'In the Heights' is a milestone for Latino audiences, but Lin-Manuel Miranda admits there's work to be done: 'I'm listening'

·11-min read
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera star as Usnavi and Vanessa in 'In the Heights.' Credit: Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP.
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera star as Usnavi and Vanessa in In the Heights. Credit: Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP.

Deeply woven inside the story of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights is a universal theme that is typically absent in works highlighting the realities and joys of Latin Americans: the nuances of the American dream.

Although the newly released film adaption, directed by Jon M. Chu, missed box-office expectations this weekend with $11.4 million, what it got right, according to fans, was the notion that Latin Americans are not a monolith. Making a clear separation from the typical tropes — the Latin lover, the buffoon, the illegal, the hot-tempered husband, the criminal, the gangbanger, etc. — In the Heights unveils a slice of life seldom seen in mainstream projects.

"For decades it was very common for Hollywood movies to associate Latinos with negative images such as prostitution, drug dealing, and violence," New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents the district that includes the film's setting of Washington Heights, tells Yahoo Entertainment. "The In the Heights film shows the world we are so much more."

However, the film was also the target of criticism over the weekend regarding its lack of Afro-Latino representation. Miranda on Monday penned a passionate post on social media, admitting "in trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short."

Meanwhile, speaking to The Roots Felice León, Chu also noted that there’s more work to be done to truly document the vast realities of the culture.

"I needed to be educated about that,” he said (see video below) about not fully understanding the existence of dark-skinned Latino folks like Afro-Panamanians, Black Cubans and Black Dominicans, for example.

"In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get people who were best for those roles," Chu continued. "But I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin. I think that's a really good conversation to have, something that we should all be talking about."

Despite the critiques, the musical's overall aim of representation-beyond-stereotypes has been, as Miranda noted, ingrained in its DNA since it first premiered on Broadway in 2008. An unapologetically festive and joyful film, In the Heights spotlights a diverse group of Latino characters, living in New York's Washington Heights, the neighborhood in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge at the tip of Manhattan, with various plights, generations and experiences. The narrator of the film, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), is a bodega owner and acts as a linchpin for understanding life as a whole in the Heights.

Together, the characters’ shared experiences, being either an immigrant or a first-generation American living in America, are both celebrated and keenly observed through their own story arcs.

“When we were doing the musical on Broadway, even off Broadway [in 2007], I'll never forget the conversations I would have with audience members at the stage door who were seeing themselves represented in this way for the first time,” original cast member Javier Muñoz, who makes a brief appearance in the film, tells Yahoo. “[It is] the way it really is in our families and as Latin people, in our culture with our friends and our neighborhoods. It’s a real slice of life, representation with dignity and with integrity.”

Ramos himself, who toured the show across the United States in 2012 and was part of the original cast of Miranda’s later success, Hamilton, recently spoke about how the show inspired his own search for identity.

In the Heights was like the show that kept me believing, because I was like, ‘Yo, I don’t know where I fit in, in this musical theater world,” Ramos told CBS This Morning’s Kelefa Sanneh (watch below). In fact, he recalled being told by a teacher to change the way he spoke so casting directors and producers wouldn’t know where he was from — though it was the authenticity of true accents which made In the Heights all the more relatable.

“I’m sitting there watching this show about people singing, and dancing, and speaking about things that I grew up knowing. And they sound like me,” Ramos explained.

Muñoz admits to having had a similar experience when he was performing in the show on Broadway.

“I remember signing with an agency while I was performing In the Heights,” he tells Yahoo. “I was their first man of color, their first Latin man of color that they've ever signed. It was a real open conversation. These two agents were like, ‘We may get this wrong, but we want to sign you and we want to do this.’ It was beautiful that they took me in under the guise of not pretending that they knew what they were doing, but that they wanted to really do this with me and learn, like, ‘How do we carve a path for you? How do we really lift you up?’ That was really profound and I don't think it would have happened at all without a show like In the Heights.

Muñoz, who lives in Washington Heights himself, adds, “I'd like to think that [In the Heights] speaks not just to Latin communities and countries around the world [but] … to all immigrants everywhere. I'd like to think that what we see on the screen in this story reaches even beyond the Latin community and to anyone who's trying to come into this country and pursue a beautiful, heartfelt dream. I think the film lends itself to nurturing the conversation at large and the discourse at large for us here.”

Adds Rodriguez, "We must look at the successes of the film and use it as a blueprint to how we can continue diversifying the movie industry to include more people of color. … I hope that Hollywood can continue making changes and giving more people of color an opportunity to be a part of important roles in the industry be it sound engineering, producers, and directors. … I thank Lin Manuel Miranda and Luis A. Miranda for bringing joy and happiness to the big screen as they tell the story of Washington Heights."

Familiar issues tackled head-on

In the song “Breathe,” the character Nina Rosario sings about being the first person in her family to go to college, a recurring element and a shared experience among many first-generation Latin-American children.

Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace as Benny and Nina in 'In the Heights.' Credit: Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP.
Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace as Benny and Nina in In the Heights. (Photo: Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

The film script, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, who also wrote the book for the Broadway show, digs deep into another theme that is often overlooked in Latino stories: the plague of imposter syndrome.

Nina, the daughter of Kevin, the owner of a taxi cab service, and Camila, a strong-willed mother who was written out of the film version, is a star student with big dreams of making it out of the Heights. When she returns home for the summer after her first year at Stanford University, she’s reluctant to tell her friends and neighbors that she feels overburdened and inadequate compared to the other rich white children from well-to-do families.

I am the one who made it out, the one who always made the grade, but maybe I should have just stayed home,” Nina, played by Leslie Grace in the film, sings. “When I was a child I stayed wide awake, climbed to the highest place on every fire escape, restless to climb. I got every scholarship, saved every dollar, the first to go to college. How do I tell them why I’m coming back home?

As Chu tells Yahoo, “Coming into In the Heights, I knew the responsibility or the power that we had in our hands,” he says. “Even though I’m not from Washington Heights, even though I’m not Latino, I grew up in a Chinese restaurant in Northern California, I knew what it felt like to be raised by aunties and uncles. … I was first generation born here. I knew who my Abuela Claudia [the film's honorary matriarch] was … who we made wontons on the kitchen table with. So it just spoke to me.”

Maria Hinojosa, anchor and executive producer of Latino USA on National Public Radio, explains to Yahoo Life that highlighting these narratives are vital in understanding the well-rounded essence of the Latino experience in America.

“It is a story of how we touch on many things that are very difficult. It’s gentrification or being a first-gen college student in a place like Stanford or an Ivy League, not being able to pay for things, the possibility of going back to the mother country and what that means in terms of destabilizing the community, all of these things that we face that are really hard,” says Hinojosa, whose relationship with In the Heights and Miranda goes back years. “But in the face of that, there's everyday kind of extraordinary hope because we touch pain in many ways, on a daily basis, and certainly over the last several years.”

In terms of elevating more Latino stories on screen, Hinojosa says it’s a “long game.” Certainly shows like One Day at a Time, Vida, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Pose and many others have broken glass ceilings for Latino writers and creators. But in terms of authentic representation of Latinidad, Hinojosa argues, it requires exploring more perspectives than what has been told historically.

The power of joy

“In many ways, it's completely unbelievable what Jon Chu has done with the film,” Hinojosa quips, referencing larger-than-life scenes in the film like a synchronized swimming number at a public pool. “But in many ways, what he's done is in that complete 'unbelievableness' there's actually the crystallization of what we usually do in Latino and Latina neighborhoods, and more broadly, communities of color that are excluded from the white majority, is that we actually exist in joy.

“There is so much joy that is happening in our communities, but nobody ever sees it,” she continues. “Nobody ever reports about it. Nobody's writing TV shows about it. They write Law and Order, which I love, but it's all about drug dealers in Washington Heights.”

While Miranda says he could have been more sensitive about the film's casting and colorism, the idea of having his community being seen and heard was the impetus behind the creation of the musical.

The American dream, as realized in Heights, is incredibly personal and varies from experience to experience. Take the story of Vanessa, for example, Usnavi’s love interest who works at Daniela’s salon: Vanessa is the neighborhood beauty, but her dream of being a fashion designer and getting an apartment downtown, though it may at first seem universal, takes on unique challenges against the backdrop of being a first-generation American.

Adding to the subplots are Abuela Claudia, who is the loving grandmother figure of the neighborhood even though she’s not related by blood. Played by Olga Merediz (reprising her role from the original Broadway run), the character sings of her past and how she left Cuba in order to survive, working as a maid in New York City and never earning enough money to return home.

For all that the film celebrates, it also shows that the community’s unique culture is dependent not just on the physical space but also the people who exist within it. That’s evident when viewers learn — SPOILER ALERT! — that Claudia is the winner of a lottery ticket worth $96,000, which we don’t find out until she dies.

When Usnavi discovers the ticket, he uses the cash to help his cousin Sonny, a sassy jokester who works with him in the bodega, get American citizenship — another topic that is widely misunderstood by non-Latino audiences.

"I'm living proof of the opportunities my parents gave me by moving [to America]," says Muñoz. "I was able to accomplish things my family wouldn't even entertain as a dream, because it just felt too out of reach. That's astounding and amazing and I think lots of people have this experience in this country."

He continues, "I believe this film is speaking to that possibility. It's beautiful and it's powerful. I hope that folks walk away from that particular plot line feeling a little more connected to it, because what are we, whether we are a citizen of this country or not? What are we if we are not people pursuing our dreams? We're human beings here pursuing a goal, all of us, and it can be that simple. I think in its simplicity, it's also the most powerful thing, the most powerful journey that we are all on trying to achieve and accomplish and fulfill. Who can't relate to that?"

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