Monday, June 14, 2021

Immigration influences on "In the Heights," by AK Sandoval-Strausz

An article by A. K. Sandoval-Strausz in the Washington Post (reprinted in Bloomberg) explains the influence of immigration politics on the long-awaited release of "In the Heights." This film version of the award-winning Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes is inspired by the "West Side Story" and a first draft written by Miranda in college. that barely mentioned immigration. 

Over 20 years of writing, Sandoval-Strausz says "In the Heights has evolved in an ongoing dialogue with the politics of immigration in America." In response to an exclusionary immigration politics, this latest "In the Heights pulls back the lens, the wider angle transforming what was once a straightforward love story into a sweeping tale about the meaning of an immigrant neighborhood in a nation where an aging citizenry, a shrinking workforce and a declining birthrate put us in desperate need of rejuvenation."

Sandoval-Strausz recounts three rewritings of the play, each aligned to the politics of the time.

At the debut, it was a simple love story among young people. Immigration was gaining importance as the 1990s saw increasing immigrant arrivals that drove economic growth and also an anti-immigrant political outbreak. (These were the times of California Governor's Pete Wilson,  "They Keep Coming" television ads, and Proposition 187, a state initiative that would have denied public benefits to undocumented immigrants and that went on to become the template for welfare reform).

The next version of "In the Heights" incorporated a new playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes who worked to enlarge the story from one about young people in love to one about a community. Hudes says they put more emphasis on characters who had come from various countries in Latin America: "The songs that centered immigration and migration the most," Hudes remembers, "were 'Carnaval del Barrio,' 'Paciencia y Fe,' and 'Inútil.' All of those songs were new." 

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, ensuing national backlashes to undocumented immigration, and national marches for  immigration policy reform (that has still not been delivered), the political climate shifted to one demanding greater rights for the undocumented population. In that context, the Broadway show won 4 Tony Awards (including Best Musical), a Grammy, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The Broadway version ran for more than three years, followed by tours and international productions on five continents. Sandoval-Straucz says: "This "In the Heights," with its hopeful narrative and depiction of the neighborhood as a metonym for an immigrant-friendly nation, certainly seemed like the perfect theatrical reflection of a diversifying America." A similar vision animated Hamilton, which also won numerous Tony and other awards and was lauded for its multicultural celebration in casting, musical style, and its retelling of history.

And then the pendulum swung again witt the election of Donald Trump. As Sandoval-Strausz tells it:

But the 2016 election shattered the optimistic mood among the liberal-minded fans of Miranda's work. The cast of "Hamilton" expressed the sentiments of many Americans at a late November performance attended by vice president-elect Mike Pence, with a curtain-call speech by actor Brandon Victor Dixon: "We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us . . . or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us." Pence responded with reassurances of good will, but Trump attacked the show on Twitter, calling it "overrated" and demanding that the cast apologize.

The film adaptation of "In the Heights" adapted to this new political landscape "in the shadow of Trump... and of a level of government-backed xenophobia not seen in the United States in nearly a century." The author says that Hudes explained, "When Trump became president, the rhetoric about who belongs here grew more polarized and the family separations tore our communities apart. That fueled my writing, a need to humanize and ground a more compassionate story of who gets to claim this nation." In addition to new plotlines involving "dreamers" and related issues of immigrants' legal status, the political circumstances of the movie enhanced a central tension in the plot: Will Usnavi stay in Washington Heights or return to the Dominican Republic? While past audiences might not have believed an immigrant would want to leave the United States, the doubt was now understandable. The author concludes: 

So this cinematic adaptation of "In the Heights" has met its historical moment. Its fidelity to the Broadway musical means that most moviegoers will recognize their own family histories in this portrait of the barrio, with the Latinas and Latinos on the screen the latest in a long line of immigrants who have created and re-created metropolitan neighborhoods. And the new plotlines involving immigrants with uncertain legal status mean audiences will be shown a more realistic portrayal of the threats that still remain: not just to undocumented Americans, but also to the continued existence of the United States as a welcoming, pluralistic, diverse democracy.


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