The debate surrounding “In the Heights” and the lack of Afro-Latino representation in principal roles is an important one, perhaps the most important one the film has generated. Nonetheless, there are still other themes that the film uncovers that merit some discussion.
Perhaps chief among them: Usnavi’s decision to abandon his sueñito of returning to the Dominican Republic and stay in Washington Heights is portrayed as a joyous celebration of his commitment to the titular community. And it is. But shift your perspective just a little and Usnavi’s choice is also tragic. Fifteen hundred miles from the Heights, uncaptured by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pen or Jon M. Chu’s camera, is an island that will never see another one of its native sons come home.
(A too-brief summary for those who haven’t seen In the Heights: Usnavi, a Dominican-born bodega owner in NYC, dreams of returning to the DR to rebuild his dad’s old beachside bar. But, by the end of the story, he realizes the things and people he cares about the most are right there in Washington Heights, and decides to stay.)
I realize I’m wading into dangerous waters. Conversations about whether and why Latinos leave, stay, and return —or don’t— to their “countries of origin” can be fraught. To cite just one example, a few years ago, the “Yo no me quito” (“I don’t give up”) campaign meant to celebrate Puerto Ricans who are fighting to make it on the island drew criticism from some in the diaspora, who thought the slogan was implicitly branding those who left as quitters.
My own take is that it’s almost never productive to litigate individuals’ choices about where and how they choose to live their lives. I barely understand the complicated web of motivations, opportunities, and serendipity that led me to where I am today. I would not presume to understand, much less judge, someone else’s. Most of us, I think —and “In the Heights,” to its credit, nicely portrays— are just trying to navigate a hundred winding pathways in order to find happiness.
But, if not individually, we have to be able to zoom out and talk about these things at the macro level. Migration and diasporas are major social, cultural, economic, and political phenomena. And if Lin-Manuel Miranda sought to say something meaningful about identity and community by making his protagonist’s choice to stay in the U.S. the musical’s climactic conclusion, it’s more than fair to judge the flip side of that decision on those same grounds.
It bears repeating that there’s nothing bad or wrong with Usnavi’s decision to stay in New York. There’s a lot to love, stay for, and fight for in Washington Heights. But there shouldn’t be anything bad or wrong about returning to the Dominican Republic either, and “In the Heights” sometimes seems to go out of its way to suggest otherwise.
(There is, by the way, something both bad and wrong about suggesting people return to places where they would be destitute or unsafe. But that’s not the case with these characters, and it’s not the argument I am making or would make.)
Throughout the film, going back to the DR is treated as a nostalgia-fueled fantasy. Usnavi’s cousin Sonny mocks him for having ‘island memories.’ In the movie’s flash-forward scenes that serve as a framing device, Usnavi is shown on an island beach talking to kids, but the finale reveals he’s been sitting in the bodega all along. The beach is just a mural on the wall. It’s a telling visual metaphor in which going back was merely a mirage, and the Dominican Republic is just a flat, two-dimensional place.
That metaphor encapsulates the relationship that characters in the film —and, I would argue, many Latinos in the U.S.— have with their or their parents’ homelands. PR, DR, Mexico, etc. are not so much real places as they are quasi-mythical settings of “struggle” from which they escaped. Kevin Rosario didn’t want to pick crops for pennies like his father in Puerto Rico. There were no jobs for Abuela Claudia’s mother in Cuba. Of course, these were, and in some cases still are, real and regrettable socioeconomic realities. But they’re also origin stories, playing the same symbolic role as Bruce Wayne watching his parents get murdered in a dark alley. In their personal narratives, nations like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are places you leave, not places you live.
Maybe Usnavi’s life wouldn’t be better (whatever “better” means for him) if he returned to the Dominican Republic. But maybe it would, and he’s not the only one. At the end of the film, Sonny, a politically conscious DREAMer, is steeling himself for an expensive, uncertain, years-long battle with the American immigration system. He’d face different struggles in the DR, but $96,000 goes a long way in Puerto Plata, and he’d find no shortage of noble causes to fight for. Vanessa could afford an apartment in the swankiest parts of the swankiest cities in Latin America for far less than the $3,000/month she was ready to pay in Manhattan.
And Nina, who sings “When I was younger I’d imagine what would happen if my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico”, could do more than just imagine it. She could enroll at the University of Puerto Rico for a fraction of Stanford’s tuition and face a fraction of the racism, and her father wouldn’t have to sell his business to pay for a school where she’s having a terrible time.
The question isn’t where those characters should do any of these things. They, and real Latinos everywhere, should do whatever they want. The question is whether—aside from Usnavi, whose plan to go back to the DR is merely a plot device he can triumphantly reject—it even occurs to them that they could. If it doesn’t, that suggests a profound disconnect between them and the nations whose flags they so proudly wave about. After all, “esa bonita bandera” is just a piece of cloth. The place it represents is what’s real. “Entiérrame en mi tierra” is, on the one hand, a poetic sentiment. But it also means “I’ll go back when I’m dead and it doesn’t matter anymore.”
The consequences of that disconnect are not just personal. Puerto Rico, for example, faces a ‘demographic crisis’ because too many leave and not enough return. Every country in Latin America could use an influx of talented, determined young people like Nina, Vanessa, and Usnavi. But Latinos in the U.S. don’t even have to upend their whole lives and move thousands of miles away to make a difference in the lives of their fellow Puerto Ricans or Dominicans. Like Sonny, many of them are already exceptionally passionate, justice-minded, civically engaged individuals, but their attention and their energy are almost never directed at the nations from which their very identity as Latinos originates.
A 2020 poll of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. found that less than 10% named the island’s political status as one of the most important matters American leaders should address. Nearly every serious thinker recognizes that a sustainable approach to immigration requires drastic changes in U.S. policy toward Latin America. But that’s almost entirely absent from mainstream political discourse, in part because the people best positioned to advocate for action are mostly disengaged from issues and politics in Latin America.
Tens of millions of our fellow Latinos in those countries haven’t escaped, or don’t want to; their sueñito is being able to stay and thrive in their homelands. Whether from here or there, there’s much more we could do to make those dreams a reality.
Is that too much to ask? It may be. The truth is that, for Latinos who were born in the U.S. or have spent the better part of their lives here, the United States is home. Wherever else they or their parents may have come from is ultimately secondary. Asking them to leave that home, or to put aside the pressing struggles of their daily lives to focus on concerns in faraway places, might indeed be unrealistic. But that’s a shame. There’s a loss there. And a movie like “In the Heights,” which strives to showcase latinidad in all its forms, ends up underscoring the ever-widening chasm between Latinos in the U.S. and the places where their stories started.
Alberto Medina is a Puerto Rican writer and editor. He tweets from @AlbertoMedinaPR.