Why ‘In the Heights’ Is Such a Pivotal Moment for Latinxs in Media

I fell in love with the musical In the Heights as a teenager when I had the pleasure of seeing a matinee performance live on Broadway. For years it was the only accurate Latinx representation I was familiar with. So when I saw the first commercial for the new movie version, I was immediately brought to tears. Seeing Latinxs featured in a major feature film left me in awe of the immense power of this moment.

As a transracial adoptee, I never had the opportunity to grow up in a vibrant Latinx community with access to the food, music, and pride for the cultura. But what I did see and know were the often prejudiced stereotypes depicted in the media. I often struggled to fight off the negativity that these impressions left me with, and fought for my way to make something of myself.

 

Seeing Latinxs featured in a major feature film left me in awe of the immense power of this moment.

 

After all, historically Latinxs have been pictured in movies or television shows as criminals or maids, often living in poverty. Barely-researched plotlines feature Latinxs smuggling drugs or trying to come across the border illegally. Meanwhile, the press does little to limit the prejudiced reporting that often leads to the continued perception that Latinxs and other People of Color are dangerous.

As In the Heights recently played on my television—it’s available to watch at home through HBO Max—my eyes stuck to the screen as I saw siblings sleeping in a singular bed, parents getting ready for work, and moms doing their little girls’ hair in the middle of a small kitchen. But it wasn’t until we listened to the whip-smart raps and songs within the movie that they dug into the crevices of my heart and ached for me to sing along.

 

 

From “Breathe” to “It Won’t Be Long Now,” to “96,000” and my favorite song, “Paciencia Y Fe,” I saw myself and my fellow Latinxs in the lyrics. They made me yearn to go back to my birth country like Usnavi, to represent my family and my culture like Nina, as well as work hard to move my way up like Benny (and Nina, too).

I wasn’t only Latina, but I was an immigrant, raised by immigrants, who came to America to have a better life—just like half of the characters in the musical. I could not only relate to the characters but also put myself in the shoes of people who looked like me. It simply took my breath away. This musical isn’t just a lifeline to an ever-growing Latinx audience, it is an authentic depiction of what it means to be Latinx.

 

This musical isn’t just a lifeline to an ever-growing Latinx audience, it is an authentic depiction of what it means to be Latinx.

 

When I saw Nina’s father argue with her about wasting an opportunity and then explain to her on-and-off-again boyfriend, Benny, that he simply wanted a better life for his daughter, I related. With each admission, Nina’s father reminded me of my own father and the work he had to do to keep his family afloat (ultimately preventing him from ever graduating from high school).

Meanwhile, I also felt seen by Nina’s character, because I too wanted to go to school and achieve my dreams and my parents’ dreams. Like me, she also ached for the Latinx community while combating guilt for using money from the family business on her education. The movie helped illustrate the immense weight of being an immigrant and a child of immigrants.

And while I am extremely happy to finally have a piece of art in the mass media that is making waves, I am also a little disappointed at the lack of representation for all Latinxs within In the Heights.

 

 

According to the U.S. Census, Afro-Latinos make up about 25% of those who identify as Latinxs, and despite that, the lead cast in the movie showed a clear preference for white-passing Latinxs, while darker-skinned Latinxs were relegated to places like within in the large dance scenes and working at the local salon.

Of course, while one movie cannot possibly have representation for the entire Latinx community, we can use this experience to do better next time. It’s important to have these conversations and bring awareness to the lack of Afro-Latino leads and recognize the colorism (preferential treatment for lighter-skinned BIPOC) that is still prevalent in Hollywood.

 

While this movie isn’t perfect, it gives the world a mainstream opportunity see the beauty and nuances of the Latinx experience.

 

While this movie isn’t perfect, it gives the world a mainstream opportunity see the beauty and nuances of the Latinx experience. And despite its few flaws, I highly recommend In the Heights. It’s not only an upbeat and passionate summer movie that’ll have you singing along, it is a pivotal moment in film showcasing Latinx talent, diversity, and history on the big screen for everyone to see.

You can watch In the Heights in theaters this summer or view the film at home on HBO max until July 11.