Female Power, the Real Message Behind ‘In The Heights’

In the Heights Female Cast BELatina Latinx
Photo: Playbill.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new blockbuster film, ‘In The Heights,’ promises to become the 21st century’s ‘West Side Story,’ transforming the visual narrative around the Latino community in America.

The film version of the award-winning Broadway musical is often associated, as in the paragraph above, with Miranda’s name, when the pen behind it is, precisely, that of a woman: Quiara Alegria Hudes.

While Miranda wrote the first version of ‘In the Heights’ in 1999 when he was a college sophomore, the events of the past 21 years have given the story a profoundly feminine and communal twist.

What began as a love story is now an ode to immigration; what started with one protagonist, Usnavi de la Vega, is now the story of resilience and the importance of women in the Latino community.

In a conversation with journalist Alicia Menendez, Hudes joined other cast members of ‘In The Heights,’ including Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Dascha Polanco, and Daphne Rubin-Vega, to talk about the personal experiences they brought to the skin of their characters.

For Hudes, representation has more to do with the stories being told than the statistics to which Latinos are often reduced on the small and big screen.

“In all fairness, I did see Latinos here and there on the screen growing up,” she said. “But it was like, [on] the nightly news, and it was a really dismal portrayal.”

“I feel like representation is not just about statistics; it’s about the type and ways we get to show up. And so, to represent with joy, to counter that narrative.”

Hudes added that the fair representation of Latinos on screen also has to do with the shift in narrative structure, moving from the arc of a hero to the story of a community where everyone has a place.

“[Representation] is about telling a story that’s not about one hero, one protagonist, but about how we all rise together.”

But to tell that collective story, the actresses had to bring their individual stories to the set of ‘In The Heights,’ and transform the pain and joy into an ensemble experience.

“For you to be able to be around people that understand, that respect, that embrace, that make the space safe for you to feel safe to create in, and just be you, it’s something that we cannot explain,” Polanco said about the freedom and joy of working in the film.

“This has been missing for so long,” she added. “That pride that you feel, you just start owning it.”

Likewise, for Leslie Grace, who plays Nina, the bright student who left the neighborhood for college, her character becomes an archetype within the community.

“I think we’re all Nina,” she told Menendez. “I think we’ve all experienced the fragmenting of ourselves because you’re trying to represent all that’s who you are, and all of the people and the places, and the culture that makes you up with pride, with joy, and orgullo.”

“But at the same time, in a world that almost calls you to [settle] and to quiet all of that in order to assimilate,” she added.

For Melissa Barrera, meanwhile, it was the pain of not belonging and broken dreams that made her character, Vanessa, an aspiring fashion designer who knows that the world is bigger than her small neighborhood, real.

Her experience as a Mexican actress making her way in a world beyond her dreams allowed her to understand her character’s pain and loneliness as well as “the constant rejection and having to fight for every single thing in life.”

Finally, for Hudes, the conversation between women is “the secret Da Vinci code behind the script.”

Although there is a male storyteller (Usnavy) in the story, what he tells the girl on the beach is that there are many ways to be a strong woman.

“You can be a strong woman by celebrating; you can be a strong woman through leadership. You wanna see the third table, Nina? Well, you got to make your own third table, too. You can be a strong woman through humility, which, to me, dear God, is a lesson this nation needs to learn. Strength through humility and listening.”

“That, for me, is what I want people to take away,” she concluded. “That there are so many different ways to be strong and be a strong woman, but it’s even better when we’re strong together.”