In The Heights: A Musical Celebration of Community and Latinx Diversity

Lights! Camera! Acción!

Image by Arabella Chen.

Members of Hoof ‘n’ Horn, Duke’s oldest-run musical theater group, are gearing up for their Spring 2019 production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony-Award-winning musical, In The Heights. 

Featuring an all-Latinx leading cast and a diverse ensemble, this show fuses dancing, music, and acting together to tell the stories of a community in Washington Heights, NY, and how its characters seek to define “home,” both individually and collectively.

In addition to the musical prowess, inclusive casting, and creative storytelling present throughout the show, In The Heights touches audiences from both inside and outside the Latinx community with its celebration of universal concepts like cultural pride, identity, and most importantly, family. In this article, Duke Arts hears from Maria Zurita-Ontiveros (Class of 2021) and Gustavo Andrade (Class of 2019) to get their thoughts on why this show is so meaningful to them as members of the Latinx community, as well as what they are most excited to share with their audience.

Read on to meet Maria and Gustavo through an interview by Creative Arts Student Team (CAST) member, Casey Pettiford (Class of 2020).

Playing a Part in Representation

Q: What are you most excited about for In The Heights and what inspired you to get involved in this show?

Maria Zurita-Ontiveros: A lot of the things that we deal with in this show are quite literally things that I grew up with, so it’s very dear to me. As an international student from Mexico, I’m very proud of where I’m from and I try to represent my culture in the best way I can. I’m so excited for people to see the show, not just because it is a fun time, but also because this show stays with you. It’s such a beautiful showcase of a culture that is often misrepresented. This show is meaningful to people both inside and outside the Latinx community. I have known Lin Manuel-Miranda’s work for a long time and something that inspires me profoundly about him is that he is a Latino man who makes fantastic theater. Through this show, he is giving people like me huge opportunities and well-deserved representation.

Gustavo Andrade: I’m really excited to see how the show will come together through the props and costumes that bring the experience to life. In terms of my interest in getting involved, I first realized I enjoyed singing when I was in high school. I participated in several musical theater shows, like Hello, Dolly!, Beauty and the Beast, Into the Woods, Annie, and others. Coming to Duke, I focused more on academics but I still love musical theater. While I do sing and manage business for The Duke Pitchforks, I was not really involved in musical theater on campus until I heard about In The Heights this year. I felt that this show really spoke to me and it was especially encouraging that Hoof  ‘n’ Horn wanted an all-Latinx leading cast to represent the show authentically.

Changing Narratives through Theater

Gustavo Andrade as Usnavi. Image by Arabella Chen.

Q: Why is this show important to you personally and how is Latinx empowerment represented in the narrative of In the Heights? 

MZO: For me, telling this story is about honoring all the cast members, our families, and our personal histories. This is my way of saying “thank you” to my mom and my family, and to every family who has sacrificed for their children to be able to receive the best education and other opportunities. One of the biggest moments of empowerment in the show is in the scene called “Carnaval del Barrio,” where the characters are stuck in a situation that physically and symbolically renders them powerless. At the same time, they host a neighborhood party where they are waving flags, singing in Spanish, and celebrating Latinx cultures in all their diversity. That moment is a strong  juxtaposition between loss and comeback and it shows how the characters reclaim their power. No matter what they are facing, they are just as Colombian, Cuban, or Boricua as they are American—both in that moment and throughout the story.

“Telling this story is about honoring all the cast members, our families, and our personal histories. This is my way of saying “thank you” to my mom and my family, and to every family who has sacrificed for their children to be able to receive the best education and other opportunities.”—Maria Zurita-Ontiveros

GA: This show is important to me because the language and representation really speak to me, especially since I grew up near the U.S. border. There are a lot of narratives today that disparage immigrants and I think it is important that we bring this sense of home, community, and tolerance to Duke so people see positive representations of the Latinx community. Every character in this show is trying to find home through sadness, romance, drama, and more. A lot of the characters, including my character, Usnavi, want to travel outside of New York to find their definitions of “home.” They realize along the way how their community is very much the home they’ve always been searching for.

Image by Arabella Chen.

Community is Everywhere

Q: What are you hoping people will gain from seeing this show?

MZO: I‘m hoping that people take away two things from this show. First, I hope that people will realize how each one of us has a story to tell and a reason to be here. We are all much more than statistics and stereotypes, and I hope people can see that we are not defined by victimhood and that we are here, proud, and just as valid in our stories and narratives at Duke and elsewhere.

Second, I want people to realize that even as Latinos—although we may have things taken from us—we are still a strong and passionate people who are not defined by our circumstances, but by who we are as individuals.

GA: I hope people would leave the show understanding that community is everywhere and everyone around you is your home. I used to be homesick when I was a freshman at Duke so I traveled back home often. However, throughout the years I have found that Duke is my home and I have formed so many friendships and bonds with people in various communities. So, if you have people who love you and support you, everywhere can be “home.”

Q: If you could describe your role or your experience working on the show, what would you say?

MZO: It’s been a very humbling experience working as the director. Most of my work is empowering others to tell a story that connects so profoundly and deeply with all of us, so it’s been incredibly humbling.

GA: I would describe my character, Usnavi, as both a visionary and a slightly insecure person. He dreams big but has a lot to learn about himself and how to develop his own confidence. I would say this show is very multifaceted, since it encompasses a very diverse set of emotions and themes that you can connect with throughout the story.

Learn More about Duke’s Hoof ‘n’ Horn

Casey Pettiford (Class of 2020) is majoring in International Comparative Studies. Upon graduation, she plans to merge her interests in global cultures, mixed media, marketing, and entrepreneurship to create opportunities for minority communities to tell their diverse stories and to build innovative brand solutions for business and media organizations. She is currently a member of the Duke Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).