx representation we should all be championing for.

The Heights of Controversy: Lin-Manuel Miranda Made A Mistake

Lovingly Written by Maggie Mershon

When Lin-Manuel Miranda developed In the Heights, he intended for it to be a story of his Latin heritage for other people of Latin heritage. At the root of the show, this sentiment remains. Miranda weaves the story of Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa, The Rosarios, Abuela Claudia as they go from day to day in their community in Washington Heights. As was his intent, Miranda created characters for Latino people that weren’t seen on the Broadway stage. These were not gang members or criminals, but people with dreams, striving for a better life.

However, as the show continued to move up the ladder of financial success and those risking capital became integral to your production. An artist can, in some cases, become beholden to the whims of those who pay hundreds of dollars to see these shows, and perhaps lose focus of his intended audience in favor of their paying audience. In other words, It’s a majority white, incredibly privileged audience who expects to be involved in the story that’s on stage. So how does that affect the way the story is told? Does it change the meaning of the musical when the people who are watching are expected to be “in on” what’s going on? Does it force the show to shed its intended identity? I believe that in the context of performance to a majority white audience, In the Heights compromises its original intention-to exhibit a genuine picture of Latin culture-and instead through its story, lyrics, and casting actively caters to this audience and tokenizes what should be empowered.

If you don’t know Miranda from Heights or Hamilton, perhaps you recognize him from Internet lip-biting infamy

Source: @Lin_Manuel via Twitter

In this class, we’ve been talking a lot about Hamilton, another show written by and starring Miranda. Specifically, we’ve talked about the piece delivers a centrist narrative that appeals to both sides of the aisle and is unable to communicate an impactful message of systematic change. I believe that this commentary also applies to In the Heights, where even then, Miranda is fully aware of who his audience is. In the opening number, we hear him sing, “You may be thinkin’ / I’m up shit’s creek / I’ve never been north of 96th street,” a direct reference to the demographic difference across the geography of Manhattan.

In this story we follow several diverse members of a neighborhood in Washington Heights, as they simply go about their lives. They work incredibly hard to sustain themselves: Usnavi demonstrates this in his opening rap, rattling off the orders of his bodega’s regulars; Mr. Rosario sells his business to provide for his daughter; and  Vanessa works from the crack of dawn every day to try and get out of her toxic home life. There is a sense that because these characters all work extremely hard and look out for one another, they will achieve what they are aiming for, as The Engineer in Miss Saigon refers to it, The American Dream. The audience wants to see them achieve this dream: financial success, a family, and a home where they are happy and loved. The musical does not disappoint in this regard. When Abuela Claudia gives Usnavi her lottery winnings, she gives him a chance to do whatever he wants-he has earned this money through his hard work and caring for the people around him. In the beginning of the musical he talks about how desperate he is to get back home to Puerto Rico. Once he has that money? Usnavi ruminates on his live in New York and is no longer driven to return to the Dominican Republic. He concludes he is already at home, Washington Heights is his home and his dream.

This is a beautiful sentiment. The idea that the community in which Usnavi grew up is the one in which he feels happy and secure is great, but the gentrification that the characters are fighting does not disappear in the reality of these characters. The musical may end before we see our protagonists pushed out, but it is coming sure enough. And as this home Usnavi takes up becomes destined to some destitute fate, Usnavi takes up its burden, promising to keep the legacies of the people who live there, to serve them and to uplift their beautiful stories. He’s even decided to go on a second date with Vanessa, whose coworkers helped pay to get her out of her current living situation. With the money he has earned from being a good guy, Usnavi is able to uplift his community and sustain his home.

Who wouldn’t give these faces winning lottery tickets?

Source: Carlito Pucl, ‘In the Heights’ – 2008 Tony Awards Performance – 96000, YouTube

Honestly, I would be shocked if such a heartwarming ending didn’t bring a tear to your eye or swell your heart. This ending provides the audience with an inspiration sendoff that, “Wow, anyone really can follow their dreams.” But that is not the case. It’s an exceptional act of kindness for Vanessa’s coworkers to give her enough money for a down payment, but what happens when she can’t pay next months rent? It’s touching that Mr. Rosario would sell his business to support his daughter but how will he continue to afford life in the community he has called home for so long? And concerning Usnavi-lottery tickets don’t come around every day. Without this enormous completely random gift, how would he continue to support his failing business as he watches the community around him crumble? Furthermore, should it be his responsibility to take care of the community with this money now that he has it? Of course, when watching people on stage and considering morality, we all know what we should do, and what Abuela, Usnavi’s mentor, would have done. But Usnavi as an individual, supporting the community off of one lottery ticket and warding off gentrification is unrealistic and an irresponsible way to portray hope. These stories of people lifting each other up in their community are beautiful and touching but they only treat symptoms and absolve the audience from their guilt and power to stop the root of the disease.

Built into the design of the show are assumptions about the culture that Miranda has acknowledged are not necessarily perfect. In an interview he gave at Swarthmore College, he noted that Abuela Claudia’s journey was, “the farthest outside my experience, I did a lot of research on Cuba and that initial wave of migration in the 40s, and then your job is to forget about it… your job is to write this woman’s story, so you choose, “Okay, when did she get here? What was her experience?” (Zapata, Rosado, Martinez, & Miranda, 2011) Miranda as well as any one understands that there are inconsistencies within his story, which, when presented for an audience that comes from that same background, and understands these things as well as he does, works in his favor. In the case of the specific demographic of Heights’s Broadway audiences, it doesn’t necessarily support the multicultural message intended.

Multiculturalism is an essential component to the spirit of In the Heights. In the opening number, the ensemble sings, “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away.” Each member of the ensemble has a story and a culture that they individually bring to their community in Washington Heights. For example, Miranda, a Puerto Rican man, plays Usnavi, a second generation Dominican. Miranda thought it was important to accurately represent the culture of Washington Heights, Usnavi be Dominican. However, when it came down to casting him, Miranda made the decision to compact the two cultures and, instead of finding a Dominican actor to fill the role, played it himself. Miranda received criticism for the inaccuracy of his Dominican accent for other Latino members of the theatre community but was widely accepted by audiences who saw the Broadway show, a majority of whom were white. This oversight directly opposes pursuits of multiculturalism, ignoring a character trait of its main character and gently assimilating Latino culture into one generic whole. Though in word Miranda succeeded in creating this multicultural community, it feels as though an active choice was made that this small design element wasn’t important enough or would not catch the attention of its audience if not corrected.

A DC production of In the Heights throws their flags up on display!

Source: Olney Theatre Center

I sincerely hope that this piece doesn’t come across as hateful, as there is a lot of wonderful work done by In the Heights. When it opened, the producers actively tried to make some seats available to audiences of lower-income backgrounds, targeting communities represented in the show. There are students around the globe who can now study theatre through characters that were written to look and act like them. That is an incredible achievement. But all the whole house can’t be filled by people not paying full price because profits will go down. And in terms of the Broadway show, what good can the piece do if it’s not accessible to the audience it seeks to empower? Even more, if there’s no call to action, no holding the white audience it is presented for responsible, then does it simply become a tokenization of culture? A story of immigrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps that a white audience can feel good about, totally removed from, and forget at the end of the day?

When he wrote In the Heights, Miranda worked closely with Director Tommy Kail, who sometimes couldn’t understand the Spanish he was incorporating, and Miranda would pull it back. In his words, “we knew our goal in this show … This is a show that I wanted everyone to feel as welcome as possible in this neighborhood, the same way I felt welcomed in Anatevka, when I saw Fiddler on the Roof, even though that’s totally outside my experience” (Zapata & Miranda, 2011). Except Fiddler on the Roof didn’t play to contemporary crowds of anti-semetic Russians. The compromise and concessions that Miranda made to create a story that would fit on the Broadway stage didn’t make it any less of a literary success. It just may have had the impact it wanted if had it actually played in the heights.

Find Below a Work I Cited:

Miranda, L. (2011). In the Heights: A Conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda [Interview by R. Zapata, A. Rosado, & L. Martinez]. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.swarthmore.edu/news-events/heights-a-conversation-lin-manuel-miranda

“In the Heights” is Not Revolutionary: How the Ordinary Story of Washington Heights Uncovers “Home”

At the end of the seventh grade I acquired the nickname “Mexico.” Actually, it wasn’t really a nickname at all, or at least not one that I approved of. I can’t remember the exact insult that led to the birth of this name, but I know one of my “friends” made some probably unoriginal jab at Mexicans, to which I replied, “uhh… I’m Mexican…” What followed was a series of comments like “no way,” “no you are not,” “are you serious?” Yes. I was serious. I am serious. And just like that——in one rare moment of me owning my ethnicity——a message was thrust upon me. A message that said “this part of your identity is laughable,” “being Hispanic is not something to be proud of,” and probably most damaging, “if you are White-passing, why expose yourself as Mexican?” As a result of that “nickname” and many other interactions and moments in my adolescence, I have never sought to unpack that part of my identity. I think I convinced myself that it just wasn’t worth it——that I wasn’t missing anything at all.

In the Heights proved me wrong. It was here——in a story seemingly very distant from my own——that I found pieces of my identity I didn’t know were missing. Through the spectacularly ordinary lens of three days in Washington Heights, the audience faces the challenge of learning more about themselves——each viewer either sees parts of their identity mirrored in the characters, or they see the absence of such.

Mama circa 1966

For me, that’s how my discovery started. I saw the absence of myself in a narrative that, ethnically, I should have fit into. But I don’t. Lin-Manuel’s lyrics in the opening number pushed me away because they tell my mama’s story, not mine. Mama, who is 100% Mexican, always told me that she felt “too White for the Black kids and too Black for the White kids” during her childhood. Even when she entered the Marine Corps at eighteen, her enlistment forms only had the options “Black” or “White.” I’ve heard this sentiment my entire life but I cannot relate to it. Personally, on the one hand I feel like a Hispanic imposter, while on the other hand, I feel like maybe I should take my White-passing skin and economic privilege and run with it as fast as I can. But where does that leave me? Honestly, sometimes it leaves me feeling utterly unknown. 

Grandpa, Mama, and Uncle Phil

That’s what I felt in the first number: unknown and frustrated. I was so close to dismissing the whole musical because——like usual——my untapped ethnicity and my Whiteness couldn’t find anything to latch on to. But instead of giving up, I started watching the Chasing Broadway Dreams episode on In the Heights. For the first time, I heard someone say the words I’ve felt my whole life, “I felt like a fake Latina.” It probably sounds crazy, but hearing Karen Olivo, who plays Vanessa, say these words unlocked a part of my being that I’ve ignored for so long. I felt like someone had finally given me permission to explore who I fully am.

That is what In the Heights is capable of: personal discovery and cultural celebration. Unlike most Broadway shows, In the Heights does not win the audience with grandeur and flashy spectacle. Even within Lin-Manuel’s own discography, In the Heights is incredibly different. Hamilton, for example, hinges on its ability to subvert the narrative of history and has often been called “revolutionary.” In the Heights is not that. In fact, it is the very opposite. At the core of the show, In the Heights is a story about a real neighborhood, real jobs, and real people——being told by actors who carry their identities with them as they step into these nuanced characters. The beauty of In the Heights is its ability to be at once engaging and incredibly ordinary. In that space of engaging and ordinary I saw the faces of people I’ve known my whole life.

Mama embracing the curls!!

I started finding myself even in the one-off, seemingly unimportant lines like “What happened to these curls?… You have to accept hair gel into your life!” In the sixth and seventh grade (it was a rough time, y’all) people loved to make fun of my big curly hair. So at the age of twelve, I started straightening it every day and I lost my curls. That moment in the salon between Nina, Daniela and Carla validated my own lived experience. When I recognized that I related to that line, I realized——on an intimately personal and visceral level——how important representation in theatre is. I am hyper aware that this small gesture toward my hair pales in comparison to the challenges faced by non-White-passing Latinx folks and other BIPOC. Nonetheless, In the Heights both validated me and called me to a higher cultural awareness toward representation.

Grandma Maria. No, I do not call her Abuela because I don’t speak Spanish, hence part of me feeling imposter syndrome

In the song “Everything I Know” I found myself close to tears (you can read more about my crying habits here: https://thewritingstage.com/2020/10/21/i-am-chris/) when Nina sings about how Abuela Claudia could barely write her name but always made sure she did her work. Every time I call my Grandma she asks me about school and says, “Good, you study hard because education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you” and it breaks my heart because she didn’t even finish high school. I’d really like to think that I’ve never taken my education for granted, but this moment demanded I stop and think about how I can better honor my family with my schooling. I even realized that I will be the first woman in my family to graduate from a four year university. My chest physically hurt when Kevin sang, “I always had a mind for investments. Nina Rosario, Bachelor of Arts. When that day comes, we’ll call it even.” In my head, I didn’t hear “Nina;” I heard my dad saying my name.

Many times throughout the recording I thought about how much my parents have given up for me. I think I arrived at the conclusion that part of my tendency to ignore my heritage is likely rooted in Mama’s efforts to make sure it was never something that held me back. I don’t resent that. Again, I will be the first one to admit that my parents provide incredibly well for me. But In the Heights illuminated the nuance of identity for me. In hearing Nina sing about searching for “home” at Stanford, I realized I didn’t even know I was searching for a more complete sense of “home” at Vanderbilt——at least not in this way. And yet, I found it. I found pieces of myself in In the Heights that I didn’t think mattered. I found home here.