Image via Sky News

By: Gabriela Yareliz

Keep the sueñito (little dream) alive.

There has been a lot of backlash regarding In The Heights, with people mad at Lin-Manuel Miranda for the alleged “colorism” in the film, as many afro-latinos didn’t feel represented by the film. On the contrary, I want to point out that here we had a film that actually had actors of latino descent.

Miranda said that he created this musical, which really is a work of art, because he wanted to be seen. Miranda is not an afro-latino but a light-skinned Puerto Rican, such as myself (many have told me I don’t “look” latina– whatever that means). Rita Moreno went on record to say that her skin was darkened for the role of Anita in West Side Story. In a culture as diverse as ours, it’s natural for there to be an idea that doesn’t match reality. We all, at one point or another, don’t feel seen, but feel a pressure to conform to some outsider’s opinion or expectation.

Miranda apologized and said that he heard the frustrations of afro-latinos; he is kind like that. I don’t think he needed to apologize. This is someone who has done nothing other than uplift the entire community of color. Just look at his cast of Hamilton. I do take issue with a generation that seems to complain more than it acts to actually effect change (and no, an Instagram post or tweet doesn’t count).

What I found to be interesting is that there are a lot of people who wouldn’t feel represented by this film, not just afro-latinos, but American white people, Indian people, Chinese people, indigenous people (even those in Latin America), and the list can go on and on. And yet– I think this film is a message for all people. (Many note that it’s a film about a black neighborhood. I think we are missing the big picture. This film is about all of us everywhere– it’s not a documentary on the shift in demographics in Washington Heights).

As a latina, I’ll be the first to say that yes, representation matters, but one won’t always find it. This is a story so personal to Lin-Manuel. Let him tell his story, and let him be seen. He has that right. People want to take ownership of his story in the wrong ways, instead of receiving it with the same heart it has been given away with. People now have this thing where they believe everything has to represent everyone in the superficial sense. We need this skin color or this type of hair. I disagree with this. I grew up with a white-saturated media, and while my youth media consumption lacked representation, it taught me to identify with things not based on who looked like me but based on the deeper level of human story, emotion and struggle.

I worked at the University of Florida Phillips Center for Performing Arts. I don’t drink, and due to this, I passed up a position doing hospitality. This job would have required me to basically be a bartender and serve alcohol. I didn’t want to do this (serve alcohol), so instead, I got paid less and cleaned.

I remember when In The Heights came to the center for performing arts. The cast was kind when I would see them briefly as I cleaned up their dressing rooms. I’d wipe everything down, take out the trash and sweep. If we were efficient, we could stand at the side backstage and watch the performances before our next round of cleaning began. I remember standing there in the dark shadows of the side stage between the weighted thick curtains with my broom. I was a young university student just starting out, barely making minimum wage at this little side job on campus.

This year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade Special was sponsored by In The Heights and an ad came on for it at every commercial break. I was really proud to see this. I wasn’t searching the crowd for light or brown faces. I was just proud because it means something. Here is an inspiring film that tells us the value of community, hard work and dreams. A film that tells us that we are not powerless but can do anything we set our minds to. It tells a story of dignity.

I was raised believing this. Would it be nice if every film and every show showcased every aspect of a community? Sure. That would be lovely. But this is Miranda’s story. He wrote it. Maybe someday, a Dominican, dark-skinned Puerto Rican or afro-latino can write and produce his or her own story. It would be well-received and valued.

We shouldn’t tear down In The Heights. It brings us a timely message of empowerment. It shows us values that are universal. Ones we can treasure in our hearts, no matter the color of our skin or country of origin.

It’s a vibrant story about what is possible. One I know firsthand. When this musical was on stage, I was a student holding a broom. Now, it’s on the big screen, and I am an attorney. Miranda’s story can be all of ours, if we let it reach us on a deeper level. Keep dreaming. Keep being seen. Keep lifting others higher.

And if there is a gap, there will always be gaps. We need to rise to fill them, while honoring and protecting those who have come before us. One person cannot reflect the world. We each have a part to play. Lin-Manuel should be the protagonist of his own story. Being seen shouldn’t depend on the one person who was brave enough to put his own story out there. Have courage, and do the same in your own way.

My message to Lin-Manuel is taken from his own film: “ignore anyone who doubts you.” Your heart and mind have given us so much magic. Thank you.

Published by Gabriela Yareliz

Gabriela is a writer, editor and attorney. She loves the art of storytelling, and she is based in NYC.

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