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The sound of the rhythmic clave at the very beginning of the opening number of In the Heights brings me back to my childhood — yes, even more than my favorite Disney television show theme song does. This rap hip-hop musical, written by and starring Lin Manuel Miranda, was first introduced to me when I was a ten year-old. I had left my primarily white suburban elementary school for a much more diverse arts magnet school 45 minutes away in part to pursue my dreams of being an actor. In my new classes, I finally met people who were as interested in the arts as I was (not to mention a few who shared my Jewish background). Despite at last finding people that I had things in common with, I was still the only Puerto Rican person that I knew. My Puerto Rican grandparents lived halfway across the country, and I wasn’t very in touch with that part of my culture, other than dancing to the occasional reggaeton song.
When In the Heights came to Broadway, I honestly didn’t know that much about my Puerto Rican heritage. My father, however, bought the cast album and played it whenever we went on long drives somewhere. I loved musical theater and reggaeton, but the mix of the two was something that I had never heard before. The main character, Usnavi, is of Dominican descent, but many characters in the show are Puerto Rican, as is the author himself. The show follows around Usnavi in his barrio in New York City, interacting with his Spanish speaking neighbors and showing how Hispanic people bring their culture in America. Enchanted by this more modern West Side Story, I was immediately drawn to the narrative and the captivating Caribbean beats. By the end of that year, I had learned all of the lyrics and was watching (and ardently re-watching) the Tony Award winning performance on YouTube.
Through In the Heights, I learned to appreciate my heritage, and to look at the world through a critically intelligent lens. Lin Manuel Miranda tells his story by not just explaining it. He utilized the forms of rap and musical theater to show how he grew up, and his creation has inspired me to be original in telling my own stories through film.
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