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Paciencia y Fe: “In the Heights” Is a Love Letter to an Immigrant’s Story

The Broadway musical we all know and love is hitting the big screen. Award-winning writers Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes teamed up with "Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon M. Chu to deliver “In the Heights” in a way it has never been seen before. Set in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, it takes us on a journey that answers the question: What is your sueñito?

“In the Heights” is so special to me. I found myself crying in a theater within the first 45 seconds. You might ask, “what about Lin-Manuel Miranda driving a piragúa (a Puerto-Rican shaved ice dessert) cart made you cry?” When I was a little girl, I spent my summers in Mexico. At 5:30 am every single morning, my grandpa and I would walk over to a cart just like the one he was driving around, and I’d get “un raspado de fresa.” (“Raspado” is a Mexican shaved ice dessert, and “fresa” means strawberry.) On the way back home, I would greet everyone in my small town which resembles the neighborhood shown in the movie. 

Washington Heights is a northern New York neighborhood with a hard-working community that shows us the struggle of being torn between the places we call home and the dreams we hold. They take it day by day, fighting against the many things that try to knock them down. These characters all demonstrate what it means to try and make a new home in a place so different from the one they came from, and the battles that come with it. 

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(L-r) Concept/music & lyrics/producer LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA and QUIARA ALEGRÍA HUDES on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a dedicated bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to rebuild his father’s bar because he says it's where he spent the best days of his life. His story shows us how we learn to love all of the places we take part in and how that can co-exist with the place we yearn to never lose. Nina (Leslie Grace) is a college student at Stanford who is struggling with the weight of being a first-generation student. She represents how being the child of immigrants means that obtaining that degree is not just for you, but for the sacrifices of the past for you to be there. 

“So much of Nina’s story is about navigating and acknowledging the sacrifice that our parents are going through even beyond the practicalities of paying for school. The fact that they came from somewhere else and made a way where there was no way. Understanding and acknowledging that, and then also finding your own agency… your own passion in life. That you actually can’t be defined by their sacrifice. You honor it and build on it, but you also have to do what is going to make you happy,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda during a virtual press conference.

Nina is the character that I relate to the most. Going off to college, being the one to make it out, and yet feeling like it's still not enough is what I went through when I started college. It was so hard because the only people who could possibly understand were the ones who were counting on me. Listening to Nina, seeing the way she finds herself, lifted a weight off my shoulders that had been there since the day I walked into kindergarten. It was like she was singing the words that go through my mind every day. I saw myself in her, and I had never experienced that feeling.

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(L-r) MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa, STEPHANIE BEATRIZ as Carla, LESLIE GRACE as Nina Rosario, DASCHA POLANCO as Cuca and DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA as Daniela in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is the youngest (and in my opinion, the wisest) character of “In the Heights.” He shows us that an unjust system does not define you. He is a DREAMer, and his story shows us one of resilience. To Diaz IV, it was so important to portray DREAMers in a light that isn’t usually seen.

He says, “[...] I wanted to really portray the fact that he is a DREAMer in a positive sense and portray to DREAMers the fact that there’s hope somewhere out there for you.”

Sonny’s character really got to me. He made me think of so many people I love, especially my brother. Sonny is seen as a younger cousin with a funny personality, but there's so much more to him. He wants to change the systemic issues we endure, he wants to make it far, not for him, but to give back. To know that at only 13, my brother has a film where he can feel like he isn’t alone, like he can do it, is just so gratifying. 

Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) works at the local hair salon, but dreams of being a fashion designer downtown. The majority of her journey is spent seeing the way that despite being consistently knocked down, she continues to work hard until she accomplishes her goals. Barrera related to her character, having grown up in Mexico but moving to the United States for work.

“When I moved to L.A. in 2017, a lot of the people that followed my career felt betrayed. They were like, ‘Why are you going there?’ ‘Why are you speaking English?’ ‘Did you forget that you’re Mexican?’ I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I love representing my country. I raise my flag high and I love being Mexican. But there is this struggle, and it's a very intense struggle with children of immigrants that feel torn between two countries,” she states.

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(L -r) NOAH CATALA as Graffiti Pete, GREGORY DIAZ IV as Sonny, COREY HAWKINS as Benny and ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is a pillar of the Washington Heights community. Having no children of her own, Abuela takes care of the neighborhood. She knows their struggles and sacrifices because she’s been in their shoes. She teaches them the value of dignity, hard work, and the importance love plays when you are trying to form something new. Having played the original Broadway production role, it was special to see Merediz give her talent to the role again in the film adaptation. She talks about how she relates more to her character now than over a decade ago.

“I think that I related to her even more [...] I felt much more of a connection with Abuela Claudia. To my mother, to my grandmother, to my aunts and all these strong women who have gone through hell and are yet the rocks, the pillars of their families and their communities.” 

“In the Heights” is revolutionary, and time has caught up to it. These stories are real, but they are not seen. Through the characters, these stories were brought to life. They show underrepresented realities in such an honest way. There is not a single piece of these characters that does not represent something bigger than themselves. 

“These stories do work. There’s such a yearn for it and a need, a necessity. It's so necessary right now. The question is, when is the next? Who's willing to take that risk and leap forward and say ‘I want to produce something like that.’ ‘I’m going to make my crew diverse and I’m going to go into this neighborhood and I’m going to be as authentic as I want to be, respectfully. And celebrate it,’” said Dascha Polanco, who plays Cuca, when talking about her reaction to the production.

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(Center l-r) DASCHA POLANCO as Cuca, DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA as Daniela and STEPHANIE BEATRIZ as Carla in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

This musical is a love letter, not just to Washington Heights. It is a love letter to every person who has crossed borders, struggled to find home in a place where they had to start over, yet still holds true to the place they have left behind. Usnavi is the most evident manifestation of this in the film, but the journey of every single person shows this baggage. 

Each of the characters has their own version of the American dream. For Nina, it's getting out of Washington Heights and succeeding at Stanford, only to discover it's not what she thought. For Vanessa, it's finding her way downtown and chasing her fashion dreams. For Sonny, it’s obtaining legal status in the United States.

These battles are ones that, for many, are things they’ve heard about from the cliche "American Dream". For immigrants, however, these battles are normal. They wake up and take it day by day. They get up, and they fight to overcome these obstacles, and in the end, they do. The outcome wasn’t what was expected for every character, but this is what makes this story so real. It shows that the traditional American dream isn’t black and white, but one that makes the fight worth it. 

The most beautiful part about this film is that it tells the story of Latinx immigrants with a Latinx cast. It isn’t just a cast reading off a script, playing any random character. This cast is one that is representative of these characters and so in a way, they see themselves in them. “In the Heights” is not a film about the stories of the Latinx community, but a Latinx community telling us these stories themselves. This is something that has never been done, and it is so needed.

“For any character that we do we’re going to go into our own memory banks, our soul banks or stories that we’ve heard and that’s how we have a compendium of the character. In this particular situation for me, I have all of those tio’s that came here to this country with the same kinds of hopes and dreams for a better life. To try and do better in this country and have their kids do better,” said Jimmy Smits when talking about what it was like to prepare for his role as Kevin, Nina’s father. 

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(L-r) COREY HAWKINS, LESLIE GRACE and director JON M. CHU on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

When Nina figured out what she wanted to do, Kevin told her. “This is it, huh mija? This is where you do better than me. Not because of some fancy degree but because you can see a future that I can't.” This scene replays in my head so vividly, and I find myself sobbing just by thinking of it because Nina’s dynamic with her father is the one I have with my own. He is someone who couldn’t go to school, came to the U.S. at 15 and saved enough to start his very own business, just like Kevin. I have always found it so hard to make a path separate from my parents' sacrifices, but my “This is it,” moment, finding my path, has made it all worth it.

I always knew I wanted to write because I wanted to give a voice to those who didn’t have one. I’ve always wanted to tell stories like the ones of “In the Heights.” After watching this film, I had the opportunity to attend a virtual press conference to talk to the cast. 

I remember going up to my mom shocked and saying, “Lin-Manuel Miranda is going to be there.” She just replied, “Four years ago, you were fangirling over the fact that your choir was doing a Hamilton song because you admired him so much. Today you get to be in the same [breakout] room as him. That is why we came here, because your education is valuable.” It was such an eye-opening moment, to realize that when she got to see this she’d also get to see her sacrifices represented on a screen. 

The press conference was so meaningful to me, and getting to talk to the cast was an experience I will always cherish. To get to talk to a cast that looked like me, that understood my struggles and brought to life the things I could never find words for, was something I could never imagine coming to life. 

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(L-r) MELISSA BARRERA, DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA and director JON M. CHU on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

This film is raw, and it shows these stories and the lives of those living in Washington Heights in such a pure way. It is not just a streamlined fight for the American Dream, but a testament to the ups and downs that come with it. 

When Quiara Alegría Hudes was talking about Nina’s character development in the film adaptation, she talked about just how difficult it can be. “I think this nation focuses so much on outcomes. The American dream right? [...] and then what happens when you’re in this very goal and dream-oriented life and you get there and the picture is much more complicated. You arrive and the arrival is different than you thought it would be.”

“In the Heights” itself is the manifestation of a sueñito, as it has been in the works for a long time.

“To me, there’s never been a time, even when we’ve gone on separate endeavors, where we haven’t been making decisions about ‘In the Heights.’ The journey of Heights from stage to film is going on a 13-year journey,” said Miranda. 

From the music to the cast, attire, and the way it came to life, this film is beautifully done. “In the Heights” will be released in theaters this Thursday, June 10th. It will also be available on HBO Max for 30 days after. 

Noelia Salazar

CU Boulder '23

Noelia is the Director of Social Branding at Her Campus CU Boulder. She is majoring in international affairs with minors in journalism and communications. She loves books, makeup, and coffee. In her free time, she's probably rewatching Gilmore Girls.
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