Quiara Alegría Hudes My Broken Language
Photo: John M. Chu
Culture News and Entertainment

‘In the Heights’ Writer Quiara Alegría Hudes’ New Memoir is About Growing Up Puerto Rican in Philly

Fresh off the high from the theatrical release of In the Heights, the film’s screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes is reveling in the wake of a dream accomplished. Hudes also wrote the libretto for the Tony-award-winning production which was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This is the first film she’s been involved in, and a direction she never imagined her career going in after having established her career as a playwright.

“It’s tremendous to reflect on it this morning, the morning after it opened in cinemas nationwide,” she tells HipLatina the day after the film premiered. “This is my first film. It’s about dreams and how they are not a finish line or a product, but a process. Every day you make the thing, that’s the dream. I’ve been writing In the Heights since 2004 and the best parts have always been being in the room with my collaborators, being at my writing desk with my imagination–just building the dream one line, one rewrite at a time,” she said. And it won’t be the last film for her either, she co-wrote the upcoming Netflix original animated film Vivo with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kirk DeMicco.

Hudes, who is of Puerto Rican and Jewish descent and originally from Philadelphia, was a producer on the film and was on set every day of filming. She was involved in the pre- and post-production decision processes, including location scouting, design discussions and costume choices. She even acted as director when the film’s director John M. Chu’s baby was born.

“I never saw any of this. I just wrote an eavesdropped and told stories and listened to stories. It’s how I arrange the world, how life makes sense to me. Writing for a film was an organic place to land after a life of that.”

Just two months prior to the long-anticipated film’s premiere, Hudes released her first full-length book, My Broken Language. The memoir is written from the perspective of her as a younger woman as she intertwines her stories with those of the women in her Puerto Rican family, finding her voice, ” her language”, in the process. In the author page she’s describe as a “barrio feminist” and that’s evidently informed her work through the years that have led her to the development of this book.

“Parts of it have lived in me for years. In 2003 I wrote a play called Barrio Grrrl! It was a sexual coming-of-age story for a queer, chubby Latina, set in a comic book-like barrio. Though that was fictional, its themes have continued to appear in my work through time,” she shared.

“Themes like body diversity and decentering skinniness in relation to mass culture’s beauty narrative. Themes like female Orisha: Yemaya, Oshun. My continued interest in how women wash and bathe and cleanse each other. And perhaps most immediately relevant, themes like reclaiming the slurs that have been put on us – women, Latinas – for so long. I think when I began writing that play, in some ways, I began the path toward writing My Broken Language.” 

my broken language hiplatina
Photo: Penguin Random House

The book is also a first for the prolific author who has penned seven plays, including two Pulitzer Prize-winners, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and Water by the Spoonful. She also created the Emancipated Stories Project, which gives people who are currently incarcerated or have been in the past, an opportunity to tell their stories via open submissions, online access and volunteer co-creation. She also co-founded the Latinx Casting Manifesto with Gabriela Sanchez, with which they’ve created a space not only to promote “ethical and pragmatic” Latinx casting practices, but also to promote conversations on “wellness and womanhood.”

To say that she is on a mission with her work is an understatement. But everything she does is really an outpouring of who she is and what matters to her at her core. She seems to have an innate sense of what stories need to be told, the stories that need to be heard, and most of that based on her own personal experiences and those of the people she’s close to.

“I know reading [James] Baldwin put me further into an urgent American conversation. Reading Mary Oliver deepened an inner curiosity about my own untamable wilderness. I also know that when my Tio George agreed to be interviewed by me for a play about Puerto Rican men in the US Marines…he spilled his heart, quite candidly. And this was a man who never spoke of his service. But just creating a space where I said ‘tell me your story’ changed that. The following week he told me he felt lighter than he had in 30 years. All those stories he had held inside. My liturgy is the transformative power of telling our stories, be it to an entire nation or one-on-one over a cup of coffee,” she told us.

My Broken Language explores the power of words and of silence in four parts including one section entitled, “All the Languages of My Perez Women, and Yet All This Silence.” In the chapter entitled “Mom’s Accent” she writes about having corrected her mom’s pronunciation of English words and how her perspective of her mom’s accent has since evolved.

“I eat my words. I eat my corrections como una comemierda. Mom, if you ever read this book (and make it this far without disowning me), I ask you one favor: break this English language today and tomorrow and the day after and bestow it new life with each breaking. Endow your fullness upon this cracked colonial tongue. you language genius. This is your English. You earned it. I am only a guest here.”

In the span of 300+ pages she explores life as a Puerto Rican from Philly, finding her words and feeling empowered not by perfecting her language, but by embracing its “broken” nature. Toward the ends she describes how we need to be our “own librarians”, an archive of our stories and of those that came before us.

Her hope for readers of My Broken Language? She wants people to know “That women are not hos. We are hoes. We break the tired earth, we rejuvenate the earth so that fresh seeds may be planted. We hoe on the potential of our own spirits, our friends, our sisters, our world. So if someone calls you a ho, you can receive that with pride, despite the fact that they have no clue!,” she said.