The Deeper Bessage Behind “In The Heights”

I have a 9-months-pregnant tradition: watch one movie in a movie theater while eating a little too much pay-by-the pound candy. This might seems insignificant. After all, some of us see multiple a month. But for me, a “doer,” resigning two to three hours of my life to the dark confines of a movie theater is a rather major decision.

That a pandemic is raging around us makes this no less significant for me. I can’t even remember the last movie I saw in a theater. Despite this, I maintained the tradition this week seeing “In The Heights” (directed by none other than Jon M. Chu, who just so happened to direct my first 9-months-pregnant movie: “Crazy Rich Asians”).

Happenstance led me to this particular movie. My pregnancy-hampered brain mistakenly reserved a ticket for a different movie for two days before, forcing a sudden change of plans at the theater. Recalling that a friend recommended “In The Heights,” I sprung for it.

Admittedly, I have a musical allergy. This is what keeps me from watching the highly-rated “Hamilton,” which helped place “In The Heights”‘ Anthony Ramos in the spotlight. But the promise of Latin music, a diverse cast and the magnetic city of New York drew me in.

Photo by Oliver Niblett on Unsplash

“In The Heights” places you right on the block from the very start. Happily, I realized it was set in Washington Heights – the very barrio I stayed in when attending the New York Salsa Congress in pre-children and pre-pandemic 2015. As a White West-Coast native, I am very much not the type of American depicted in this movie. Yet I felt so much nostalgia and connection to the characters and the setting. A good deal of my emotion throughout the two-hour movie was prompted by longing to connect to Latin culture and diverse neighborhood. The pandemic has kept me squarely in Japan for the past two years and the withdrawal is palpable.

But this movie is more than just a good time set to music.

It’s practically a kaleidoscope of immigrant experiences. How, when and from where one enters the country plays a huge role in one’s identity, experience and experience.

(Spoiler alert)

Photo by Brianda Maldonado on Unsplash

Underlying their shared experience, each character deals with their own inner conflict:

  • Feeling stuck running the bodega, Usnavi makes the difficult decision to move away from Washington Heights to inherit his father’s bar in the Dominican Republic
  • Nina, the hope of her block, comes home from Stanford hiding her intention to drop out due to feeling “othered” and and more blatant forms of discrimination
  • Determined to “get out,” Vanessa struggles to get her foothold in Manhattan, where she is determined to prove herself as a fashion designer
  • Still a child but seemingly more mature than Usnavi, Sonny makes the devastating discovery that he is a “dreamer,” and his lack of papers will keep him from attending college
  • Abuela (grandma) Claudia remembers her struggle to adapt to the demands of life in New York just after moving from her beloved but work-poor Cuba

Without revealing too much about the climax, its tapestry-like plot shows us that immigrants cannot be lumped into one category or stereotype and yet, when they gather and unite, they are very, very strong.

At the risk of sounding naïve, I felt a bit of my own story in many of the characters. An American immigrant to Japan who immersed themselves in almost-completely-Japanese environments from 2011 until now, I keenly feel the dull and sometimes intense pain of being othered.

When you came here, and mom came here, you all had a Latino community ready to welcome you, open arms, babies and abuelas, and teachers and lawyers, first generation, fifth generation. There’s no community for me at school.

Nina Rosario explaining her experience at Stanford to her father

As kind and accommodating as some can be, there is a deep sadness in knowing you’ll always be put in that box – always treated differently – because of how you appear and where you come from. As a minority, your opinions and needs are devalued and categorized as such – “minor.” And always in the background is that quiet but patient longing for the comfort of your family, familiar traditions and hometown culture.

Immigrants are inherently torn between two places (or more): the place that formed them and the place they live now. This can be painful and sad, even if they, like me, made the clear choice to leave their homeland behind.

As life in the new land progresses and roots there grow ever deeper, so too do memories of what we left behind and a bittersweet longing for the old life. As much as we try to recreate the best of our homeland in our new land, it’s never quite possible.

We are stuck between the two – forced to make hard decisions and straddle the chasm that is our dual identity, our dual allegiance.

Usnavi: Best days of my life were there.

Sonny: That’s the corniest thing I’ve ever heard. You came here when you was eight. You got “island memories”. Not me. I was in Pampers on that plane. NYC’s my spot. I got my island, okay? Go get yours. Don’t forget how you got your name.

Usnavi and Sonny talk about go back to the DOminican Republic, their homeland

Out of this deep sadness comes an intense and palpable desire for connection. This is how the vibrant lifeforce of immigrant communities like Washington Heights originates, I think. “If I can’t bring the old life here and the new land won’t embrace me, I’ll make it myself!”

In this sense, “In The Heights” is a powerful story about the heavy responsibility and repercussions of decisions – decisions we make to better our lives, but that come with bitter compromise. At the same time, it is also a story of the freedom and joy of self-determination.

Any choice has its benefits and drawbacks. At least in the choosing we can be satisfied that our life is the life that we, ourselves, chose.

This I tell myself and the little life inside me who will, no doubt, also encounter the same or a stronger dichotomy in their own life. May he find his “home” wherever he determines it to be.

3 responses to “The Deeper Bessage Behind “In The Heights””

  1. Kerry Avatar

    Wow, thanks for sharing your movie review and eloquent description of the mixed feeling of choosing to make a life away from “home”. I’m inspired to watch this movie and you have stirred some deep emotions in me about living abroad. It’s been a while since we’ve connected but wishing you all the best with baby #2 xxx


    1. rosellek Avatar

      Thank you 🙂 I hope you get a chance to see it.


  2. Eric Avatar

    What a great essay! 39 for this.


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