A new day is dawning in the northwest corner of Manhattan. Couples are waking each other with morning kisses, shopkeepers are opening their doors, parents are getting their kids dressed for school, and straphangers are rushing out of the door to catch their ride to work. In the middle of the hustle and bustle that makes New York City run, there’s a bodega offering everything from the morning paper to fuzzy dice for taxi cabs. It’s the main setting for In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical and Jon M. Chu’s subsequent film adaptation, and from it spools stories about pursuing dreams, finding community, making ends meet, and maintaining heritage in a system that seems built to destroy it.
“Washington Heights. Say it, so it doesn’t disappear.”
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) tells this to a group of kids in the opening scene of the movie. He sets up a story of a faraway land called Nueva York, where the streets were filled with music and everyone had a dream. The unspoken implication is that this place has been long washed away, but In the Heights’ opening number—and the movie altogether—is an argument against that notion. Washington Heights, and the people who make it Washington Heights, are still standing.
When In the Heights was slated to be released in the summer of 2020, it seemed positioned to rebuke the anti-Latino rhetoric that had risen during the previous presidential administration, which labeled immigrants not as people but as “animals.” In some eyes, we were “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” or a faceless invading force storming the border. But the movie would show us as Americans and “Dreamers,” artists and business owners, students and hard workers, and most importantly, human beings. In the Heights would, first and foremost, be a bright and colorful musical to counter the rising tide of prejudice.
And then COVID-19 changed everything, including Washington Heights.
New York City in the spring of 2020 was a world away from the one filmmakers captured that previous summer. The daily symphony of commuters and tourists suddenly went silent, replaced only by sirens. The subways that give Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) the rhythm outside her window slowed their 24-hour grind. The Highbridge pool where dozens of dancers join in a Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams–style aquatic routine was closed and turned into a COVID-19 testing site, like many other public facilities in the city. (It won’t reopen until later this month.) While most of us hunkered down in makeshift quarantines, essential workers—from those in healthcare to train conductors to delivery drivers—risked their lives so we should have that privilege. Many of them called Washington Heights home.
The Heights was one of the harder hit areas in Manhattan, with roughly 1 out of 11 residents in the neighborhood contracting COVID-19 and hundreds dying from the illness. The death rate from the coronavirus was higher in Washington Heights than in many other neighborhoods in the city, while the CDC reported that Black and Latino communities were among the hardest hit; roughly 68 percent of Washington Heights residents identify as Latino, and 8 percent identify as Black. It’s also an area still struggling to get the COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of its residents, with only 30 percent hitting full vaccination compared to the citywide average of just over 43 percent last month. While much has changed over the past year, the neighborhood isn’t in the clear.
This is the world In the Heights was released into. Its purpose and impact feel different now. Yes, it’s still a feel-good pushback against bigots who villainize and write off the Latino community. There’s even a newly added story line addressing the plight of “Dreamers,” and the concerns about gentrification and community displacement are as urgent as ever as New York inches toward the end of its eviction moratorium in August. But in the aftermath of the pandemic, In the Heights has also become the hopeful tale of an entire community’s resolve, perseverance, and strength.
When certain characters find themselves discouraged by the struggles in their path, they sing a refrain of “We are powerless, we are powerless.” Yet In the Heights celebrates how communities come together in those times of powerlessness. Take, for instance, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the de facto matriarch of the block, whose home becomes a shelter for those stranded by a blackout. Abuela Claudia is not actually anyone’s grandmother by blood—still, she supports the dreams and ambitions of her informally adopted grandchildren. She is a stand-in for all of those cousins who aren’t actually cousins, those aunts or uncles who aren’t actually a parent’s sibling—those people who take on the burden and joys of caregiving for no other reason but love. This is the kind of selflessness upon which a community is founded, and there are examples of it throughout In the Heights. Usnavi looks after his cousin (Gregory Diaz IV) as if he’s his own son. Benny (Corey Hawkins) springs into action to help his former boss, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), during the blackout. Vanessa’s boss, Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), helps her out by co-signing her rental application so she can move closer to her dream of becoming a downtown designer.
While the film could have done a better job including dark-skinned Afro Latinos in lead roles, In the Heights does get something right. During the worst months of the pandemic, many of us reached out to friends old and new; we reconnected with people, and found solace from unexpected sources. There were group chats that became lifelines, online Zoom calls, FaceTimes and WhatsApp messages that kept many of us sane. During the pandemic, people stepped up to donate money or supplies; some volunteered to run errands for others worried about their high-risk medical conditions; a few even designed resources to help their neighbors, free of cost. In the Heights pinpoints and celebrates those actions big and small, raising them up as the things that give meaning to a place, a community, a life—in Washington Heights specifically, but across the world as well. Especially after 2020, there’s no substitute for that feeling of home, however lucky one is to have found it at all. You need to acknowledge it. Honor it. Say it, so it doesn’t disappear.
Monica Castillo is a New York City–based writer and film critic.