Despite the ongoing pandemic, thousands of people around the world have laughed and cried together as they tuned in to watch one of the most famous Broadway hits ever. On July 3, a film version of the global phenomenon Hamilton was released on Disney Plus, turning homes into theaters to experience this mind-blowing musical. While Hamilton once again sweeps the planet with its brilliant lyrics and beats, we should remember Lin Manuel Miranda’s other Broadway hit: In the Heights.
Having grown up listening to Latin music, the opening song quickly captured my attention and filled my heart with joy. Prior to this, I had never heard of a Broadway show about Latinos exploring their identity in America. This 2008 musical follows life in Washington Heights, focusing on three stores: the bodega, the salon, and the cab company. The story centers on the people whose lives revolve around these stores. Usnavi, who runs the bodega and dreams of returning to his family home in the Dominican Republic. Sonny, who recognizes and wants to fix the social problems of the barrio. Vanessa, who just wants to escape. Nina, whose brilliance and hard work got her out of the barrio but continues to struggle with her identity. Benny, who tries to find his place in the Latinx community. These, along with other honest and valuable characters, present a wide range of identities and struggles that allow the audience, and Latinx viewers especially, to make a strong connection. Through these characters, Miranda guides his audience through an exploration of what home means for them through the lives of the residents of Washington Heights.
Yet, my attraction to this story was more than just seeing myself on stage. It was beautiful to watch Latinx culture characterized by its tenacity, its family bonds, and its joy. The little details sprinkled throughout—like a love for beans and rice and a propensity for gossip—evoke memories and sentimentality in those who recognize them in their own background.
“We can be more than gang members from the 50s in a musical,” Miranda said to Deadline Hollywood, “No one’s gonna write your dream show. You’re gonna play a gang member from the 50s unless you write something, you write your way out of that.”
This is partly why the importance of embracing your identity comes through so clearly from In the Heights. The musical shows Latinx culture as a life we want to embrace.
When I first moved to the US, I was not sure who I was or who I was supposed to be. I started only listening to English music; I was proud when I lost my accent; I dropped my Spanish-sounding childhood nickname. In short, I tried to embrace what I thought of as American culture. After listening to In The Heights, I understood why. It is not that I was ashamed of being a Colombian immigrant, I just thought it was something I should put behind me as I started this new part of my life. I strove to become who I thought I had to be in order to belong, and this musical allowed me to better understand this struggle between my different identities.
The musical also allowed me to understand why as I grew older, my Colombian identity strengthened and I became more proud of it while living in the US. I had started to feel incomplete, like Nina, who struggles with the balance between her Puerto Rican and American identities. Usnavi’s love for the Dominican Republic and the flag motif present throughout the musical and especially in “Carnaval Del Barrio” convey the idea that we should view our heritage with as much pride and love as they wave their flags. The way heritage is presented in this musical made me realize that this part of me is not something to run away from, it is something to hold dear.
This musical was full of moments that made me nod in agreement. Nina, the character that I see myself most in, allowed me to see and accept the fears I have dealt with for years. I know what it feels like to be the Latinx kid who everyone expects to get away and make it big. The same pressure Nina sings about in “Breath” is one that low-income and first-generation students know all too well. Paciencia y fé—patience and faith—were what kept my family going during our toughest times. In Medellin, Colombia, I saw hard work coupled with hopes to make it big with a lottery ticket from the small shop a couple of minutes from my house. In the Heights might not be exactly like my life, but it’s full of moments that hit home with me and others in the Latinx community.
I may have grown up in Medellin and in Raleigh instead of Washington Heights, but I could still relate to the soul of the story and the many wholesome details. José Betancourt ‘24, a Colombian-American who grew up just outside of Boston, agreed: “As a Latino, Miranda’s play nearly brought me to tears as its story so perfectly reflected my own past, comforting me that others have gone through my struggle and giving me the knowledge that I can also reach new heights.”
We are not two isolated cases. While speaking to the graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, Miranda described how he has been approached by innumerable fans who have their own Nina stories and found comfort in this music. This musical made me and countless other viewers make peace with fears and ideas we had recognized before but had not accepted or fully understood. Nina, Vanessa, Sonny, and Usnavi laid out my patterns in front of me and allowed me to understand them a little better. Soon, the characters and stories of In the Heights will reach new audiences with the release of the cinematic version of the musical in the summer of 2021.
Miranda’s work inspires people around the world, but it is his own story that has had the biggest influence. He wanted a life in the theater so he made one for himself, writing two brilliant musicals and casting himself as the lead. The reason that In the Heights solidifies Miranda as an exceptionally inspiring role model for the Latinx community is that it demonstrates leading by example. The story is about finding yourself within sometimes competing identities. The fact that he wrote this story by putting all of himself into the writing demonstrates that you can only be true to yourself if you embrace every part of your being. When he spoke to Great Performances—a television show that highlights exceptional theatrical performances—about writing this musical, he said, “A lightbulb really went off and I was like, ‘oh you can write like a musical about you, about your life.’” This inspires a new level of confidence in the audiences that watch In the Heights. Miranda’s choice to showcase his own story demonstrates that our experience is not valid because others lived it, it is valid because it is ours.
By telling stories that promote messages of standing with immigrants, of revolution, of family, of legacy, and beyond, Miranda has become much more than just a playwright and performer through the power of words. The immediate effect of Miranda’s work is clear in the absolute joy, streams of tears, and pure excitement that his musicals bring out in his audiences. However, the stories and the lyrics linger in your brain long after the song ends and transcend emotions as they develop into a meaningful, personal impact.