“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.

Ensembles

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I loved reading your essay, Brooke. You did an amazing job telling a story of discovering pieces of your identity while also providing rich and related description of In the Heights. I loved being able to follow along with your thoughts as you listened to the music and read the book. Your writing made it feel like I was there experiencing it with you, which is a great skill that you have. I love when you say, “each viewer either sees parts of their identity mirrored in the characters, or they see the absence of such.” This is something we all know but don’t often put into word how the absence of seeing our identity also helps us learn about our own. I also thought that the pictures were a great addition! It was fun to have paces to put with the people and get to see pictures of your mom through the years.

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  2. Your grandmother is completely right. 2 month after receiving my Ph.D., my marriage blew up, and my life was a financial (and emotional) mess. But that degree saved me, and ain’t no one ever taking it away!!!

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