In the Heights was one of the most highly anticipated features of the year – after all, the release was delayed by a year due to a global pandemic you might have heard of – but it’s also the film I’ve been the most nervous about. Ever since viewing the trailer back in 2019, I’ve anxiously waited to see just how this adaptation, directed by John M. Chu, would live up to its source material. Chu, whose other musical projects include Step Up 2: The Streets and Jem and the Holograms, has combined the cinematic and theatrical to create a Washington Heights that jumps off the screen, with impressive song and dance sequences (choreographed by Christopher Scott) that capture both the fantastical style of Golden Age movie musicals and the lively culture of New York’s Latin American communities. More than the spectacle, though, it is the heart of In the Heights that delighted me most.
Two things that you should know about me before we go any further: Firstly, I am Nuyorican. I was born and raised in New York City. My mother and father were born and raised in New York City as well. Their parents all hail from Puerto Rico, but moved to New York City and have spent most of their lives here. Most people can not tell I’m Puerto Rican at first glance, which prompts them to ask me, “Where are you from?” This, I think, is the wrong question. Puerto Rican is what I am, but it is not where I am from.
The second thing you should know is that I love a good movie musical.
My parents are big movie people, and they got me started young. I am aware that my consciousness began before I watched my first movie, but it might as well not have. As far back as my memory goes, so does my love of movies. For all intents and purposes, the developmental stages that one might describe as BEFORE COMPLEX THOUGHT and AFTER can be described for me as BEFORE WEST SIDE STORY and AFTER.
My parents loved West Side Story, and so did I, but as a small child, I could not understand why the lyrics to “America” made them cringe. I could not understand why Natalie Wood’s accent made them giggle, or why my mother would say “Look at the way they painted her.” I could not yet understand why the Puerto Rico these characters sang about was any different than Dorothy singing about the Land of Oz. How could I have? Puerto Rican is what I was, but Puerto Rico was a place I’d never been or seen.
I also couldn’t understand the remarks my parents made about the titular setting. Again, how could I have? The Upper West Side as depicted in West Side Story no longer exists. It didn’t exist when the movie was shot, either. By then, the neighborhood once known as San Juan Hill had been erased, and thousands of its residents – mostly African American and Puerto Rican – had been displaced to make room for the Amsterdam Houses, and for the shiny new Lincoln Center. I walked through Lincoln Center every day for four years to get to my high school which was just across the street. I spent most of my time during those years in the Upper West Side. It is not the West Side of West Side Story, and it hasn’t been for a very long time.
It was at my high school that I first saw a production of Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights.
I was completely struck by the show. I had never seen anything on stage or on screen that resembled me or the people I knew so well. All of the ways I had never been able to relate to Maria (beautiful as she was in her white dress and red sash) I finally saw in Nina Rosario, the daughter of two Puerto Rican parents and the first in her family to go to college. It wasn’t just myself I saw on that stage. I knew those ladies at the salon. I saw my own grandmother in Abuela Claudia. Kevin Rosario worked at a taxi dispatch, just like my own grandfather. Even the story of how the main character Usnavi got his name reminded me of a story I was told about a family friend called Usmail (named, of course, after the U.S. Mail.) No longer did I have to settle for the Puerto Ricans of a white man’s imagination who must choose between denouncing Puerto Rico or despising their new home. The characters of In the Heights take pride in both their neighborhood and in their heritage. They celebrate what they are and where they’re from.
I found myself just as awestruck and nostalgic as I watched the In the Heights movie as I was all those years ago. Generations of Hispanic Americans have made New York City their home, and now generations to come will be able to see themselves, their families, and their barrio on the silver screen. This is not to say the movie is without its faults. Adapting a two act stage show for the screen is always a challenge, and there are certain story beats and structural changes that don’t quite hit the mark. Despite this, In the Heights soars. It is jam-packed with incredible performances, including the exceedingly charming Anthony Ramos in the lead as bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega, Olga Merediz who reprises the role of Abuela Claudia (a part which she originated on Broadway), and triple threat Melissa Barrera in a standout performance as tough-as-nails Vanessa. This movie is filled to the brim with a diverse array of characters, each with their own story to tell, but at its core, it is a story about people with dreams. For the little Puerto Rican girl who grew up singing and dancing along to movie musicals, searching for herself in their stories and songs, In the Heights is a dream come true.
Natalia Soto is a 20-year-old Puerto Rican college student from Queens, New York. Now that her home town is slowly and steadily reopening, you can usually find her in a bookstore or at the movie theater (her “natural habitats”).