In the Heights and the Hope of Exiles

Emanuel Padilla

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
(Psalm 137:1)

In 1951, my abuela Regina led our family on a pilgrimage from Puerto Rico to a neighborhood in New York City called Washington Heights.

As a child, I thought this move was voluntary, motivated by big city sueñitos (dreams). In truth, my family was one of thousands pressured to leave the island in the late ’40s and ’50s as collateral to ensure the “success” of Operation Bootstrap. In the ’60s, after the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, immigrants from the Dominican Republic also made their mass exodus to cities on the east coast of the United States. For many of these Caribbean exiles, the eventual goal was always to return to their islands; they never intended to stay in the U.S. mainland permanently. The dream they chased was to work hard enough to secure a stable future back home. Seventy years later, my abuela still yearns for her return trip. She still dreams of stepping foot on beach sands. Her heart aches with homesick desire for Puerto Rico.

In the Heights, a movie adaptation of the stage musical by Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a story about such exiles. It opens with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young bodega owner, fulfilling a fundamental role in exilic communities: he is the storyteller. He gathers children and shares the legacy of Washington Heights’s exiles: “Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Nueva York, en un barrio called Washington Heights. Say it, so it doesn’t disappear. . .” These words transport the children and viewer to a romanticized, brilliant version of the barrio. One corner—framed by a bodega, taxi company, beauty salon, and pharmacy—becomes the stage where characters struggle to find, make, and keep their sense of home.

The story Usnavi tells reveals the compounding effects of gentrification and immigration law on the Heights. In the face of these external forces, some feel powerless, others accept imperfect escapes, and the neighborhood starts to disappear. As is common to musicals—which pack dramatic details in brief lines of song—Usnavi summarizes the threat against the Heights’s exiles with these lines from the opening number:

Two months ago somebody bought Ortega's
Our neighbors started packin' up and pickin' up
And ever since the rents went up
It's gotten mad expensive, but we live with just enough
In the heights

In Usnavi’s telling, this corner is the escuela (school) of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a Cuban immigrant serving as the spiritual mother to all the barrio kids. She teaches secret recipes, family histories, and reminds her children to have “paciencia y fe” (patience and faith). Abuela Claudia is the steadying hand needed by a diaspora always on the move; their resilience is steeled by her faith. Abuela Claudia moved to New York in 1943 and—like my abuela Regina—faced racism, grappled with English, and worked hard jobs to support her family. Through her story, the challenges of the Heights are reframed as struggles of faith and perseverance. The legacy of Abuela Claudia—and all the abuelas she represents—is the long-suffering hope of her people.

Telling this story in the form of a musical says something about the way exilic people bear with their exile. They sing. They prayerfully sing. In the Bible, the psalmist records an instance where Israel could not sing. Ripped from their lands and on their way to Babylon, they were told by their captors to sing “the songs of Zion.” Instead, the prisoners of war wept. The psalmist, however, captures the significance of the songs for the Jewish exiles, writing, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.” The songs carry the hope and memory of Jerusalem. In singing them, Israel rehearses their identity as God’s chosen people. They remember who they are.

TC Podcast: Nostalgia (In the Heights, Lucy Dacus' Home Video)

In the Heights offers an example of a song of remembrance with “Carnaval del Barrio,” which is a showcase for the film’s pan-Latino cast. (It should be noted that the filmmakers have been criticized for not including more of an Afro-Latino presence to accurately represent the demographics of Washington Heights.) This song opens with Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), another matriarch of the Heights, challenging the multinational community to shake off their growing despondency in the midst of a lengthy power outage. She reminds them of Puerto Rico, of the Christmas rituals that filled her life with joy, and the ways Latinos celebrate despite suffering. Daniela sings, “We don't need electricidad. / Get off your butt, avanza! / Saca la maraca / Bring your tambourine / Come and join the parranda!” The people respond, dividing into brightly colored subsets and raising their flags in honor of their homelands. As they dance in Afro-Caribbean step to the salsa, another character sings a traditional refrain for diaspora:

P'arriba esa bandera (hey!)
Alzala donde quiera (hey!)
Recuerdo de mi tierra
Me acuerdo de mi tierra
Esa bonita bandera! (Hey!)
Contiene mi alma entera! (Hey!)
Y cuando yo me muera
Entierrame en mi tierra!

The refrain can be summarized and translated: “I raise my flag in memory and honor of my land. This beautiful flag carries my soul, and when I die, bury me in my land.” It is repeated a second time in response to objections from younger exiles refusing to join the celebration. This song and its repeated refrain encourage the diaspora of the Heights in remembrance of who they are as an exiled people.

In the 1940s, Puerto Rican composer Noel Estrada wrote “En Mi Viejo San Juan.” The lyrics express a deep longing to return and find the capital city of Puerto Rico just as the singer remembers it. Many Puerto Rican diaspora consider it their anthem. They sing it as they continue en la brega (in the struggle). Abuela Regina introduced me to this song. I hear her sing it each time a tragedy strikes Puerto Rico and she wishes to return. While she continues here in the United States, she teaches the other valuable lessons that abuelas must teach. Like Abuela Claudia, Regina is the prayer guardian for her children. She comforts them as they face discrimination. She strengthens them with words of faith when they meet financial insecurity. She encourages patience as the family makes home in their exile.

By using their voice to steel the faith of the diaspora, Abuela Claudia and Regina are echoes of Jeremiah’s prophetic voice. In Jeremiah 29, the prophet encourages the Israelites to commit to exilic life. “Build houses and settle down. . . . Increase in number there; do not decrease.” He goes on to instruct Israel to seek the good of Babylon while they wait for the Lord to return them to Jerusalem.

Jeremiah’s letter concludes with the promise that exile will end, that the Lord would come to gather his people from all their scattered places. Abuelas like Claudia and Regina remind exiles to plant gardens, build houses, have families, and seek the good of their exilic home. They speak of future hope and of the value of long-suffering faith. One day, Christ will return to gather exiles and bring them truly and ultimately home. Until then, exiles keep singing with paciencia y fe.

Topics: Movies