It’s been awhile, my lovelies. We’ve watched In the Heights. Twice, actually. I have a feeling I’ll be watching it a lot more through this month. The musical has always been a comfort to me, even though it wasn’t specifically my culture. My story.
If you aren’t Latinx, you’re probably confused. I mean, we aren’t a monolith. Even if you’re white – you probably identify with some other culture. Your family comes from England, Germany, France, Italy, Russia – and you’d never conflate the two. Latinx/Latina/Latino is a geographic identifier. Hispanic just describes a Spanish speaking culture – which includes Spain. Very different people, different issues than Latinos. And that refers to people from Latin-America. Which includes Brazil, where they speak Portuguese (and makes them not be Hispanic). But each culture here has been shaped by the Indigenous people who lived there first, the trauma of colonization, by the land, and the sea.
All of us who came to the US, our cultures here were shaped by those journeys. My own family historically didn’t so much come to the US, as the Mexican border crossed us. But I know the struggle. Being an other, wondering if you’ll ever be able to own anything – watching the goal posts be moved, just because of the color of your skin. Finding your strength in family, in community. I know that feeling to my bone.
The movie itself
In the Heights isn’t a perfect movie. It’s been pointed out that one of the changes from the original musical (Nina’s mother isn’t in the movie, despite being in the show), removed what would have been an Afro-Latina from the movie. The only Afro-Latina lead (while there are dark-skinned women, they’re in the chorus or as dancers). But it is a movie with heart, and one I will happily watch again and again. And the rare movie about Latinx people that show them as people and not stereotypes. Even the minor characters, an uncle and a lawyer – are people. They make it clear that they aren’t punchlines, that they deserve dignity.
There aren’t many musicals about Latinos. Up until recently, there were really only two. West Side Story (in which everyone is either in a gang or Maria or Anita) and Evita (about the former first lady of Argentina, who allegedly slept her way to the top and most definitely stole from the people of Argentina). But since In the Heights opened on Broadway, there have been more stories that have been told about the people of the Caribbean and Latin-America.
There aren’t many movies about Latinos. Most of them circle around gangs and tragedy – and even if they are about family, there’s usually both those elements involved. There aren’t many movies about Latinidad and joy. Which In the Heights is. It’s about big dreams, little dreams, and finding joy amongst your community. (Even movies about success and Latinos – like Stand and Deliver. It didn’t drastically change anything about the schools in East LA or what people expect of schools that are filled with mostly Latino students)
Why Diversity Matters
As important as this movie is for Latinos, it’s also important to everyone else. Film is meant to act as a lens into someone else’s life. Fiction is fiction, but you’re still supposed to experience the emotions along with them. I grew up watching movies about white people, about straight couples, appreciating their cultures and feeling love and loss along with them.
It’s beyond time for white audiences – who are not the only filmgoers – to experience other cultures. And for studios to greenlight movies in a way that isn’t set up as a make or break movie for a particular group of people. (This, much like Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, were both set up as make or break movies for their respective cultures. As though, if it failed, no other movie should be made about that group of people.)
Coming up next this summer is West Side Story. The original movie of the musical was the first movie I’d seen with faces like my own (technically not true – I saw Rita Moreno in Singin’ in the Rain first, but she was made up to look white), and it was the first musical I’d seen on stage with them. While I don’t think it will revolutionize how we’re seen – I look forward to seeing a new staging of a classic, with even more Latinx voices in the cast.
On a personal note, I am pleased by how much Spanish I remembered from high school, and as a non-native speaker I plan on diving back into practicing it.