Between vibrant music and colorful dancing, “In the Heights” presents a story of the collective Latino struggle, specifically in the Washington Heights community.
The film highlights the endless inheritance of the American dream on the shoulders of first-generation immigrants. The cast, mostly made up of Latinos such as Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace, brings authenticity and some sense of representation for the Latino community.
“Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu and “In The Heights” musical creator Lin-Manuel Miranda merged their imaginative minds, inviting audiences to be part of “el barrio," which is Spanish for the neighborhood. With a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film sets a precedent for future movie musicals — showing success in the transition from Broadway to movies.
The movie centers around a love story between Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who are a part of a flavorful neighborhood called Washington Heights. Alongside the romantic plotlines, the movie highlights other characters’ struggles, such as Nina (Leslie Grace), a first-generation Puerto Rican who finds her way out of Washington Heights. She’s the neighborhood’s superstar — the one who won the one-way ticket to success by getting into Stanford.
As Nina returns home to Washington Heights after her freshman year, she realizes how alone she feels at Stanford with no community to keep her roots grounded.
I share sentiments about Nina’s struggle, especially coming back from my first semester in college. First-generation Latino students, who exceed academically, often find themselves corralled in these predominantly white institutions. The burden of achieving the American dream weighs heavy on their shoulders, and Miranda greatly executes these shared experiences on screen.
There are Caribbean influences within the dance styles, meals and clothing throughout the film–one of the first times I’ve seen Cuban foods such as “ropa vieja,” (a traditional entree), crackers with guava and cheese, and tamales so beautifully represented in Hollywood. There's an honest reflection in Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Meredis) home that translates through the screen.
It all comes together at the peak of the movie, where the “Carnaval del Barrio” occurs. Flags representing Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico, along with typical dances and clothing, meld together during one of the movie’s iconic scenes. “El Carnaval Del Barrio” gave a feeling of togetherness and unification regardless of nationalities.
Despite the feelings and themes of a unified Latino community, Chu and Miranda’s vision exclude a significant group who are the real foundation of Washington Heights.
The block referred to as the “Little Dominican Republic” in real life missed the opportunity to highlight darker-skinned Dominicans. There were also voids of Dominican-inspired music like Dembow, Bachata and Merengue. Without these sounds, the movie fails to uphold the Dominican culture prevalent in the real Washington Heights. The film represented the collective Latino culture and seeping through that fictional facade were the Latino community’s ties to colorism.
Soon after the movie successfully arrived in theaters and streamed on HBO Max June 10, it received backlash about the lack of Black Dominican lead characters. Some celebrities, such as Puerto Rican icon Rita Moreno, who found success in the original “West Side Story” Broadway show, came to the defense of Miranda.
“You can never do right, it seems. He is the man who literally has brought Latino-ness and Puerto Rican-ness to America,” Moreno said on Stephen Colbert’s Late night show. “I’m simply saying, ‘can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone?’”
Many people on social media were angered about Moreno ignoring the importance of dark-skinned Latino representation in Hollywood.
Moreno later apologized for her remarks on Twitter soon after Miranda recognized the movie’s issues with colorism in his apology. “In the Heights'' failed to represent Afro-Latinos as the leads were light-skinned or white Latinos, meanwhile the dark-skinned characters were reserved for background representation.
Aside from lackluster Dominican representation, it was surprising to see how buried Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Carla’s (Stephanie Beatriz) relationship was in the plot. They arguably received a couple of lines of dialogue during the end of the movie, leaving their queer relationship up for interpretation. Daniela and Carla’s relationship is a perfect example of the plotlines the film compromised in order to finish the love story between Usnavi and Vanessa.
Yet, the movie excels in highlighting a sense of community within the block. Impressive solos such as Abuela Claudia’s song “Paciencia y Fe” on the subway invokes emotional tears. For Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), one of the younger characters, finding out about his undocumented status is a direct call out to those protected by the DREAM Act, often called “Dreamers,” touching on a personal perspective regarding immigration.
Miranda and Chu tried to encompass all parts of Latino struggles and culture but fell short by leaving loose ends on the character’s storylines. Sonny, Nina, Daniela, Carla and Benny (Corey Hawkins) were sidelined by Vanessa and Usnavi’s love story.
Ultimately, the movie delivered a piece of flavorful and catchy music with the right intentions but wrong effects.
A satisfactory feel-good movie that serves as the first step in Latino Hollywood representation.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that “In The Heights” was released June 10 in theaters and on HBO Max. A previous version of this article reported otherwise.
Contact Melissa at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissahernandezdlc.
Melissa Hernandez de la Cruz is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Florida. She loves to travel, create photography, enjoy new cultures, and is a fellow history junkie. Apart from being a citizen of the world, she also shares birthdays with legendary artists Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, and Bill Nye.