Exploring Hamilton’s Magic in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Education-Themed “In the Heights”
April 18, 2016
I‘m dying to see Hamilton, the sensational hip-hop story of the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. A Variety review praises Hamilton’s “wonderfully humanizing view of history … a nation built by immigrants who occasionally need to be reminded where they came from.”
That’s the magic of the arts. Through seeing, hearing and feeling history – we get educated about those who aspire to create a better world. But what turned out to be even more magical to this education policy nerd is that Hamilton’s composer – Lin-Manuel Miranda – had also written a play focusing on educational equity. And just like Hamilton, this play speaks to the heart of how individuals find their way through and make sense of our American ideals.
“In the Heights” tells the story of first-generation Americans from the Caribbean — Dominicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans – living in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City.
Nina, the daughter of Kevin and Camila Rosario, who run the neighborhood taxi service, is beloved by everyone. Her smarts and ambition will make her the “one who made it out.” She’ll be the first in her family, and in the tight-knit barrio, to go to college – Stanford, no less.
Yet she returns home from her freshman year at Stanford to reluctantly tell her parents that she had to drop out of college. Because she was short on money for textbooks, she had to work two jobs to supplement her scholarships. But because she didn’t have enough time to read those books anyway, she couldn’t keep up in her courses, and ended up losing her academic scholarships.
“I know that I’m letting you down…” she sings.
Her struggle and frustration mirror those in the community. In a notable Blackout scene, the neighborhood loses electricity – a metaphor for their lack of political power and a light forward. The characters sing:
“We are Powerless!”
Nina’s father is devastated he can’t financially provide for his daughter and sells the family business to fund her return to school. The weakness in the story is that Abuela Claudia’s winning lottery ticket solves everyone’s problems.
Many young people share Nina’s experience, minus the lottery win. They work hard in school and are the hope of their communities and forbearers’ sacrifice. They believe that attaining a postsecondary degree will put them on the path of full societal and economic participation. Then, despite all their promise, they fall short. Some find that they were woefully unprepared for college, despite getting good grades in high school, and simply can’t catch up with better prepared students (see our Out of Pocket Study). Others, like Nina, cruelly learn that economic realities make it too difficult for them to complete higher education. According to the 2015 Pell Institute’s Equity Indicators Report, among those who first entered a four-year college, 76 percent of students from the highest income quartile had obtained a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with less than half (47 percent) of those in the bottom quartile.
High schools and community groups are now staging In the Heights, exposing new audiences to the vibrant Spanish-infused lyrics and Hispanic immigrant experience. Hopefully, viewers come away with increased understanding of the universal desire to want the best for your children, how economic realities limit the ability to attain the American Dream, and how we should better assure that the path to college completion includes equitable access, affordability, and supports for all.
P.S. I will gladly accept Hamilton tickets to help write a follow-up piece!
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