Hamilton the Musical poster hanging from a wall

I Love 'Hamilton,' But as a Puerto Rican, it Doesn’t Represent Me

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

The long-awaited release of the Hamilton film on Disney+ brought with it an array of mixed receptions. On Twitter, #Hamilfilm trended, full of ecstatic fans gushing with joy after finally seeing the original cast singing and acting their hearts out in HD. At the same time, many people critiqued the musical for its portrayal of slave-owners as rapping revolutionaries (especially during a time where Black Lives Matter is more prevalent than ever – as it always should be) or outright called for its removal from the platform.

To some, this mixed reception came as a surprise, especially compared to the overwhelming praise the show received during its Broadway debut five years ago. However, as a Puerto Rican and longtime Hamilton fan, the criticism felt both familiar and necessary.

I first saw Hamilton when it premiered on the island in early 2019. I remember driving with my boyfriend to the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, where it was meant to be staged, at midnight, and waiting in a line of a couple dozen students, citizens and even tourists, eager for tickets to go on sale the next morning. Somewhere down the line, a student blasted “My Shot” through his Bluetooth speaker, and the small crowd burst into an impromptu karaoke session, and the next day Luis Miranda, show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father, made his way down the growing line. He greeted us with a “got Hamilton?” shirt and a tray of coffee for everyone.

poster of Hamilton the Musical and poster of university hanging side-by-side from a lamppost Photo by Melanie Ortiz Alvarez de la Campa

The atmosphere was lively, brimming with excitement that I easily got lost in – a stark contrast to a year prior, when Miranda announced he’d be bringing the hit musical to us to raise money for Puerto Rican arts organizations after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

His visit was interrupted by a group of student-protestors, holding up signs that read, “Our lives are not your theater!” and “Free PR.” The group mainly challenged Miranda’s previous public support of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which, despite its intended goal of providing debt relief for the island, had so far resulted in over 200 public school closings, restrictive labor reforms and budget cuts to the same university that was meant to be hosting the show. After the effects of PROMESA began taking their toll, Miranda backtracked on his support for the act, but some deemed it too little, too late.

Setting the tone for the months leading up to the premiere, there was a deep-set tension in the air, and I knew the bittersweet taste in my mouth wasn’t just the morning coffee. I had been aware of the people opposed to the musical being hosted in the UPR in the first place, but I never really understood it at first. By late 2017, when the students originally protested the musical, I was studying abroad, which added a level of disconnect to the differing opinions surrounding Hamilton in PR. For the most part, I had seen the production as a positive for the island. Lin wasn’t just bringing a musical I loved to a place I could actually see it in, but he wanted to bring support and attention to the island and the strife it was facing. How could that be bad?

However, it was clear that Hamilton wasn’t the only thing Puerto Ricans had a problem with. The problem also laid with its creator and main star – who often uses his celebrity status to speak on Puerto Rican issues – whose voice as a child of the diaspora (those born in PR but raised in the states, or born to Puerto Rican parents, like Lin) often feels disconnected from the reality of the struggles islanders are facing daily. More than that, his decision to bring the musical to the island was felt by many as taking advantage and profiting off our suffering after the hurricane under the guise of philanthropy.

The night I saw Hamilton live, it was hard to separate the events of the preceding year from the musical. The show was ultimately presented in the Centro de Bellas Artes in Santurce, after a collective of UPR employees sent Miranda a letter informing him of the “state of confrontation” they were currently in with the university’s administration, and how the protests they were carrying out might lead to a “major-scale conflict” during the show’s run. 

“Our island is traversing an enormous economic crisis based on a debt for which Puerto Rican workers have not been responsible,” the president of the group, Jannell Santana Andino, expressed in the letter, referring to the debt crisis that has been financially affecting the island for more than a decade. The venue change was yet another inescapable reminder of the troubling circumstances surrounding the musical, its creator and Puerto Rico.

That night, I experienced Hamilton differently than when I first listened to the cast album three years prior. There were still things I loved about it – the hip-hop infused show tunes, the lyrical prowess, and the emotional journey the characters went through, to name a few – and that exhilarated buzz still hung over the audience when Miranda came out as Alexander Hamilton. We broke out into roaring cheers, giving a standing ovation that lasted nearly a minute. But the buzz simmered in the painful silence when Hamilton proclaimed, “In the eye of the hurricane, there is quiet.” The still-fresh wound Puerto Rico harbored felt especially palpable in that moment.

When the cast sang about a world turned upside down, all I could think about was the island: the fiscal crisis we’ve been in, PROMESA, the budget cuts made to UPR that we didn’t have a say in, and the lives of countless people that had been changed because of Hurricane Maria and the poor local and federal government response. 

When Hamilton questioned whether independence would be “a guarantee of freedom for our descendants,” I thought of the colonial status Puerto Rico has been trapped in since 1898. I thought of the Jones Act, a 1917 law that to this day restricts domestic shipping to US-owned or staffed boats. I thought of the Puerto Rican coffee industry they destroyed within the first ten years of colonizing us. I thought of the revolutionary leaders who fought for the idea of an independent Puerto Rico in the 20th century, only to be silenced by the federal government. I thought of the lack of political voice we have in the US, despite having been their territory for over a century. Those of us on the island still don’t have the right to vote in the American elections, and even then, the debate inland between statehood or independence is still ongoing.

How could I celebrate the revolution of a country that has stifled our own freedom time and time again?

While the show progressed, I found myself pondering over my previous support of the musical, Lin, and the decision to show Hamilton on the island shortly after Hurricane Maria. I hadn’t seen the issues with the musical and its creator before because I was actively ignoring them. I didn’t want to problematize a piece of media that in so little time meant so much to me, and that I already held so dearly to my heart. I thought I could separate the politics surrounding the situation from the musical itself. Nonetheless, something I would realize a while after seeing the show – when it was announced to premiere on Disney+ – is that by trying to separate the political context from the entertainment, I was being ignorant to the stark problems regarding its content and the aforementioned effects of its Puerto Rican production.

As Miranda bowed at the end of the show, unraveling a Puerto Rican flag and waving it towards the cheering audience, I felt that my opinion of him had shifted as well. As one of the biggest mainstream celebrities right now, and one of the only ones talking about Puerto Rico, there’s a big chance he’s the first glimpse into the island’s struggles that many non-Puerto Ricans will get. However, I found it hard to consolidate that with the fact that someone who had only spent his childhood summers here was suddenly the one talking for Puerto Ricans still living on the island, placing his voice over our own. How could he truly comprehend the struggles us islanders have been facing for many years?

This isn’t to say that the Puerto Rican diaspora hasn’t gone through their own strife, but the struggles of both communities have always been inherently different. I watched the flag, the lone white star in a sea of dark blue shimmering against the stage lights, and I felt detached from the sentiment. I couldn’t see myself or my island represented in this moment, in the flag, or in Lin.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Pride is not the word I’m looking for. ¡Gracias Puerto Rico! 🇵🇷 #BitOfADay

A post shared by Hamilton (@hamiltonmusical) on

I see a similar feeling replicated now as people sit in their homes to experience the show, many for the first time. It’s impossible not to see the musical in a new light, especially given the context of the recent uprising against the systemic racism that is still deeply engraved in America’s history, both past and present.

It’s important to critique, problematize, and question the media we consume and love, as well as the artists we look up to. There’s still a soft spot in my heart for the music of Hamilton and the initial excitement of getting to experience it live, but I’ve also forced myself to acknowledge the problems the play has when portraying slave-owners and romanticizing the American Revolution, especially when presenting the musical in an island that is, for all intents and purposes, still colonized by the US. I’ve also become more critical of Lin, an artist and writer I previously praised endlessly, and how the things he has done within the island might have caused more harm than good.

However, it’s important that we go a step further and educate ourselves. When it comes to Puerto Rico, not many people outside of the island know about its extensive history and its relationship with the US, but they should. Latinx news sites like Pulso Estudiantil (one of the most prominent student-run media sites on the island!) and Remezcla report on contemporary issues in Puerto Rico, with articles ranging from music and culture to socioeconomic and political situations taking place. Meanwhile, projects like the Puerto Rico Syllabus, run by a women-led team of academics, offers a comprehensive look into the island’s debt crisis, its roots in colonialism, and its relationship with the US. They even have a list of resources of activist organizations and initiatives actively fighting to make a change in the island that you can learn more about and donate to!

We can only incite positive and progressive change in the world around us if we question what we watch, who we listen to, and ourselves. If we don’t, we can’t move away from the dark history looming behind us towards a brighter future.