At the same time, this multi-faceted, intergenerational story about family, community, and upward mobility is rooted in the real soil of hard work and sacrifice. The modest dreams of Usnavi and his neighbors and friends are the reflection of a very big dream, the American one, which the film celebrates without irony while noting certain contradictions.
We are transported from the tropical tranquility of El Sueñito to the summer heatwave of Washington Heights, a part of Upper Manhattan shaded by the George Washington Bridge and lit by sunsets over the Hudson River. Its streets are a bipolar magnet. In the 20th century, immigrants from the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America – including Usnavi’s father, now deceased, and neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) – were drawn to the promise of economic opportunities. Some have opened small businesses, such as the bodega where Usnavi and his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) spend their days distributing café con leche, quarter waters and other essentials. Across the street is a livery taxi service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who came from Puerto Rico to New York City and put his hopes up in his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace). The apple of her eye and the pride of the neighborhood – “the best of us,” as Kevin puts it – Nina is a student at Stanford.
She returns home for the summer plagued by an ambivalence that is as much a part of the Heights as open fire hydrants and piragua carts. (Miranda, who originally took on Usnavi’s role on stage, comes across as a salesman of these syrup-soaked treats, a man whose arch-nemesis is the controversial New York character Mister Softee.)
Usnavi remembers his childhood in the Dominican Republic as the best time of his life. To him, this island represents roots, origins, identity – everything Washington Heights is to Nina. He dreams of reuniting by returning to his father’s homeland. She is expected to reinvent herself in a place that Kevin, who never graduated from high school, can hardly imagine. There may not be a place like home, but in America home is hardly ever one place.
Miranda and Hudes made “In the Heights” long before “Hamilton,” but in some ways the film version, which came in the wake of the behemoth “Hamilton,” works like a sequel. Like Alexander Hamilton (whom Ramos performed on Broadway after Miranda left), Usnavi is an orphan and an immigrant. His neighborhood is named after Hamilton’s Commander-in-Chief. And its people are planting their flags – Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and more – in the land of the $ 10 bill. The city may be a paradise where “the streets are made of music”, but it is also a purgatory of cold winters, deep-rooted fanaticism and bureaucratic cruelty.