Sept. 15 marked the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
The annual celebration of Hispanic and Latino history and culture, which runs through Oct. 15, found its beginning in 1968 when California Congressman George E. Brown first announced it as a way to represent the large Latino community in the state. Shortly after Brown introduced the concept, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill to officially mark the week—it didn’t expand to a month for another 20 years—in the national calendar.
“[There has been a] great contribution to our national heritage made by our people of Hispanic descent—not only in the field of culture, business, and science, but also through their valor in battle,” Johnson said in the inaugural proclamation of the bill.
Composer, lyricist, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of these contributors.
Born in 1980 to Puerto Rican parents, Miranda grew up in Washington Heights, a primarily Latino neighborhood in New York City. The rich culture he was raised in had an enormous impact on his life—between the diverse community, the work ethic shown by his immigrant parents, and the opportunity to perform in various high school musical productions, Miranda knew he wanted to lead a life making music that mattered.
“I realized that the only way for me to have a career in this world that I loved was to write it,” Miranda said in an interview with the Rockefeller Foundation.
This realization led to the making of Miranda’s first stage production, In The Heights (2008), which he wrote at 19 while studying theatre at Wesleyan University. Now a box-office hit, the musical is the sum of everything Miranda and his peers experienced while growing up in Washington Heights.
The show is centered around a community of largely Dominican Republic descent in a fictionalized version of Miranda’s own childhood neighborhood. This influence is apparent, especially in the bilingual nature of the show’s songs and dialogue, and the 2021 movie version was even filmed in the real-life neighborhood.
Less appealing aspects of Miranda’s childhood also helped inspire In The Heights, too—namely, the lack of representation (and good representation at that) of Latinos in the shows he performed in.
“I was very conscious of the way Latinos have been portrayed before on stage,” Miranda said in an interview with Swarthmore. “I was Bernardo in sixth grade, I directed ‘West Side Story’ my senior year in high school. I saw Paul Simon’s ‘The Capeman’ my senior year in high school as well, and that show just about broke my heart. Not so much for the show, but the fact that it was 40 years after ‘West Side Story’ and we still had knives in our hands and we were still gang members.
“There were things I very consciously did not want to represent that I feel like Latinos and crime are very overrepresented in the media,” he said. “I didn’t feel the need to represent that at all, that wasn’t the story I was interested in telling. I think the biggest thing is I really wanted it to feel honest to my experience and Quiara, my co-writer, her experience growing up in a Latino neighborhood.”
The experiences Miranda attempted to capture are shared with a huge number of the population. The number of Latino Americans being celebrated this month has grown exponentially in the past decade. The U.S. Hispanic population in 2020 passed 62 million, according to the Pew Research Center. Those of Mexican origin account for over half of these, followed by those of Puerto Rican descent, like Miranda.
Instead of following the stereotype he’d seen so many times in other shows, Miranda wrote In The Heights as a celebration of Latino culture. The plot follows several young peers—one who wants to rediscover his roots, one who is dealing with being a minority at college, another who is working hard to fulfill her career goals—as they navigate their largely typical lives. There are no gangs, no dramatic fight scenes, no overwhelming stereotypes like the ones Miranda saw in shows growing up.
Instead, the story revels in themes of love, hope, determination, and hard work. It stars a mainly Latino cast playing a tight-knit, supportive community, and its music has distinct Latin sounds interwoven throughout. The characters are not overly romanticized, nor are they stifled with stereotypes and labels—they’re simply human.
“I started writing In The Heights because I didn’t feel seen,” Miranda said in a Tweet. “And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us—ALL of us—to feel seen.”