In mid-October, I decided to audition for Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In The Heights reproduced by Princeton University Players as their winter show. The musical which takes place in Washington Heights, follows the story of a close-knit community of first- and second-generation immigrants living in the barrio. In The Heights is my favorite musical for many reasons, from the crazy dance numbers to the comedic genius Lin Manuel-Miranda effortlessly squeezes into this story full of struggle and heartbreak. At the time, though, it was my favorite musical, because it was filled with songs that my friends and I felt finally put into words the emotions we were feeling as we prepared to leave home for college. I can still picture my hands gripping the steering wheel of my small bug as we belted out, “They are all counting on me to succeed.” Never having participated in any type of musical production in high school, I didn’t see myself as a likely candidate. I knew, however, that I wanted to be a part of this narrative on campus.
I was so nervous to audition. I remember signing up, deleting my audition slot, then finally forcing myself to sign up again and go through with it. I remember my hands shaking as I waited outside to be called in. All of my fears slipped away after Victoria Davidjohn ’19, director of In The Heights, patiently guided me through scales and cracked a few jokes. The excitement and support she expressed during my audition made me happy just to know I pushed myself and made it out, regardless of whether or not I got a part. After getting a callback and landing the role of Camila, a middle-aged mother dealing with a failing business and a family on the verge of falling apart, I was psyched to get to work.
While rehearsals started out slowly, we soon found ourselves rehearsing for upwards of eight hours as we worked diligently to stage every scene, learn every note, and do justice to this show that spoke to so many of our own backgrounds and insecurities. These countless hours brought us together and gave me some of the most cherished friendships I’ve made at Princeton. At the end of the day, it may have been that Victoria was seamlessly able to cast people who would inevitably get along and become friends, but I think it much more likely that it wasn’t Victoria’s genius that brought us together but rather the common passion to tell this story at Princeton, a story that is not often enough told and shared. In the Heights is about a community very similar to my own that I’ve found is so hard to put into words and express to others. While there are so many things wrong within my own community, it is still the most beautiful place, and it has always made me feel like I “lived at the top of the world.”
I cannot speak for every Hispanic person’s experience within elite spaces; however, I can speak for my own. While there is the pressure every student at an elite institution feels to do well and excel despite the never-ending course load and constant pressure to do more, to be better, there’s also an added pressure to do right by the individuals who played a role in making these opportunities possible. A pressure to be “successful,” not for the sake of getting into a good graduate school, landing a better internship, or even earning a higher paycheck, but rather for the sake of not letting anyone in your community down. This musical expresses the pressure of being “the one who made it out.” This feeling is not universal for students at elite institutions like Princeton, because for many of them coming to this opportunity-filled and privileged place was not a shot in the dark. It was expected, almost guaranteed. However, for me and many other Hispanic kids growing up in their own barrios across the country, attending an elite institution feels fleeting; as if one day we might wake up from this dream-like reality.
But this show speaks to much more than my experience at Princeton—it touches on the struggles of finding a home in a community that is constantly degraded and gentrified by society. It’s about dreams that come true a little too late, about family and the struggles to accept difference, and it’s about love, the loss it makes us feel and motivation it gives us to strive under the worst conditions. Coming together with a group of people who have either grown up or understand the importance of growing up in these places filled with poverty and constant struggle but also such color and diversity bound us together. Despite the countless hours spent in the same room, we couldn’t seem to stray from one another. We spent all of our time outside of rehearsal in constant communication, meeting up for meals, study dates, and at times to just sit around. Our bond gave the musical’s message strength in our own Princeton context. As Victoria said to me, she wasn’t trying to create Lin Manuel-Miranda’s version of In The Heights, but rather an In The Heights that was created by and for Princeton students.
While I cannot speak enough about the importance of bringing this story to Princeton’s campus, I cannot claim that this production drastically changed everyone’s view or understanding of the experience (and at times struggle) of becoming a part of a more “elite” community like Princeton’s when coming from a different background. The countless opportunities often feel like burdens as we struggle to navigate and balance our lives. But whether or not this production actually allowed people on campus to understand the immigrant and minority experience in the United States, it opened a door for more diverse theatre productions on campus. The cast of this show demonstrated how people of different backgrounds that are not usually center stage in theatre productions at Princeton will come together to tell this story, their story.
The production of In The Heights not only reached new limits in Princeton’s theatre community but also impacted my own experience. This production opened my eyes to the amount of incredible individuals from such diverse circles that are now a part of my own community at Princeton. Each night before a performance we would stand in a circle and repeat a mantra that Carl Sung ’20, ensemble member, lead us in chanting: “That no matter what happens tonight…I will leave this show a better actor, a better singer, a better performer, a better person.” I believe that I left this show a better person, and just as Victoria said on our closing night, this show continues to breath through us in the slips of phrases and melodies that continue to follow us.
Nothing I write could ever encompass all of the beautiful memories and people being a part of this show brought into my life. But I can say this: as I stood on stage on that final sold-out Saturday and belted out the final lyrics to the finale, “We’re home!” for the first time since arriving on Princeton’s campus I felt like I had a place on this campus. I felt at home.