In The Heights Celebrates First-Gen Americans

The unexpected and broad-based protests erupting in Cuba are a poignant reminder of the lost liberty experienced by people under authoritarian regimes. The opposite could be said for the movie In The Heights, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical. If the dissent on Cuba’s streets show the dark side of contemporary Marxism, In The Heights should inspire audiences with its musical paean to first-generation immigrants and the value of entrepreneurship.

A Window into the Contemporary Immigrant Story

Miranda’s newest cinematic addition to pop American pop culture draws on his own experiences growing up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan. Directed by John Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), perhaps no other recent movie may do more to capture the complexities, spirit, challenges, and aspirations of first-generation Latino Americans. In The Heights puts an often deceptively joyous musical gloss on heartfelt stories of transitions, identity, acceptance, and intolerance.

The lens focuses on young Hispanics growing up and aging out of the heavily Dominican and Latino neighborhoods. Miranda (and co-writer Quiara Alegria Hudes) do not shy away from obstacles, doubts, or disappointments. Nevertheless, the movie’s themes hold fast to the hopes of what American is and can aspire to be.

Varied Experiences and Journeys

In The Heights tells these stories through an ensemble cast. Personal journeys are framed by varied experiences and perspectives rooted in one touchstone experience – growing up in an ethnic enclave in a large city. The generational tensions and conflicts are palpable. The trajectory of integration into mainstream America is also historically typical of a wide range of immigrant experiences.

Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos, Hamilton, A Star is Born) is the son of Dominican parents. He now runs the family business, a bodega, or a corner grocery store, with the help of his teenage cousin Sonny. Yet, he aspires to resurrect his father’s bar on a beach in the Dominican Republic. His “dream,” however, is rooted in nostalgic recollections of his visits as a young child.

Nina (Latin American singer Leslie Grace) is the neighborhood’s academic all-star. Her achievements earned her a ticket out of Washington Heights to an elite private college as far away from her neighborhood as she can get – Stanford University. She carries the hopes – and burdens – of her family and her neighborhood.

Venessa (Melissa Barrera) is a local girl with big dreams. She aspires to break through as a fashion designer. She is earning enough to get bay in the local (and successful) nail and hair salon. When the salon is forced to a new location by higher rents, she finds her own aspirations to get out of Washington Heights thwarted by a hot housing market, cryptic lease agreements, and discrimination against a low-income Latina on her own.

Benny (Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton, BlacKkKlansman) is a successful hustler. Growing in the neighborhood, he pines for Nina while working with her father (Jimmy Smits, Rogue One, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones & Revenge of the Sith) who owns a successful local taxi business.

The stories of these figures and families intertwine, held together by their “Abuela Claudia”(Olga Merediz, Broadway’s In The Heights, Orange is the New Black). Claudia a matriarchal figure revered within the community. She serves as the conscience and cheerleader for the children and families that form the close-knit neighborhood of The Heights. Not coincidentally, she is an earlier generation Cuban migrant.

A Full-Throttle Depiction of First-Generation American Struggles

Miranda’s movie is a full-throttle, layered, and vivid depiction of the struggles and tensions faced by recent immigrants and their first-generation American children. The neighborhood serves as both an emotional and economic safety net, a platform to launch aspirations, and a seductress to those unwilling to break through its own cultural barriers.

Entrepreneurship is also front and center within the story. Miranda has sculpted an unusually textured depiction of how a business creates economic and social value. More importantly, throughout the film, he shows how these small businesses provide opportunity, fulfillment, and identity to a generation struggling to make their own way in an unfamiliar culture.

Usnavi’s bodega is a microenterprise that provides the economic and social anchor to the neighborhood. Kevin Rosario’s tax business creates the wealth necessary to underwrite Nina’s tuition to an elite university. Daniela’s (Daphne Rubin-Vega, ) nail salon provides economic security to women through employment. Even the competitive struggles of the local street vendor against an ice cream truck play into the dynamics of change and adaptation necessary to survive in a vibrant neighborhood.

A Musical With An Entrepreneurial Soul

The movie is a full-on musical. Dialogue is sparse. The musical numbers are carefully crafted to tell a coherent story. They pay homage to a wide range of musical and dance influences in cinematic history. They vary from intimate songs of love, loss, and doubt to extravagant production reminiscent of the golden age of American musicals featuring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Eleanor Powell, Donald O’Conner, and Jane Powell.

In the Heights has its heartfelt and poignant moments: The isolation many feel when they leave home, the unrealistic expectations as the neighborhood’s favorite sons and daughters into an alien world where they feel like strangers in a strange land, the challenges of adapting to adult responsibilities and obligations, the frustration of being unable to control so much of what is happening around you.

Ultimately, and to its credit, however, In The Heights remains true to the classic immigrant hero’s journey. It remains a movie of hope, aspiration, and grit.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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