'In the Heights' defies stereotypes, portrays Latinos in 3 dimensions

·4 min read

In the opening scenes of "In The Heights," opening Thursday in theaters and on HBO Max, we see vignettes from daily life that could be in any small town. People are getting ready for work and kids are going to school as Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, sings about the friends and family on his block. “Everybody’s got a job, everybody’s got a dream,” Ramos raps about New York City’s Washington Heights.

But "In The Heights" is much more than a fun summer movie. It is an outstanding showcase of Latino talent. It is the unusual major film that is centered on Latinos, and in a positive way. Not only does it represent an antidote to stereotypes about Latinos and immigrants, it’s groundbreaking in terms of visibility and representation.


In The Heights movie spotlights Latino talent

"In The Heights" was a hit off-Broadway in 2007, then moved to Broadway in 2008, where it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The movie was filmed in 2019, but its release was delayed by the pandemic. Now global audiences will be able to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tribute to his old neighborhood – and the show that launched the career of the creator of “Hamilton.”

Even in 2021, when “diversity” and “inclusion” are entertainment industry buzzwords, a film with a mostly Latino cast is rare. Although Latinos are 18% of the U.S. population, a study last year by the University of Southern California (USC) found that Latinos made up only 4.9% of speaking roles in top Hollywood films. This disparity is especially glaring considering that, pre-pandemic, Latinos led other ethnic groups in movie-going.

Read the Review: Infectious movie musical 'In the Heights' joyfully salsas past its shortcomings

When U.S. audiences do see Latinos portrayed on film, generally they are presented as being in crisis. An earlier University of Southern California study noted that Latinos in movies are often depicted as living in poverty or as criminals. No surprise there; everyone has seen movies with Latino characters trying to cross the border or fleeing from drug cartels. Though most U.S. Latinos (67%) are native-born, on film Latinos seem to be routinely presented as immigrants.

Lin-Manuel Miranda on June 12, 2016. 
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Lin-Manuel Miranda on June 12, 2016. Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

By contrast, “In The Heights” offers a vibrant depiction of the joys and struggles of Latino lives. While it takes place in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, its central conflicts are nonetheless universal. One young character stresses about college, meanwhile her neighbors worry about gentrification. Several characters run their own businesses. “In The Heights” portrays people dealing with love and loss, financial worries and family issues – in short, people with three-dimensional lives.

“In The Heights” is also unique because it depicts a range of Latino characters: schemers and strivers, young lovers, and multi-generational Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban-American families. Typically, when Hollywood does show Latinos, it focuses on a single population, like the Cuban-American family in the re-boot of “One Day at a Time” or the Mexican-American Quintanilla family in “Selena.” With “In The Heights,” audiences can see a diverse Latino community of all ages, colors and backgrounds. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a major U.S. film where the hero, heroine, supporting cast and comic relief were all played by Latino actors?

"In The Heights" defies traditional casting

Just as African-Americans and Asian-Americans embraced, respectively, “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” “In The Heights” arrives at a pivotal moment. Many Latinos felt under attack during the Trump administration, and then came the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is refreshing to see Latinos in the news cycle in an affirming way, as opposed to grim coverage of border crises and anti-immigrant scapegoating.

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True, “In The Heights” is a traditional movie musical, right down to its lavish Busby Berkeley-style production numbers. That doesn’t diminish its significance. For the Latino stars of the film, like Ramos and Olga Merediz, this is an opportunity for a breakout role. For Latino audiences, it’s a chance to take pride in our culture. And for everyone else, it’s a reminder that Latinos live, work and pursue their dreams, just like other Americans.

With its Spanglish, salsa dancing, and infectious beats, “In The Heights” presents the Latino experience with authenticity and affection. It is a celebration of Latino heritage that America needs right now.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @RaulAReyes

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'In The Heights' represents diverse Latino culture without stereotypes