I’ve lived in Washington Heights for all 17 years of my life, and I never thought my neighborhood would make it to the big screen. We’re used to the casual news broadcast portraying residents of the Heights as loud, messy, and potentially dangerous, so it was a welcome surprise to watch In the Heights, a movie musical that focuses on the joy and vibrance of living in my neighborhood. The unreal yet exciting feeling of being an insider, watching the buildings, parks, and stores I walk past every day come to life through a light never shined on us before. The magic of the Heights and the power of our sueñitos is no longer society’s secret.
The little things always matter most.
Like the pollo asado and flan at the dinner in Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) house that my grandmother also cooks on Christmas Eve, or when Benny (Corey Hawkins) recalls the countless times he opened the fire hydrant and soaked himself on hot summer days. I was instantly transported to the many times my friends and I have done the same.
I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear as Mr. Piragüero (Lin-Manuel Miranda) sang the famous “coco mango cherry” chant that gets all the kids on the block, including me, lined up for their piragua. It’s the same smile I had as the hairdressers repeated “no me digas” while Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) spilled gossip in the salon. Come to figure, the reason I may know too much is because of the endless hours I’ve spent in a salon chair, so no me digas.
It’s the little details — the representation of our food, music, language, and values — that bring my community alive through In The Heights. I know many people wished to see more Afro-Latinx representation in the film, and that cannot be ignored. I personally felt connected to the snippets of our lives we thought would never be seen, the affirmation that our stories are just as exciting and significant as the ones about the broker on Wall Street and the strangers turned to lovers in downtown Manhattan.
Growing up, I was never one of the main characters. Yet the inability to fully inhabit the shoes of those on screen is no longer an issue after seeing Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) in In The Heights.
Other than sharing the same last name and high school valedictorian title, Nina and I both have the yearning desire to reach for the stars because our community depends on us to succeed. Throughout the film, Nina feels as though she has drifted from her Washington Heights roots during her time at Stanford. I will be leaving for college this fall, so I felt as if I were looking directly into a mirror. The Heights is the only home I’ve ever known, and I could not imagine trying to form a new one without feeling as if I am abandoning my people. Nina goes through the same struggles as me, only to realize that we’re supposed to make new homes at college so that we can one day make a better one for those in the Heights. Seeing Nina’s process of growth reminded me I am not alone. My struggles matter. My community matters. My sueñito matters.
Many of our parents and grandparents who came to the Heights from different parts of the Caribbean fought battles with endless seas and Uncle Sam to give their children the life they never had. Everybody here has a sueñito, whether it’s to put their children through school like Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smits), become a fashion designer like Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), or make it back to the homeland once financially stable like Usnavi. The film brings alive each sueñito and the pain that can come with the process of achieving it in the Heights. The bittersweet moments when Nina speaks about the racial bias she experienced at college or Abuela Claudia reminisces about the endless days her mother worked scrubbing floors hoping for a better life remind me of the everyday struggles we each experience. Yet even as we face our own challenges, this community is always family. The characters in the movie were not all biologically related, but they treated one another as their own because that is what the Heights is. We cry, protest, and dispute, but we always stand together in pride as hermanos y hermanas.
As Abuela Claudia would say, we must insert our dignity in small ways. In The Heights is Washington Heights’ way of inserting our dignity, our sueñitos, and our legacies into greater society, and with paciencia y fe, this won’t be the last.
Haily Rosario is a proud Washington Heights resident who aspires to serve and protect marginalized communities of immigrants and refugees through reforming systems that violate human rights.
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