I grew up in a house of music. Learned my Do Re Mi’s before my ABC’s. Taught myself piano by sound alone. Sang aguinaldos at school talent shows next to my mom playing cuatro. Spent seven years in church choir. Listened to my mom and my aunt play tambores and the harp and the guitar and any other musical instrument they could get their hands on. In our house, The Sound of Music wasn’t just a movie — it was a lifestyle.
In high school, my mom took me and my sister to see In The Heights when it was touring at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. We were on our feet almost from start to finish, dancing in front of our seats, laughing at the jokes in both languages. I saw my dad in Nina’s dad. I saw my tias and abuelas in Daniela and Carla from the salon. I saw my cousins in Sonny and Vanessa and Usnavi. And though I wouldn’t know it for a couple more months, I would soon see myself in Nina.
In The Heights is an uninhibited, unabashed celebration of community, of family, of music, of faith, of pride. It’s exactly the movie the world needs after this hellish year. Its infectious joy, its fearless attitude, its dreamers (and its Dreamers) — we need it all. The experience of watching it in theaters with my best friend holding my hand the entire time as we laughed and cried (by which I mean fully sobbed) healed my soul in ways I didn’t even know it had been hurting. Watching people who look like me, talk like me, dance and sing like me celebrate and commiserate on a big screen was nothing short of thrilling.
This movie came at a perfect time, and not just because it is currently the brightest light in our world after a year of darkness. Hollywood has been making slow but steady progress in diversity and reckoning with past mistakes. And movie musicals are so reminiscent of old school Hollywood when the biggest stars were true triple threats. Not to mention, Hispanics and Latinos are the most active demographic among moviegoers (and growing). And more than anything, I want In The Heights to be the launching pad for the industry’s next batch of movie stars — true movie stars, who sing and act and dance and in two languages no less.
Since watching it in theaters, I have seen it on HBO Max two more times, appreciating it more with each viewing. Appreciating scenes that I missed the first time because I was laughing or crying or just caught up in the moment. I truly don’t think I will ever get tired of it. And I can’t wait for the day that Broadway decides the time is ripe for a revival because as much as I love the movie, I love the show just as much (if not more).
In The Heights is everything I grew up with and yet a snapshot of a world so different than mine. I did not grow up in Washington Heights on a barrio block with found family. But I did grow up in South Florida, in a suburban town where Spanish is the default, where so many immigrants made a home over the years that it became dubbed Westonzuela. I was not the first in my family with a college degree, but I was the first with an American one and learned intimately the guilt and anxiety of feeling like you don’t belong. Like I will always have to work twice as hard to live up to the sacrifices and expectations of my family and all my ancestors before me. I did grow up separated by the Caribbean Sea from most of my family and deeply feel the ache of a life I never had a chance to know, the rootless shame of never feeling wholly a part of either culture. Too gringa for Venezuela, too Latina for America.
How amazing to tell specific stories with such universal impact.
I think that’s the true magic of In The Heights. That and its powerful ability to remind me that there is no one way to be Latina, no one way to be American, no one way to be, well, Latin American. That culture and pride, and paciencia y fe, are enough to get us by when things are at their darkest. That community and family are more valuable than all the $96,000 lottery tickets in the world.
And having that? That’s the real sueñito come true.
“Pa’rriba esa bandera!
Álzala donde quiera!
Recuerdo de mi tierra!
Me acuerdo de mi tierra!
Esa bonita bandera!
Contiene mi alma entera!
Y cuando yo me muera
Entiérrame en mi tierra!”
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