Latinx representation remains limited in film and television but the upcoming film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play In the Heights is a true celebration of Latin American culture. The musical centers around Dominican bodega owner, Usnavi (played by Puerto Rican actor Anthony Ramos) who saves all his money in the hopes of a better life, and his community in Washington Heights that includes his love interest, Vanessa, played by Mexican actress Melissa Barrera. Dominican actress Dascha Polanco, 38, plays Cuca, an employee of the local salon and a new role written for the film. The actress is known for her work in the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black as well as When They See Us and now she’s showcasing her musical talents with In the Heights.
“It’s more than just watching a musical it’s an experience, especially when we speak about diversity and when we speak about storytellers like Lin-Manuel Miranda, [director] John M.Chu, and Quiara Alegría Hudes,” she tells HipLatina.
Ramos echoed her sentiments about representation during a virtual event ahead of the premiere of the latest trailer in March. “I’ve never seen anything where there’s 75 Latinos in the middle of the street dancing and singing about pride and where they come from. I get emotional when I’m thinking about this movie and what it means to me and the culture.”
While Ramos is no stranger to musical theater having originated dual roles in Miranda’s massive Broadway hit, Hamilton, this is Polanco’s first foray into the world of song and dance.
“It’s my first musical, it’s my first audition where I’m actually singing. I am an artist, I consider myself an artist, that’s my world,” she says. “I love the arts, and for me to be part of something that was so important when it came out on Broadway and it was recognized and it was so necessary, to now be part of the film adaptation took me by surprise.” But as a self-proclaimed “Madre Teresa” of sorts who advocates for causes she’s passionate about, she sees the opportunity as a way to be part of a project that’s centered on telling the stories of the Latin community.
“We’re becoming more aware we’re becoming more, hopefully, educated, we’re holding people accountable and I think it’s important for us to understand that stories must be told, and more so from the perspective of those that have experienced the story.”
She shares that filming it in Washington Heights made it that much more special, calling it the “epicenter” of where we (the Latinx community) are. Latinx representation is the heart of the film as it tackles gentrification in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan where nearly 70 percent of the population is Latinx.
The role of Cuca was extra special as it was the first role created for the film according to Polanco, and it was meaningful for her as she had grown up going to salons. She describes Cuca as the life of the party and says that it’ll allow for people to see another side of her that they probably aren’t familiar with yet.
“It was fun for me because I grew up with cosmetologists around me, my, my aunt has a salon in Brooklyn, so for me I kind of just use the essence of that experience to portray the role.” The role salons played in her life and the community is significant and it goes beyond just looks, it’s about connection. “I think that that’s the place for us to not only get our hair done but to also have the conversations to also create the little family or network or little therapeutic, you know, we get our therapy there, we get our information.”
Daniela, the salon owner played by Panamanian-American dancer/singer/actress, Daphne Rubin-Vega, showcases that in the film with the musical number “No Me Diga” embracing the gossip culture of salons. As a small business owner, Polanco says the salon is also a representation of what it means to dream. “Most importantly, it shows us a dream, you know, we come here with a dream and for us a dream is to have our own business,” she says, adding that “we’re here with a dream and anything is possible through adversity through resilience.”
For Polanco, who grew up in Brooklyn and Miami, the pursuit of art in various forms has always been the dream. She recalls having always been a dancer on dance teams and she took a few classes of ballet growing up saying it was all her parents could afford. Now she says that through her art she’s showcasing her abilities and a message about diversity and inclusivity with her own touch of sass and a lot of heart.
She says she’s “still growing” as a woman who came into this career later in life with no connections or family in the industry. She recognizes that as a Latina in Hollywood she’s “repping a huge part of the world” but she also is becoming more selective about the roles she takes.
“I’m also not going to play a character to check the box off, and I never want to be part of a film that just wants to complete the checkoff, I want to be part of magical projects,” she says. “I don’t want to play ‘oh she’s the Dominican girl in the movie’, I want to play a woman that so happens to be Dominican, that so happens to be Italian, that’s whatever the nationality may be, but let’s look beyond the phenotype and let’s actually really take care of the story.”
Latinx storylines in film have historically been limited to tropes like the gang member and the sexy Latina and a recent study proves there’s still a long way to go.
Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in partnership with the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) and Wise Entertainment released a report in 2019 about the state of Latinx representation in films and it proved how limited it is. Latino actors made up only 4.5 percent of 47,268 speaking roles in the 100 top-grossing U.S. movies from the past 12 years and only 3 percent were leads or co-leads. Furthermore, 24 percent of all Latinx speaking characters across 200 popular films were shown to be criminals and 12 percent were “temperamental or angry.” Thirty-six percent were isolated, without community, or anything specifically tying them to their heritage.
Being a part of In the Heights is a way to be a part of something that features fully developed Latinx characters AND delivers on the cultura’s love of music and dance.
“We’re here with a dream and anything is possible through adversity through resilience. And through it all, we celebrate because joy is necessary. You will see that throughout the film with the music and how thoughtfully it was written.”
Filming began in June of 2019 and Polanco says that everyone from the cast to the writers and director “lead by example” and allowed for her to feel included as both an actress and artist. After delays due to the pandemic, the film is set to premiere June 11 in theaters and HBO Max and for Polanco she hopes that sense of unity extends to the audience especially after how difficult 2020 was for everyone. “Let’s take a moment to really learn from each other, to educate each other, most important, let’s take a moment to celebrate our cultural differences.”
The musical In the Heights premiered on Broadway in 2008 and was awarded the Tony for best musical but now the film has a chance to truly amplify Latinx culture and stories.
“We’re so used to asking for less, just to ask to occupy space. As Latinos, we’re like, ‘Please just let us make our little movie.’ And Jon, on every step of the way, he was like, ‘Nope, this is a big movie.’ These guys have big dreams, we’re allowed to go that big,” Miranda said during the virtual event in March.
For Polanco, the film is a step in the right direction but the work to tell our diverse array of stories in Hollywood continues.
“What I’m hoping is that all the hard work from every person that was part of this film transcends on that screen and connects with everyone and that it’s impactful that it’s going to be a part of our history, our present, and our future. We must continue to write, we must continue to direct, we must continue to fight for what is right, and understand that there’s no mold. And that’s what I love, walking into this I’ve broken barriers and I will continue to break the mold.”