Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s beloved musical In the Heights is making its big-screen debut next month and it’s been praised for being a celebration of Latinidad in the film industry when representation remains so limited. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) revolves around a community within Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, New York that’s predominantly Dominican/Puerto Rican as it struggles with gentrification slowly eradicating the way of life its residents once knew. The cast includes Puerto Rican actor Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, a bodega owner with big dreams, Mexican actress Melissa Barrera as an aspiring fashion designer and his love interest, Puerto Rican actor Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario a taxi cab company owner, and Dominican actress Leslie Grace as his daughter Nina Rosario.
While collectively they’re dealing with the changing landscape of their neighborhood, individually each of the characters are struggling with finding their own place in the world without forgetting where they came from. That sense of community is what tethers Nina to the Heights as she returns from studying at Stanford, a prestigious university in California.
Grace, 26, was born in the Bronx to Dominican parents and has been singing since she was a young child releasing a Chrisitan music album when she was just in middle school. She made her mainstream debut with a bachata cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” which hit No.1 Billboard Tropical Songs chart and Billboard Latin Airplay charts, making her the first female Latin artist to do so. Now, Grace is making her feature-film debut playing Nina, the first in her family to go to college. Nina’s return to the Heights reminds her of the weight of that responsibility to succeed after her dad sacrificed so much to pay for her schooling and everyone in her community there is also pushing for her to succeed.
The father/daughter first gen dynamic resonated with Grace who feels like it’ll likely resonate with other Latinx first gen familiar with that feeling of trying to live up to their parent’s dreams for them. Grace powerfully portrays this internal struggle between wanting to make her dad and community proud and navigating a world where she is constantly othered.
“In the guilt that comes with that is something that we rarely talk about of, you know, going off and finding your path and make taking ownership of it. And not only feeling like your path is because of your parents,” Grace tells HipLatina. “I think that’s something universal, I think it’s very much felt in families where you’re the first to go off to college, I think it’s very much felt if you are one of the few in your neighborhood to go off to a college like Stanford. You feel like you’re doing it for everybody, so many more people than just yourself.”
In a poignant scene, she’s talking to her dad about being mistaken for a waitress at an upscale school event trying to explain how she feels othered. “She’s kind of breaking that facade for him and saying hey, this is kind of what it’s really like over there like they’re treating me like I’m the help,” Grace explains saying Nina feels conflicted because she is a student but she also feels like the waitresses would’ve looked at her asking, “are you with them?” Grace explains that she related to this moment having gone through similar situations.
“That is so reflective of so many experiences I’ve had, where you don’t feel like you’re enough of one thing or enough of the other thing to fully relate to all of the pieces that you are that fragmented identity part that first gen really does feel.”
The film tackles an especially timely issue in the story of Sonny, who is undocumented and struggles with the realization that so many opportunities like college are out of reach. It’s his reality that ultimately inspires Nina to find a way to take her community with her when she goes back to school.
“She finds her purpose in going back and taking her community with her even though she’s leaving her block and I think that’s beautiful. We need to hear those stories,” she says about first gen who “feels at a crossroads with that sense of ownership.”
That representation is integral to why so many love the musical and are anticipating the film. Dominican actress Dascha Polanco, who plays Cuca, a role written for the film, describes the movie as
“more than just watching a musical it’s an experience,” previously telling HipLatina that it’s a celebration of Latinx culture. Cuban actress Olga Merediz, who originated the role of Abuela in the stage play, is in many ways the heart of the community and the film itself with her message embodied in her signature song, “Paciencia y Fe.”
She recalls having performed the song on stage and how it differs from the grand scale of the performance for the film. “Now it is just because of Jon’s vision, it is just so much bigger than I ever imagined. And the whole ‘Paciencia y Fe’, he just broke the mold there with that number,” Merediz tells HipLatina. “It’s just so much more sublime and bigger than I ever imagined it and that we could ever do on stage.”
She shares that she originally was playing another part in the musical and, due to the vocal range required for Abuela’s signature song, they were struggling to cast an older actress. Now she feels like “the luckiest girl in the world” to play Abuela in the film though she says it was an entirely different experience.
She describes the theatre version as taking the actor and the audience on a “journey” with the character however in movies, scenes are filmed out of order which she described as challenging at times. She recalls doing a night shoot where she went in at 5 pm and got home at 7:30 in the morning but she says she’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
When it comes to picking a favorite number in the film besides “Paciencia y Fe” she says it’s “96,000” because of the sheer magnitude of the performance. She shares that while the scene is supposed to take place during a heatwave it was actually really cold and the actors had to film the performance in a pool.
But beyond the sometimes harsh realities of filming, Merediz praises the film for its level of representation. She recalls having had countless conversations about Latinx representation for decades and that it feels like the time has finally come.
“Finally to be in a project that we can be seen, we can be proud, and we could celebrate our culture, which is a universal culture which everybody will relate to. To be seen and, like Lin says, we’re allowed to take space because we are Americans. We are part of this culture, we have buying power. We’re the number one, minority that goes to the cinema. It’s just very rewarding for me. At last.”
Grace, Polanco, and Merediz all praise the work Chu, Miranda, and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes put into bringing the film to life. It’s clear that it’s more than a theatrical adaptation of the award-winning musical, it’s a moment for many in the Latinx community to feel seen in a true-to-life way.
“Thanks to Lin and Quiara and Jon, they crafted all of our characters in such a way to where you see every path having such a beautiful resolve,” Grace says. “Not in a cookie-cutter way or like, you know bow at the end of the story way, but in a real life way of like hey, I don’t know what tomorrow might bring but it’s about finding the joy in where you are and living in that space,” adding, “It’s a rarely told story for first gen, I feel so seen.”
In The Heights is out in theaters and on HBO Max June 11.