As immigration politics changed, so did ‘In the Heights’

Jess Suttner for the Washington Post

An earlier version of this article misquoted a line from "Hamilton." The line is "immigrants — we get the job done," not "immigrants — they get the job done."

This week marked the long-awaited release of “In the Heights,” the film version of the award-winning Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. The movie is gorgeous, powerful and inspiring, a worthy successor to its lineal ancestor, the beloved but outdated “West Side Story.” The main themes of “In the Heights” — love, family, community, gentrification and immigration — might seem natural or even unavoidable, since it is set in a New York City barrio.

But these themes developed only gradually over 20 years of writing. “In the Heights” has evolved in an ongoing dialogue with the politics of immigration in America. The show was fortunate in the timing of its earlier incarnations: They, along with Miranda’s already legendary global colossus “Hamilton,” opened in the calms between the storms of immigration controversies, when there seemed to be broad, bipartisan agreement that we must welcome newcomers.

Now, however, it is no longer possible to adapt a show like “In the Heights” without recognizing what its intended audiences already know: Tens of millions of their fellow Americans have come to fear immigrants and the future they represent. In response, 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.

Based on the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the story follows characters in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. (Video: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Miranda wrote the first version of “In the Heights” in 1999, when he was a college sophomore; it comprised 16 songs and was performed at Wesleyan University in the spring of 2000. At that point, it was a basic love story set in Washington Heights, the northern Manhattan neighborhood near where Miranda grew up.

The issue of immigration barely figured in the show. In the opening number, the main character, Usnavi de la Vega, informed the audience, “my syntax is highly complicated ’cause I immigrated” from the Dominican Republic. The songs that followed featured various lines in Spanish and referenced Spanish-Caribbean cultural elements, from foods like plátanos and piraguas to rhythms such as merengue and bachata, but migration itself was seldom mentioned.

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In the broader United States, though, the issue was extremely important as the show debuted. The 1990s saw more arrivals than any other decade in U.S. history, with 11 million foreign-born people joining the nation’s population. These newcomers helped drive that decade’s exceptional economic growth, then America’s longest-ever period of uninterrupted expansion. Yet there had also been an anti-immigrant political outbreak, measurable in the sales of viciously racist books from the likes of Peter Brimelow and Pat Buchanan and in a xenophobic mania in California, where incumbent governor Pete Wilson won reelection after running the infamous “They Keep Coming” television ad and endorsing Proposition 187, which would have denied public education and health care to undocumented people, including children.

Within a few years, though, Wilson’s victory was widely considered Pyrrhic, as Republicans disappeared from statewide office in California and the national GOP nominated the rhetorically immigrant-friendly George W. Bush in an attempt to capture more of the Hispanic vote. And in the Bush years, after Miranda graduated college, the show kept changing, too.

The next version of “In the Heights” evolved with the 2004 addition of Phillyrican playwright Hudes. She and Miranda “were, in part, refocusing the story to one of an entire community,” she recalls. 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.” The play did not, however, make any mention of undocumentedness, and Hudes says she doesn’t recall discussing the topic with Miranda as they worked. Instead, it presented the Latinas and Latinos of Washington Heights as the heirs of the neighborhood’s previous waves of European immigrants; this was symbolized by a sign for the Rosario Car Service being put up over the older O’Hanrahan Car Service lettering.

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Emphasizing a natural continuity between generations of immigrants was an optimistic but not unreasonable move at the time. The 2000s saw a new wave of xenophobia that began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and peaked in 2006 with a GOP backlash to immigration reforms. That led to an infamous bill written by then-Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), which passed the Republican-controlled House and would have made immigration misdemeanors into felonies and imprisoned people who helped the undocumented. Immigrants and their allies responded with the biggest protests ever seen in America, with between 3.5 million and 5 million people marching in 120 cities.

By the time “In the Heights” opened on Broadway in 2008, large-scale immigration reform appeared imminent. The GOP presidential candidate was Arizona senator John McCain, co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would have offered a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented people. That legislation was what had prompted the party’s nativist wing, which vehemently opposed McCain, to rally behind the competing Sensenbrenner bill. So McCain’s nomination looked like a sign that Republicans were turning away from that faction. Democrat Barack Obama proudly endorsed an even more direct path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and highlighted his Senate votes for the Dream Act.

When it opened that spring, the show’s exuberant music and charismatic Latina and Latino characters were a huge hit. It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four, including Best Musical, along with a Grammy win and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The Broadway version ran for more than three years, followed by tours and international productions on five continents. Its success was billed as a sign of things to come: Time magazine called it “the first musical of the Barack Obama era,” invoking the unprecedentedly multicultural coalition that elected the nation’s first Black president that year. Variety emphasized “the central theme of immigrants and their children forging a community,” and USA Today cited it as “evidence of a more progressive and culturally eclectic spirit in musical theater.” 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.

That vision of immigration also featured prominently in Miranda’s next show, “Hamilton.” The issue did not fit as easily in the era of George Washington as it had in Washington Heights, but the moment when the Caribbean-born Alexander Hamilton and the French Marquis de Lafayette clasp hands just before the American victory at Yorktown and exclaim, “Immigrants — we get the job done!” became the production’s biggest moment: The director added a pause for the performers to hold for the wild applause that always followed. Miranda may not have known it, but he was echoing a moment in 1965 when Congress was debating that year’s historic immigration reform; one supporter argued for the bill by pointing out that foreign-born allies such as Lafayette had helped American revolutionaries “beat the hell out of the British.”

Just as with “In the Heights,” glowing press coverage focused on how immigrant heritage and diversity were integral to the appeal of “Hamilton.” Variety said the show’s Hamilton “reflects the thoughts and speaks the language of a vibrant young generation of immigrant strivers.” The New York Times declared hip-hop “the perfect voice for expressing the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies,” and The Washington Post observed that Miranda’s rap refrains became “a sort of motto for an immigrant rebel.”

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When “Hamilton” garnered an unprecedented 16 Tony nominations and took home 11 awards, it seemed as if Miranda had again channeled the national zeitgeist, the show’s diverse cast reflecting the nation’s increasingly multicultural citizenry. After all, even the Republican Party had concluded in a report issued three years earlier that the GOP faced a bleak political future if it didn’t broaden its demographic base. In Miranda’s opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live” less than a month before the election and just two days after the “Access Hollywood” tape of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women became public, the playwright paused while looking at a framed photograph of Trump and riffed on the “never gonna be president now” line from the musical.

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.

A film adaptation of “In the Heights” had been in the works since 2008, but it was only in 2018, after Hudes and Miranda forced Harvey Weinstein’s company to relinquish the rights to the project when Weinstein’s sexual predations were revealed, that she could complete the screenplay confident that it would be shot. Unlike past iterations of the show, the movie was created largely in the shadow of Trump — from writing to production to marketing — and of a level of government-backed xenophobia not seen in the United States in nearly a century. His administration’s ban on travel from mostly Muslim nations, its proposal to slash legal immigration by almost half and cancel programs that protected some undocumented immigrants, its policy of separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border and ritualized defamation of immigrants formed a backdrop for the planning of the film — as did the racist mass murders of Jews in Pittsburgh and Hispanics in El Paso, which underscored the stakes of the administration’s stance quite viscerally.

Under those circumstances, a movie that sidestepped the question of nativism was unthinkable. “When Trump became president,” Hudes says, “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 — originally scheduled to be released only months before the 2020 election, until the pandemic closed most theaters, delaying it — also add more believability to a central tension in the plot: Will Usnavi stay in Washington Heights or return to the Dominican Republic? If in the optimistic and pluralistic days of 2008, audiences might have wondered why he would want to leave the United States, today, the choice seems much more fraught.

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Last year’s election looked like it might clarify where the nation was headed, but alas, no. The most powerful xenophobe in modern American history has left the stage, but the final act is unwritten.

The United States remains the world’s foremost home for immigrants, with nearly 45 million foreign-born people in our population. The Biden White House has responded to immigrant advocates with proposed legislation that would regularize the status of millions of undocumented people; it also plans to raise the number of refugees accepted every year to 10 times what it had been under Trump.

But the GOP has sheared off its immigration-friendly wing and become a revanchist party that parrots “replacement theory” despite the nation’s low fertility, impending labor shortage and consequent need for more immigrants. Meanwhile, the Republican faithful are now firmly in thrall to a defeated habitual liar and preparing to ignore the results of future elections.

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.