“We had to assert our dignity in small ways. That’s why these napkins are beautiful. That’s why my mother’s gloves were beautiful. Little details that tell the world we are not invisible.”— Abuelita, In the Heights
Over the years, the topic of immigration has dominated discussions, fueling debates and becoming a controversial subject. Oftentimes, in these discussions, people fail to recognize the humanity and dignity of immigrants. Usually seen as numbers on a chart or criminalized by unjust stereotypes, immigrants face scrutiny and judgment that diminish their self-worth and pride. In the film In the Heights, Abuelita, a fortuitous pillar in the Washington Heights community, beautifully crafts napkins. Although napkins are usually plain and simple, her napkins are unique and represent beauty and grace. Her designs signify her hope and a sense of dignity that she has kept. She wants to emphasize that although immigrants are negatively stereotyped in society and treated inhumanely, they are still human, and deserve to be seen and heard.
If you’ve ever heard of the hit broadway musical Hamilton, then you probably know about In the Heights. Released in June 2021, In the Heights is a vivacious and captivating film telling the story of an unforgettable block: Washington Heights. The New York City neighborhood prides itself on its persevering, tight-knit, and endlessly dreaming community, and the film captures the challenges and aspirations of many immigrants as they navigate their journeys in the U.S. The story was first portrayed as a musical in the early 2000s, created by renowned actor, singer, and songwriter Lin Manuel Miranda - the creative mind behind the blockbuster hit Hamilton - and playwright and lyricist Quiara Alegría Hudes. While the original musical focused only loosely on immigration (Sandoval-Strausz), In The Heights has flourished into an instrument for bringing light to the experiences of immigrants and conveying immigrants’ dignity.
As many characters in the film experience challenges, Usnavi, a young bodega owner, yearns for the unmatched feeling of home, struggling to find this in Manhattan after growing up in the Dominican Republic. While running his community bodega, Usnavi serves the staple “morning cafecito” to every member of the community with an immeasurable grin. This action brings not only caffeine to each person entering the bodega, but it brings hope to his community. These are the small details that tell the world immigrants are not invisible. Similar to Abuelita, Usnavi’s actions uplift the community and bring dignity to the small aspects of their lives. Although his thoughtful actions are small, they have great meaning and purpose. Not only do they show the tight-knit nature of Washington Heights, they show the community’s ability to unite and inspire hope amongst each other. Their futures are uncertain, but their faith and optimistic mindset hold them together.
In a polarized America, In The Heights highlights our similarities. It stresses the importance of a strong community and a loving network of people who support each other in times of trepidation. The film allows viewers to step inside immigrants' shoes and see them for their passion, hard-work, and “paciencia y fe” - two concepts Abuelita emphasizes throughout the movie. Immigrants face countless obstacles while adjusting to new cultures, learning new languages, finding new jobs, and raising families in often unwelcoming environments. In the end, Usnavi comes to appreciate the memories he’s made in Manhattan and comes to think of this new land as his home. The characters in the movie decide to be optimistic about the possibilities of a brighter future. They choose to put their family and work at the forefront of their lives despite their challenges. The movie offers a new perspective of immigrants, highlighting their tenacity and grit.
In the Heights tells a story of a strong community of immigrants that want to feel seen and heard. Scenes of Abuelita with her beautiful napkins show that even small details make them feel visible to the world. The film inspires immigrants to not lose hope in their futures and encourages Americans to empathize with immigrants, stand as allies, innovate solutions to the challenges immigrants face, and not let immigrants’ voices go unheard.
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