As Immigration Politics Changed, So Did "In the Heights"Roundup
tags: New York City, immigration, popular culture, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Latino/a history
A. K. Sandoval-Strausz is director of the Latino and Latina studies program at Pennsylvania State University and the author of Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City.
This week marked the long-awaited release of “In the Heights,” the film version of the award-winning Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. The movie is gorgeous, powerful and inspiring, a worthy successor to its lineal ancestor, the beloved but outdated “West Side Story.” The main themes of “In the Heights” — love, family, community, gentrification and immigration — might seem natural or even unavoidable, since it is set in a New York City barrio.
But these themes developed only gradually over 20 years of writing. “In the Heights” has evolved in an ongoing dialogue with the politics of immigration in America. The show was fortunate in the timing of its earlier incarnations: They, along with Miranda’s already legendary global colossus “Hamilton,” opened in the calms between the storms of immigration controversies, when there seemed to be broad, bipartisan agreement that we must welcome newcomers.
Now, however, it is no longer possible to adapt a show like “In the Heights” without recognizing what its intended audiences already know: Tens of millions of their fellow Americans have come to fear immigrants and the future they represent. In response, this latest “In the Heights” pulls back the lens, the wider angle transforming what was once a straightforward love story into a sweeping tale about the meaning of an immigrant neighborhood in a nation where an aging citizenry, a shrinking workforce and a declining birthrate put us in desperate need of rejuvenation.
Miranda wrote the first version of “In the Heights” in 1999, when he was a college sophomore; it comprised 16 songs and was performed at Wesleyan University in the spring of 2000. At that point, it was a basic love story set in Washington Heights, the northern Manhattan neighborhood near where Miranda grew up.
The issue of immigration barely figured in the show. In the opening number, the main character, Usnavi de la Vega, informed the audience, “my syntax is highly complicated ’cause I immigrated” from the Dominican Republic. The songs that followed featured various lines in Spanish and referenced Spanish-Caribbean cultural elements, from foods like plátanos and piraguas to rhythms such as merengue and bachata, but migration itself was seldom mentioned.
In the broader United States, though, the issue was extremely important as the show debuted. The 1990s saw more arrivals than any other in U.S. history, with 11 million foreign-born people joining the nation’s population. These newcomers helped drive that decade’s exceptional economic growth, then America’s longest-ever period of uninterrupted expansion. Yet there had also been an anti-immigrant political outbreak, measurable in the sales of viciously racist books from the likes of Peter Brimelow and Pat Buchanan and in a xenophobic mania in California, where incumbent governor Pete Wilson won reelection after running the infamous “They Keep Coming” television ad and endorsing Proposition 187, which would have denied public education and health care to undocumented people, including children.
Within a few years, though, Wilson’s victory was widely considered pyrrhic, as Republicans disappeared from statewide office in California and the national GOP nominated the rhetorically immigrant-friendly George W. Bush in an attempt to capture more of the Hispanic vote. And in the Bush years, after Miranda graduated college, the show kept changing, too.
The next version of “In the Heights” evolved with the 2004 addition of Phillyrican playwright Hudes. She and Miranda “were, in part, refocusing the story to one of an entire community,” she recalls. They put more emphasis on characters who had come from various countries in Latin America. “The songs that centered immigration and migration the most,” Hudes remembers, “were ‘Carnaval del Barrio,’ ‘Paciencia y Fe,’ and ‘Inútil.’ All of those songs were new.” The play did not, however, make any mention of undocumentedness, and Hudes says she doesn’t recall discussing the topic with Miranda as they worked. Instead, it presented the Latinas and Latinos of Washington Heights as the heirs of the neighborhood’s previous waves of European immigrants; this was symbolized by a sign for the Rosario Car Service being put up over the older O’Hanrahan Car Service lettering.
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