When I first found out that Maria at West Side Story was played by a white girl, it felt like a betrayal. Growing up as a self-proclaimed theater child in a mostly white middle and higher school in New JerseyI created lists of my fantasy characters and the productions I expected my school would place on. However, my list was narrowed to the limited Latinx characters I knew and the roles I had seen played by people who looked like me–Maria out of West Side Story, Mimi from Rent, Elphaba out of Wicked.
For many years, Maria and Anita were all I had. But as a kid I noticed things about West Side Story that felt weird–such as the overexaggerated accents, or the fact that none of the Puerto Rican characters spoke Spanish when they were speaking to one another. However, I considered the musical and movie as the best representation of Puerto Rican individuals in New York City since it was the only real one, and I dreamed of my high school setting on a production of the show as I sang”I Feel Pretty” in the mirror. So when I finally realized that Natalie Wood was not Latinx, the betrayal was profound: I believed that the one major role I thought I could envision myself in would necessarily be played by a non-Latinx white man who might be palatable in that function.
In the Heights is not a caricature of Latinx men and women, nor does it decrease our culture to a monolith for ingestion by white men and women. It’s a celebration of our dreams, our songs, our food, and our homes.
The movie adaptation, currently in theaters, is one of the most-anticipated movie musicals lately. With music and lyrics by Lin Manuel Miranda, the film–and the musical its own based on–happens in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and is, in many ways, a love letter to its Latinx community. The narrative follows a group of people in El Barrio who are chasing their own sueñitos and face different obstacles in attaining them.
The film itself is a representative of Abuela Claudia’s plea: to maintain our dignity in tiny ways, through little details that reveal them we aren’t invisible. As I watched the film with my mom at a screening, the particulars were so private they made us laugh, reach for each other’s hands, and cry in ways we never have before. We smiled in the ingredients for sofrito next to the stove, the inclusion of Puerto Rican slang, the drapes at the nail salon, the large avocados grown in Puerto Rico, the men playing dominos in fold-up chairs, along with the decoration around the flats. Although the costuming was loud and bright, it felt like a caricature. Rather, it felt like a reflection of who we are and the people we know. Even the subtle decision to not include subtitles throughout the entire film made the intention clear: This was not just an adaptation only for white audiences–it had been created by, and for, Latinx men and women.
But despite all the incredible representation during, I had been remi