“I used to swim in that pool all the time.”
“I worked as a secretary in a dentist’s office on that street corner.”
“That’s the George Washington Bridge!”
“I played with my friends in that park every weekend.”
My grandmother chattered like that throughout our viewing of Lin Manuel Miranda’s new movie, In the Heights, which takes place in the neighborhood of Washington Heights. Normally, when she provides running commentary in the movie theater, it annoys me and I try to shush her, but this time it moved me to tears. Surrounded by empty seats that had been blocked off so we could social distance from our fellow moviegoers, my abuela and I sat next to each other and marveled at her childhood home being celebrated on the big screen for the first time in her life, passing between us the first bag of butter-flavored, oversalted popcorn that either of us had eaten in over a year.
When the movie was originally announced in January 2020 before its release was deferred due to the pandemic, my grandmother texted me about it: “Show this to Kristy [my mom] and put it on your calendars. Lin Manuel Miranda produces this movie about Washington Heights where I grew up. Near the George Washington bridge. Can’t wait to see it.” She was so excited that there would be a movie about her home in the Heights, and she frequently brought it up on our phone calls. A year and a half later, and I was able to visit her in Oklahoma where she now lives, and we got the chance to watch it together just like she had hoped. Although we were almost 1500 miles from her childhood home, it allowed her to revisit her old haunts, and to show me the sights and sounds of her past. She had been wanting to see the movie for weeks but refused to go alone. At some point, after the third time she pointed at the GWB in the background of a scene, I realized that she wanted to share her memories of Washington Heights with someone. The culture and setting in the film represented, to her, a vindication of all her Puerto Rican heritage and upbringing, and to have the chance to share that with her granddaughter must have been a momentous experience for her.
The director, Jon Chu (of Crazy Rich Asians), spends a good portion of the film on sweeping, gorgeously-lit shots of Washington Heights, a move which establishes the influence of the setting on the identities and cultures of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. In several moments of the film, one of the characters tells her love interest: “Shh…let me just…listen to my block.” In a movie musical like this one, the lack of music is often more notable than its presence. Even when the actors aren’t singing, an overture typically plays in the background to accompany the rhythm of the dialogue. But in these scenes, the camera cuts away from the two characters and the theater is filled with the sounds of children playing hopscotch, the rattle of wire fences as pigeons alight on them, and the distant sound of the A train rumbling by.
By the end of the film, when I looked over at the tears streaming down her cheeks as she pointed out the GWB for the last time, I realized that despite all the musical numbers and intersecting storylines, Washington Heights itself was the true main character. The power of setting in this narrative became clear to me because I was experiencing it with someone who had lived in the streets that were being projected on screen. It became more and more obvious how much a movie with the title “In the Heights” could be a love letter to a place, rather than just one people—especially a place as diverse as Washington Heights. For my grandmother, that meant more than I could have ever expected it to.
After we left the theater, Abuela called my grandpa to tell him that we were on the way home. When he asked how the movie was, she told him that the music and plot was just okay but enthused for minutes about how beautiful her old neighborhood looked: “just like I remember it.” In the Heights is a movie all about home. And for my abuela, that notion of home is confused—she spent her early childhood in a convent run by nuns, then moved to the Heights, then out to New Jersey, California, and finally to Oklahoma where she lives now. But for 2 hours and 23 minutes, in that movie theater, she wept for the opportunity to hold her granddaughter’s hand and point out the places where she had spent her youth.