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How “In the Heights” Could Reverse Script On Hollywood’s Fragmented History With Latino Culture

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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical presents the range of origins of Latino immigrants in a way that very few major studio films have done before

In “Carnaval Del Barrio”, one of the many breathtaking numbers of “In The Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the alleys of Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan, are draped in flags of all countries. where immigrants come from. as the cast shouts “Alza la bandera!” – “Raise the flag!” The flags of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and even Jamaica all fly as the characters express their pride not only for their nationality, but also for the community they inhabit.

“My mother is Dominican-Cuban, my father is Chilean and RP,” sings gossip-parlor worker Carla. “Which means I’m Chili-Dominica-Curican… but I’m just saying I’m from Queens!” “

This awareness of the broad spectrum of Latino immigrant cultures is present in every second of Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, from Puerto Rican piraguas served on hot summer days to Cuban guayaberas and Panama hats worn by dancers as Abuela Claudia (Olga Mendiz) reflects on her mother’s decision to leave Havana in the song “Paciencia Y Fe”. They are, to quote Claudia, “little details that tell the world that we are not invisible”.

Ma Rainey's black stockings

Chon Noriega, a professor at the UCLA School of Film, Television and Theater and former director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, said “In The Heights” is a welcome departure from the Hollywood trend for decades to no not only to stereotype Latinos as maids, gang-bangers and sex symbols but also to homogenize the different cultures of Latin America even in films which show this culture in a positive light.

It’s a problem that dates back to the end of the silent movie era in the early 1930s, when Hollywood took advantage of the boom in “talkies” and made films in Spanish. These films, along with imports from the rising Mexican film scene, spawned uniquely Spanish cinemas like the Azteca Theater in Los Angeles. But Noriega says that unlike their Mexico City counterparts, Spanish Hollywood films didn’t care much about cultural accuracy.

“They would launch movies where all the characters would come from different parts of Mexico and different countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Spanish speaking audience would laugh at the screen because they speak all the wrong dialects and idioms for those people. characters’ backgrounds, “he said.” By comparison, the films that came out of Mexico at the time shaped the characters around the actors who played them, so if they choose a famous Cuban singer, then her character will also be Cuban.

Even Hollywood movies that addressed the real issues faced by Latino immigrants had their own issues. The acclaimed 1961 adaptation of “West Side Story” turned “America,” one of the most popular songs from the Leonard Bernstein-Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim musical, into an exchange between the Puerto Rican characters in the film about the promise and discrimination faced by immigrants. in the hands of a racist white culture, all wrapped up in an iconic song and dance number that remains one of the most famous in movie history.

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