I watched the film of In the Heights last night, prepared to be disappointed. I was not disappointed. Sure, there are things that I missed from the show, and things that I didn’t think worked, but on the whole, it was magnificent.
When I mentioned in another place how much I liked the show, a friend joshed that “It clearly speaks to your Dominican roots!” And I laughed, because, um, very much not.
And then, as the exchange sank in, it occurred to me that I do think the show speaks to my roots.
My father grew up in the Bronx, just a couple of stops away from Washington Heights on the elevated train. The same stoops, the same corner stores, the same street scenes. It wasn’t a neighborhood of Dominicans and Cubans, Nicaraguans and Chileans and Venezuelans; it was a neighborhood of Poles and Lithuanians, Romanians and Russians and Italians. And Puerto Ricans, of course, although my Dad says his groups mixed with the Puerto Ricans even less than with the Italians. But they were immigrants, all of them. He was the child of undocumented immigrants, himself. He joked that when he met my mother he was amazed that her father had been born in the United States! And then when he discovered that his father had been born here… he had never met anyone with a grandparent who had been born in the US! My grandfather had been a professional musician in the Old Country; in the Goldene Medina he waited on tables. But his boy went to college.
And also: that New York that my father was born into, the New York City of the fifty years or so before WWII, is a New York that was a big part of my imagination when I was growing up. Whether it was Damon Runyon or the All-of-a-Kind Family or Sesame Street or the Dead End Kids, a great deal of my image of America was of New York City neighborhoods full of immigrants, corner stores, insular neighborhoods and the tension between generational hopes and immediate struggles, between ethnic traditions and the assimilationist demands of American ambition, between the desire to get out and the embrace of community, between the sacrifices of the parents and the needs of the children.
I don’t know if other people grew up with that being their image of New York City—I occasionally discover that things I thought were plumb spang in the cultural mainstream turn out to be either long-forgotten relics or had always been on the fringe. But for me, while I didn’t always understand the lyrics of In the Heights, the setting was always my mammyloshen.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,