When I sat waiting for In The Heights to start, I prayed I wouldn’t be disappointed. My high school musical theatre days are the only recent and relevant connection I have to musicals, and I wasn’t fully convinced that this Lin Manuel Miranda creation was for me.
I was very wrong. After the first song and brightly coloured dance number brought Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and the barrio out into the street, I was fully invested and couldn’t look away. The dreams of immigrants and their children are the fuel that power each dance move, every hand clapped, and all banderas flown in the air. I felt a nostalgic pull when I heard Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) ballad to her deceased mother detailing their journey by ship to America in the dead of winter; it reminded me of the links between my own family matriarch's journey to New York City from South America. This movie felt like it was made for me. I even forgave the screenwriters for not giving very much background into Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina’s (Lesley Grace) relationship after their beautiful duets in the park and along the brick facade of her building. (Gravity? Who is she?) Despite the beauty and pride in this movie — and my own personal connection to its story — I can’t help but wish it ended differently.
The movie opens with Usnavi sitting in front of his father’s bar telling a story that he’s probably told a million times to a group of wide-eyed children, one being his daughter. His sueñito — little dream — is built on sustaining his late father’s legacy in the Dominican Republic after his bar on the beach was ruined in a hurricane. Usnavi is focused on reclaiming “the best days of [his] life.” He goes so far as to sell the bodega he owns and works in with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), pack up all his belongings, and buy his early morning plane ticket to the DR to live out his dream. But then Vanessa (Melissa Berrera) messes up his groove.
Right before Usnavi is set to depart, Vanessa surprises him with a mural of his father’s bar in the DR, and dresses mannequins in her original clothing pieces that look like Rainbow’s and Strawberry’s best. And the worst part is, it works — in the end, Usnavi stays in the Heights. We realize that the moments between Usnavi and his daughter have actually been taking place right there in the bodega — what we thought was a tropical beach background is actually the mural Vanessa had Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala) paint for him.
While Usnavi’s passion and dedication for his community is admirable, I kept wondering, why couldn't he see both of his dreams to fruition? In essence, the ending we’re given is supposed to show his dreams and Vanessa’s flourishing together, but that’s not quite the case; someone — and you can even argue, both have — had to compromise.
Yes, it’s a movie, and art imitates life in the sense that sacrifices need to be made and plans adjusted, but the build-up and anticipation from the first scene did not prepare me to re-envision a dream deferred. For many immigrants, the goal was, and is, to move to America to further their education, become financially stable, and provide for their children in ways they could only fantasize about back home. The movie calls us to question whether it is more important to uphold your responsibility to the community in the role you’ve inherited, or take the limited chances you have to leave and claim your dream as reality; after all, the American dream is just that — a dream — until you physically manifest it.
In television and movies, books and memoirs, the goal is always to get to America to escape whatever chased you in your native country, so Usnavi’s strong nostalgia and effort to go back to the DR might easily appear as a betrayal of the epic journey his parents made to Nueva York. But is it? What happens when you’re drawn to your parents’ country of origin more than the one you’ve grown up in?
Dreams, especially those of immigrants and their children, are sacred. They are born out of soil that is littered with struggle, discrimination, and economic disadvantage. Every generation grows up hearing the constant reminder in their ear that they have to aim higher and succeed more than their parents. But even with good intentions and dedication, that dream might be saddled on to the next generation of young people who’ll have to find the middle ground between their goals and their parents’. Usnavi’s plan to leave New York and rebuild his father’s bar is both his attempt to reclaim the joy of his childhood, as well as his dedication to mirror his father’s journey of creating something from nothing.
Usnavi staying in Washington Heights hammers in the fact that he is part of the essence and heart of the neighbourhood that he warned was fading away; after Daniela and Nina leave and Abuela Claudia passes, the barrio needs an anchor and Usnavi is runner-up. But being the glue to hold something so special as one’s neighbourhood together is a high-stakes expectation.
With all the excitement, dedication, and planning Usnavi put into his sueñito, Usnavi should have gone to DR if he truly wanted to. Two dreams can exist in a movie and in our real lives — don’t let a mural and paint-spotted cloth outfits change your mind.