Home Community and Culture How 'In the Heights' sharpened my Latinx lens

How ‘In the Heights’ sharpened my Latinx lens

A Latinx writer shares her feelings about In The Heights

Heritage is all encompassing. Every breath I take is because of my heritage and because of my ancestors’ perseverance.

Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario sits center as the salon ladies compliment her and prod her for gossip. PC Macall Polay/Warner Brothers

I always hated how I looked. I hated my frizzy puff curly hair and the way people asked how I got so tan. I never understood why I couldn’t be thin, white and blonde. Over the years, I tried to change my appearance to merge into the Orange County prototype but alas no dice. 

All I wish is that I could have had a movie like In The Heights to make me love myself. 

Growing up there was little to no Latinx or Native American representation in the media. Recently, my sister and I discussed that the only show/movie we were able to see ourselves in was Maya & Miguel, a children’s show that originally aired on PBS in 2004. 

While the animated characters were still light-skinned Latinos, it was still a closer sibling relationship that we recognized. Family is the root of the way I was raised, and I know that is the cornerstone of many of my Latinx peers’ experiences. 

The other representation we had was an HBO Animated show called Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. The animation included dark-skinned characters and interwoven with a variety of cultures. 

But, it wasn’t until In The Heights, almost 20 years later, that I felt the emotional wrench from the lack of representation in the media. 

I first saw the film in mid-April. My roommate, also Chicana, and I settled in. 

Tears streamed down our faces and the room filled with sniffles and the emotional weight of the film surprised me. 

I grew up as a theatre kid, even once performing  “96,000” a song from the musical, but I never realized how powerful it is to see your culture represented on screen. 

In The Heights is a raw and bold view of life in Washington Heights but it transcends the neighborhood to encompass the entire Latinx community. 

It portrays the suanetitos (little dream) of many while following the main character, a charming bodega owner, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). The characters dance and smile through troubles with gentrification, racism and connection.  

Jon M. Chu’s visionary elements only added to the beauty of the movie. Seeing family’s wake up in the morning and go together to make breakfast, braid hair and love in a way I recognized blew me away.

The script throughout felt authentic, and being a screenwriting student I immediately searched up the writer. Quiara Alegria Hudes is an American playwright who wrote the book for the musical and adapted it to a screenplay.

Hudes also updated bits and pieces of the plot to make it modern. She threaded in a plotline about DACA Dreamers, and developed one of the character’s experiences at a prestigious university.

Nina Rosario, who is played by Leslie Grace, shared a story about being searched while attending Stanford. Her roommate had lost a necklace and pointed fingers at her. 

I attend a predominantly white university and study in a college on that campus that continues to make me feel like an outcast.

My roommate and I are both a part of that school. The story Nina shared gutted me.

I often walk into my course classrooms and see a group of blonde Kappa’s in one corner and a group of brunette Alpha Phi’s in the other. I have been blessed to find friends of color at my university but it was difficult.

Nina’s struggle to fit in at her school hit me right in the chest. 

With each rewatch of my movie my brain and heart flutter with joy. I am in love with the story. I am in love with my people and my culture. 

When the movie premiered, it faced backlash for colorism. Many took to Twitter to point out the lack of Afro-Latinx representation in the main cast. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda apologized and has promised to do better in the future in regards to casting. 

It continues to beg the question — why is Hollywood so afraid of casting people with dark skin? 

I am a medium shaded Latina woman and everytime people ask who my celebrity look-alike is I draw a blank. It was not until recently that I realized that was due to the complete and utter lack of representation for people of color in Hollywood. 

I don’t even get the option to be compared to the token Hollywood Latinas. 

While I praise In The Heights, I know there is progress to be made. However, I know that I would have learned to love the way I looked if I had had a film like this growing up. 

I am proud to be Latina and I am proud to be a Chicana. 

I asked my peers what being a Latina means to them and these were their responses: 

Alyssa – Mexican American – Familia

Jude – Mexican-American – Family

Cameryn – Mexican – Loved

Julia – Chicana/Mexican – Family 

Jillian Marie – Mexi-Rican (Puerto Rican & Mexican) – Zestful 

Pauline – Black and Mexican American – Passion 

Alexis – Mexican-American – Community

Clara – Mexican-American – Spicy 

Lauren – Mexican-American – Resilient

Trinity –  Mexican-American – Traditions

It is my firm belief that In The Heights shows all of these traits. The film is a landmark for representation in our community and a stepping stone for inclusion in Hollywood. 

My generation often jumps straight to criticism and skips celebrating progress. I understand the urgency and perfectionism but I hope we can celebrate the milestone in representation for a moment as we still continue to strive for inclusivity.

Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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