Recently a friend passed a review of one of my favorite musicals, In The Heights. The review was written by Nashville magazine theater critic, Martin Brady. Well, at least the first draft was. The one that wasn’t supposed to see the light of day. The one that so blatantly demonstrates his distaste for not only the musical, but the culture it represents.
And though I see distaste and racism, like many other offended readers, what I see even more is a complete lack of understanding of the Latino culture, in this case Dominican/Puerto Rican, and a demonstrated ignorance of the neighborhood of Washington Heights.
I live in Washington Heights. I am both Dominican and Puerto Rican. I have seen the play, twice. I loved it, because I related to it completely. Because, for better or worse, it was genuine in its representation of not only my neighborhood, but of the people who live here.
Now, I’m not talking about the affluent, newly name “Hudson Heights” recently taken over by downtown baby boomers and artists looking for cheap rent and more space. I’m talking about those below Broadway, along St. Nicholas, Amsterdam and Audobon Avenue. I’m talking about the lady who everyday tries to sell me a fritura, or the dude who knows better than to charge me more than 50 cents for a frio frio.
I’m talking about the guy that stands outside my bedroom window yelling ” Cinco por un peso!” repeatedly, or the 99 cents store owner who plays merengue really loudly because he believes it will make people feel more welcomed to come inside.
I’m talking about the kids who hang out on the corner store drinking maltas and flirting with the girls, and the old lady who sits on the stoop every Summer smiling at my kids and pointing out when their shoes are untied. And the old men who gather on the block to play dominoes and argue about politics and elections going on back home.
I’m talking about those very same people that Mr. Brady and every other ignorant, blind person fails to see beyond what their overprivileged, racist little eyes allow.
I feel sorry for any writer, traveler, human being who can’t see past the “exotic” “melting pot” “cool culture” in front of them to notice the people, understand the history, and respect the story behind it all.
We are more than salsa, sun, beach, rum, and empanadas. Yes we can be loud. I am. Very loud. And yes, we love to dance. Our music is not just joyous and festive, its the multiple rebirths of stories of slavery, survival, and broken hearts. Stories that are passed on from generation to generation.
Our food isn’t just interesting and flavorful, it is the collection, often of memories, from women in our families. Many of whom didn’t read or write but could feed entire families from the magic of their cuisine.
We came to this country, like the founders of this nation did before us, in search of a better life, to succeed. To survive. To live out a dream. That is what In The Heights, the play, is about. When you walk down the streets of Washington Heights, that is what you see till this day.
The magic of the pen is wasted on Mr. Brady and other writers like him who can’t see or hear past the stereotypes of their ignorant logic. Not only is he blinded by his ignorance, he lacks what it takes to do his job as a theater critic.
I hope that others take the gift that has been given to them as writers more seriously and push themselves to better understand a people before writing about them.