Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day. I wake up and I remember that I’ve got to write an essay.
Corny jokes aside, the film adaptation of In the Heights, directed by Jon Chu with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, starring Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, tells the story of a vibrant community of Caribbean and Latinx people located in Washington Heights, New York City. The musical does a masterful job of portraying a real perspective of Caribbean culture, which resonated strongly with myself, a proud Boriqua descendant. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s influence on In the Heights is a perfect example of the value of identity and background in shaping cultural resonance on the stage (or in this case, in front of the camera).
First, let’s talk about the intro song, also titled “In the Heights.” Wow. Just wow. Never before have so many little things from my upbringing been dropped into a musical number before. Now, obviously I wasn’t drinking copious amounts of coffee as a young child, but café con leche is definitely something I was aware of from a young age. And then there’s Abuela Claudia’s mother’s condensed milk recipe. I cracked up at this, because there’s so much condensed milk in Puerto Rican recipes, especially desserts. Condensed milk became popularized because it’s canned, so it’s non-perishable and can be easily shipped out to the islands. Then there’s quarter waters! Wow I forgot those existed. They’re so bad for you, but so good. And don’t forget BEANS AND RICE. The crown jewel of hispanic cuisine. Add in the music: salsa inspirations (brass, piano, hand drums and a guiro, which creates that sort of maraca-esque sound) throughout the chorus parts of the song, mix in some reggaetón over Vanessa’s solo and some old-school hip-hop accompanying Benny, and you get a rather well-rounded cross-section into actual Caribbean music in a way that Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story fell sorely short. Oh, and I almost forgot the piraguero’s adlibs: “le lo lai le lo lai.” This is a cornerstone of old-school salsa, a phrase that means absolutely nothing but has become synonymous with the sounds of Puerto Rico. And who better to deliver it but Mr. Miranda himself? It’s a perfect summation of his stamp on this musical as a Puerto Rican. Towards the finale of this opening song, we see a more structured choreography that blends the fluid, hip-swaying movements of Caribbean salsa with sharp, heavy-footed moves that reflect more hip-hop traditions. It’s a testament to the dual identity of this specific community: a mixture of both their Latin American roots and the streets of New York they reside in. Several aspects of the scenery also encompass the Latinx experience well, especially the flags. While there is a strong sense of greater community between all the ethnic subdivisions of Washington Heights, each individual still takes pride in their homeland, and this is most often seen through displays of flags. Often times, this goes beyond traditional cloth flags, and you can find flag patterns on pretty much anything, from that one dancer’s tank-top in the movie to the side of the piraguero’s cart in the original Broadway production.
Beyond just the opening song lyrics, there are so many little details throughout the production that encompass this culture so well. There’s the blessings exchange, where characters ask Abuela Claudia for a “bendicion,” or a blessing, to which Claudia replies “dios te bendiga,” or God bless you. This is one of the most common ways to greet your elders, and were probably the first Spanish words I was taught as a kid. On a similar note, Alejandro addresses Usnavi as “papa” which literally translates to “dad.” While it may seem counterintuitive, many Latinx parents refer to their kids as “mama” or “papa” as a term of endearment. And then there’s the FOOD!! (You can tell what I get really excited about). Never have I felt more homesick this semester than when I saw Abuela Claudia’s ropa vieja y lechón. There are so many small tributes to Caribbean culture throughout the musical that elevate the experience for me, as a sort of affirmation of my background and upbringing. And there’s probably a thousand other details that others can relate to as well!
This is all present thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, a born-and-raised Nuyorican (Puerto Rican living in NYC), who actually grew up in northern Manhattan. He created a story that mirrored many aspects of his own background, and brought a fairly underrepresented culture in the Broadway sphere to the center stage. His identity, his experiences, and his stories shape In the Heights in a way that only they can, and it leaves us with an expression of culture that Latinx/Caribbean people can actually relate to. Now, I don’t know much about the pre-Broadway lives of either Robert Wise or Jerome Robbins, but I sure hope they weren’t running around stabbing people in racially motivated territory wars.
A major source of conflict in the musical revolves around identity. The main characters can be divided into two major groups: those born in the islands, like Usnavi and Sonny, and those who have spent their entire lives in Washington Heights, like Benny and Nina. Even amongst the island-born characters, there’s varying levels of citizenship, from the natural-born citizens of Puerto Rico to the documented immigrants such as Abuela Claudia to the undocumented like Sonny and Usnavi. Each group faces their own struggles, from balancing assimilation with identity to being able to go to college. One of the premiere examples of assimilation is Vanessa’s character. Dare I say, it almost borders on white-washing. Her part in the opening song is immediately recognizable as a departure from what we’ve heard up until that point: the reggaeton beat is overshadowed by her more jazzy vocals as she negotiates with a “Mr. Johnson.” This trend continues in her solo “It Won’t Be Long Now.” The brass section features a combination of jazzy and salsa elements, and the piano is a lot more gentle and wispy than traditional salsa, though it retains a similar rhythm. The result is a song that reflects the evolving nature of assimilation: both cultures are present in the music, but one is more dominant than the other, and you know which side is taking over because of the way Vanessa sings. Not only does she sing about getting out of the barrio, she does so in a voice that, for lack of better words, is whiter than the rest of the main characters. She wants to be a downtown New York fashion designer, and she’s altering her identity to fit what she thinks will get her into that role and, more specifically, into that apartment. Navigating identity is something that we see so many of the musical’s characters struggle with, from Abuela Claudia’s hardships as a cleaning lady, to Usnavi’s homesickness, to Nina’s alienation at Stanford. It’s one of the few universal struggles between all of the residents of Washington Heights, regardless of citizenship.
There is a downside to Lin’s perspective, however. And it’s certainly caught the attention of the public, especially since the film adaptation’s release. A large bulk of the musical’s criticism stems from the lack of Afro-latinx representation in the musical. The majority of the musical’s black characters populate the background, while the two main black characters, Benny and Nina, are non-hispanic and mixed, respectively. This is an unfortunate byproduct of having the story influenced by Lin’s upbringing, because, though he is hispanic, he has rather pale skin and can pass off as white at an off glance. His story is not one of the Afro-latinx community, and we see this in the musical. The most blatant act of racism in the musical, when the Stanford donor mistakes Nina for a server, is centered around her latina identity, not her black heritage. We see a similar situation play out with Vanessa, where she doesn’t get the apartment she wants because she doesn’t have credit and, most likely, because of her name. All of the acts of racism and xenophobia the musical describes focus on the more ethnically hispanic aspects of the characters, and race itself is not really addressed. Miranda never had to deal with that side of prejudice before, and it shows in the musical.
Nonetheless, In the Heights is revolutionary in terms of bringing audiences across the country some much-needed exposure to the wonders of Caribbean hispanic culture. It’s a far departure from the Puerto Ricans in West Side Story, which were a group of gangsters played by white men in brownface with inauthentic music and even more inauthentic accents. For me, it was such a breath of fresh air to see so many aspects of my culture and upbringing portrayed accurately on the musical stage, especially after Robert Wise’s interpretation of my people left such a bad taste in my mouth. This brings us back to the most important point of all: representation means nothing if it’s not done right, and In the Heights, to a certain extent, does it right, at least more so than ever before. Lived experiences are worth their weight in gold when it comes to storytelling, and Lin-Manuel Miranda displays a dazzling amount of gold in this musical.