Art & Culture
In the Heights: A Tale of Love, Culture, and Hair
By Lucy Wu
Volume 2 Issue 1
October 8, 2021
Image provided by In the Heights
Over the past summer, I spent sunny days outside in the city, soaking in the vibrancy of the culture and stories of other people like vitamin D. After my excursions, I’d savor brisk nights talking about anything and everything with friends at the table. So, when my friend asked if I wanted to watch In the Heights together at her house, it was an easy choice: of course, I would.
Immediately, I was cast into a world where music is synonymous with living. It permeates everything in the story, from getting your hair done in the salon to conversations at the dinner table to pivotal, life-changing choices. And mind you, it’s not a linear story either. Sure, it’s chronological for the most part as it takes place over the span of three days (interwoven with flashbacks and flash-forwards), but it’s really the intersection of many stories, including those of Usnavi, Vanessa, Benny, Sonny, and of course, Abuela. But with my mind still spinning from the constant dancing, music, and plotline, the character that commanded my attention the most was Nina Rosario.
When you first encounter Nina, words that come to mind immediately are intelligent, charming, and beautiful. So brilliant and hardworking in fact, that’s she’s returning to Stanford University in the fall. When she comes home to Washington Heights for the summer, everyone and their mother knows her name, and they welcome her enthusiastically. It’s obvious she’s the jewel of the neighborhood; everyone is in awe of her glimmering in her accomplishments and dazzled by what she still has yet to attain. She has access to opportunities and ambitions they cannot even dream of, and that’s saying a lot for a community that has a 6-minute danceathon on just the prospects of winning $96,000 in the lottery.
And yet if everything were perfectly sparkling in the sunlight, we wouldn’t have a 143-minute musical produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda now, would we? But it’s her summer, and she’s come back to the Heights to reconnect with her family and friends, and most importantly, her culture.
Nina’s story is best told through the context of her hair, which is an incredibly important detail and a vital part of Hispanic culture. After the initial flurry of constant chatter and “Oh my god Nina, we’ve missed you so much,” we get a moment with her just walking the streets. Her voice is like a lark, rising up and above the buildings that hold the history of her life, and yet she’s not as jubilant as she was before when talking with her friends. Something is in the air, humid and suffocating from the tension. She’s graceful and tall, holding her head up high, but I notice her highlighted hair is pin-straight, and not curly like in the movie posters, which gives me my first clue. And then her words reveal she’s plagued with Impostor Syndrome and racked with guilt, adamant she is not fit for the university, and will never be able to keep up, a disappointment to her family and community who had believed in her unconditionally. Nina is holding a secret, and we wait for her to reveal the truth.
“No Me Diga”
Ushered into a salon chair run by the infamous “salon ladies” for a makeover, Nina’s external transformation mirrors her internal metamorphosis. The salon is bustling with fashion and hair beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, and they chant to her: “Tell me something I don’t know.” And so, she reveals that she dropped out of Stanford.
But why would someone with so much promise and support drop out? At an intense argument at the dinner table, she mentions the fact that the institution tries to put on a facade of diversity and inclusiveness when really, she’s the one being insulted when students call her a “waitress” behind the scenes. To rub salt in the wound, her father must sacrifice his business to afford her tuition, which only compounds the issue and leads her to choose not to go back.
In hindsight, I see her using her hair to mask her identity and “blend-in,” because her curly hair would be seen as too unruly and “ethnic” for the people surrounding her. It’s clear the community at Stanford will never match her beloved neighborhood, and for that, she hides to avoid discrimination, to avoid getting hurt, and to avoid tarnishing her culture. It’s also for the superficial things, like wearing her hair straight, that she doesn’t feel like she has a sense of belonging. However, once the salon ladies are finished with their appointment with her, she embraces her curly hair once again, symbolizing her acceptance of self and culture. For the rest of the movie, she wears her hair naturally, and she’s more at ease now that she’s revealed her secret and true feelings. Only in The Heights does she truly fit in, and does not actively hide being different.
“When the Sun Goes Down”
Spending her summer days with her family and friends, immersed in her community, impacts Nina’s worldview. While attending a protest, she learns Sonny, a friend’s cousin, is unable to attend college because he is an undocumented immigrant. Revitalized with a sense of purpose to help undocumented immigrants, Nina resolves to go back to Stanford. To provide closure, Benny, Nina’s previous boyfriend with whom she broke up before attending Stanford, decides to reconnect. It’s a sweet moment for the young lovers as they dance up the side of the building, watching the sunset in the distance behind the Brooklyn Bridge with a renewed sense of hope. But what stood out to me most was her hair in the scene. It’s purposefully different than any other moment in the movie, and she wears it in a braided crown, traditionally worn by black women as a protective hairstyle. Intentional or not, just as protective hairstyles are worn to shield textured hair from elemental damage so it can be worn natural later, this symbolizes how she will defend herself from the discrimination she will inevitably face, but still preserve her culture and share it with the world.
While there has been some critique for the movie surrounding what was considered by some as an insufficient number of “dark-skinned Latinx actors in prominent roles”, it’s clear there was dedicated effort put into the cultural and regional details that bring the movie to life. Things like hair and clothes are subtle details that may go unnoticed in everyday life but serve as communicators of culture and heritage. All hair types are beautiful and should be celebrated, just as all phases of Nina’s hair should be appreciated and considered reflective of her character development. As I bask in a moment of thought, I wonder what subtle details of my life share my culture with the world – and try not to take their importance for granted.