Finding myself “In The Heights”

*Disclaimer: This blog entry has nothing to do with being lost in Washington Heights or traveling through WH. Its a blog on how the Broadway Show In The Heights re-introduced me to myself.

A little over two years ago I was in a really dark place in my life. Well, I shouldn’t say dark, I wasn’t on the verge of suicide or committing a crime. I was, though, about to commit a grave act and marry someone that was clearly NOT for me. It was one of those situations where I was completely lost, didn’t know who the hell I was and thought my happiness was dependent on this one particular person. Everyone around me knew it wasn’t going to work out, but said nothing because they knew I wouldn’t believe them.

My best friend knew this and she didn’t say “Hey, he sucks and is so wrong for you. You deserve better. Oh, and by the way, you’re kind of crappy right now too, where is the real Shirley?” Instead she took me to see In The Heights with the hopes that I would regain some clarity. (BTW If you never saw this Broadway hit, then I suggest you look up the National Tour, like NOW.)

For anyone that’s Puerto Rican, or Hispanic for that matter, and a first generation American, you know the internal struggle most of us face when going off to college, entering the work force and becoming part of the real world. For the first 18 years of our lives we grow up pretty sheltered, believing in coocos (monsters), family dinners every night, the miraculous powers of Vicks Vapor Rub and how to make a mean ass cup of Cafe con leche (coffee with milk). Our parents are our closest allies, and our cousins and siblings are our best friends. We don’t party till 4 am and come home drunk because we’d get our ass beat.  And we say “Bendicion” when we see an older relative because that’s how you show your respect. This “sheltered” lifestyle and culture is one I’ve always been comfortable with and proud of.

But when you’re in love, you change—mostly because you get stupid.
No. I shouldn’t say that. What I mean is, when you’re under the spell of immature love, you get stupid.

And stupid I was—rejecting everything I was and everything I had known. I managed to pick the one Dominican guy who was anything but. Instead he was into heavy metal, didn’t like anything Spanish, had long hair and lived in an all-white upper class neighborhood. When we would talk of our future together, my ideas of what family was were thrown out the window, sacrificed instead for what he believed to be a more proper upbringing.

After months of stupidity, my bestie had had enough and took me to the Richard Rodgers theater to see the story of In The Heights unfold. When the lights went down and Graffiti Pete stepped out onto the dark stage I remember turning to her and asking “what the heck did you bring me to?” And then Usnavi came out. The lights on the stage started to brighten and my neighborhood, my own life, was playing before my very eyes.
I vividly remember sitting at the edge of my seat in anticipation for the next number, waiting to hear whether the songs would have a merengue, salsa or hip-hop influence. I cried when I saw Abuela Claudia because it made me think of my own Abuela Tina. Everything Abuela Claudia did—from feeding the birds bread crumbs to playing the lottery—reminded me of my late grandmother. And when Abuela Claudia dies in the second act, it just brought me back to the day my grandma died—needless to say I cried like a baby.

When the Piragua guy, and beauticians Daniela and Carla began saying their lines, I began nodding my head in fervent agreement and laughing out loud, because if you’re Spanish and you live in The Bronx, like I did (and still do) then you know that 1. the Piragua guy has been your summer icy provider since you were a kid and 2. those beauticians can do hair, but ooooh do they sure love to gossip.

Each of the characters—Nina, Usnavi, Benny, Vanessa, Sonny & those mentioned above—all reminded me of myself. Each longed for something more, something better, something different than what they had at that moment—even if they didn’t acknowledge it, even if they didn’t know what that something else was. Some wanted to leave their lives behind and start anew. Others felt stuck.  And then in an instant their lives changed (abuela Claudia’s death) and perspective was gained. Tragedy and chaos gave way to clarity.

The whole experience was surreal. Eye opening.
And life changing.

I remember when it was all over, looking at my best friend and thanking her. I thanked her repeatedly. Actually, I still thank her till this day.

You see, there I was watching my life story played out right in front of me. All my hopes, fears and obstacles were right there on that stage—as if Lin-Manuel Miranda created the show with me in mind. It was my life he wrote about. And it was beautiful, sheltered, claustrophobic, hysterical, filled with love, family, music and dancing and all these crazy, loving characters. It was my life.  And that was the life I was planning to leave behind, planning to walk away from because I was lost—lost in this immature love that was making me lose sight of myself and the world I love.

Immediately after watching the show I started to re-acknowledge myself. I started to voice my likes and opinions. I realized that I liked me, the real me and I was proud of who I was, who I am, and where I come from. I didn’t have to deny myself to make someone else love me. I didn’t need to change for anyone, and I certainly didn’t need to lose myself to find happiness.

Happiness and contentment was with me all along.
In fact, it was in me the entire time.

So, again, I say thank you to In The Heights and to my best friend Jaissy.

Love you both.

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3 thoughts on “Finding myself “In The Heights”

  1. This is great on so many levels. I’m sure Miranda would love to know that his work triggered an epiphany for you. That’s some of the highest praise any artist could receive. Finding your center in life is so difficult. I’m so proud of you.

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