IN THE HEIGHTS. There was a scene in In the Heights where everyone from the Washington Heights neighborhood came together to sing, many from different Latin American countries, all immensely proud of where they were from. In the song "Carnaval del Barrio," there's a lyric that reads, "Pa'ribba esa bandera! Alzala donde quiera! Recuerdo de mi tierra! Esa Bonita Bandera, Continee mi alma entera," which roughly translates to "raise up that flag, raise it up wherever, a souvenir of my land, that beautiful flag, that contains my entire soul." I had goosebumps watching this particular number because I realized that have never reveled in my culture, the land my family is from. Yes, I cook the food, speak the language and celebrate the holidays, but I've never stopped myself to genuinely appreciate Mexico, the land with all my ancestral roots. That was until I watched this musical.
My brother had a friend in elementary school who was always proud and appreciative of being Chicano. He'd say things like "Viva la Raza" and "be proud of your people." But growing up I rarely saw any Latinx representation on television and movies that celebrated our lives, cultures, food and history. I only saw tropes, some riddled with trauma, nothing to be proud of. And even when I did see a sliver of representation, it was always whitewashed. The family on the show was half-Mexican and and half-Italian, or the actress playing the Latina was white. I'd often ask myself why there weren't any movies with us in it. Were we invisible? We were there in school, at church, in the neighborhood. There was just nothing that represented us in mainstream popular culture and so I don't think I ever truly felt there was something to appreciate. So, when I finished watching Lin-Manuel Miranda's big screen adaptation of the Broadway musical In the Heights, I questioned where my Mexican and Latina pride went and vowed never to let it go again.
With an adapted script by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water by the Spoonful, 2012) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, 2015), and directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, 2018), In the Heights highlights the sueñitos (or little dreams) of the Latinx community living in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, all while celebrating their roots.
The musical follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) — whose name's origin will always make me laugh because of the familiarity of mispronounced English — telling the story of his barrio of Washington Heights to a group of kids on a beach. He tells them of how he found himself owning and managing the neighborhood's bodega, dreaming of returning to the Dominican Republic, his home country, and how the neighborhood was changing through gentrification. Through Usnavi's story we learn of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, who reprises her role from the Broadway musical), the barrio's matriarch who, like many others, moved to the U.S. in search of work and takes care of the entire neighborhood. There's Usnavi's friend Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), another Washington Heights native who comes home from her first year at Stanford University feeling othered and overwhelmed by costs, and her father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who sold half of his car service business to help pay for her tuition. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is Usnavi's love interest and dreams of moving out of the Heights to attend fashion school downtown but is having trouble. Sonny, Usnavi's younger cousin, who hopes to one day have the same dreams as the rest of his neighborhood, finds out he may have a harder time attaining them due to his documentation status.
Though there were some characters and stories that needed to be explored a bit more, Chu captured the melting pot of the New York neighborhood, diving deeper into the heart of what it means to be an immigrant, and finding resiliency in cultural identity when times get tough and dreams seem unattainable. Screenwriter Hudes also took the opportunity to depict the timely, frightening realization of what it means to be undocumented and how it can be limiting, but, in an uplifting scene, showed how those limitations aren't the end and the fight for a dream lives on, which was the heart of this musical.
Along with good songs and story, this was the representation I needed when I was younger, to see that Latinx joy is real and it's here. Although the film follows mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican Latinos, it doesn't feel limited. Many Latin American countries share some of the same values, history, foods and pride, so when I heard the film's central number and all that followed, I felt that pride. I was able to see myself in this musical, the stories of my family, friends, the sueñitos we've had and reached, and all the hardships we've gone through. In the Heights is a true appreciation of Latinidad. PG13. 143M. BROADWAY, HBOMAX, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a Journal staff writer. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.