How ‘In the Heights’ Could Flip the Script on Hollywood’s Sketchy History With Latino Culture

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical showcases the spectrum of Latino immigrant backgrounds in a way that very few major studio films have done before

In “Carnaval Del Barrio,” one of the many show-stopping numbers in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights,” the alleys of Washington Heights in the northern tip of Manhattan are draped in flags from all the countries its immigrant residents come from as the cast cries out “¡Alza la bandera!” — “Raise the flag!” The flags of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic and even Jamaica all fly as the characters express their pride not just in their nationalities, but in the community they call home.

“My mom is Dominican-Cuban, my dad is from Chile and P.R.” sings the gossipy salon worker Carla. “Which means I’m Chile-Dominica-Curican…but I just say I’m from Queens!”

That awareness of the wide spectrum of Latino immigrant cultures is present in every second of Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, from the Puerto Rican piraguas served during hot summer days to the Cuban guayaberas and Panama hats worn by the dancers as Abuela Claudia (Olga Mendiz) reflects on her mother’s decision to leave Havana in the song “Paciencia Y Fe.” They are, to quote Claudia, “little details that tell the world that we are not invisible.”

Chon Noriega, professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and former director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, said that “In The Heights” is a welcome counter to Hollywood’s decades-long tendency to not only stereotype Latinos as maids, gang-bangers and sex symbols but also to homogenize the various cultures of Latin America even in films that show that culture in a positive light.

It’s a problem that dates back to the end of the silent film era in the early 1930s, when Hollywood took advantage of the rise of “talkies” and made films in Spanish. Those films, along with imports from the rising Mexican cinema scene, gave birth to Spanish-only cinemas like Los Angeles’ Azteca Theater. But Noriega says that unlike their Mexico City counterparts, the Spanish films from Hollywood didn’t care much for cultural accuracy.

“They would be casting films where all the characters came from different regions of Mexico and different countries in Latin America and Caribbean, and Spanish-speaking audience would be laughing at the screen because they are all speaking the wrong dialects and idioms for those characters’ backgrounds,” he said. “By comparison, the films coming out of Mexico City at the time would shape the characters around the actors playing them; so if they cast a famous Cuban singer, then her character would be Cuban as well.”

Even Hollywood films that touched on real issues faced by Latino immigrants had their own problems. The acclaimed 1961 adaptation of “West Side Story” turned “America,” one of the most popular songs from the Leonard Bernstein-Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim musical, into an exchange between the film’s Puerto Rican characters over the promise and discrimination faced by immigrants at the hands of a racist white culture, all packaged in an iconic song-and-dance number that remains one of the most famous in film history.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • • Twitter: @jeremyfuster