As the musical visionary behind “In the Heights” and “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda has emerged as one of the biggest cultural figures of the past decade, and played a major role in the popularization of Latino storytelling. Or is that Latinx storytelling?
In recent years, debates have festered around the best term to describe people from Spanish-speaking countries and territories — including Miranda, the child of Puerto Rican parents and a Mexican grandparent. But even this wordsmith hasn’t settled on a specific term to describe his background.
“What you run up against are the limits of defining 32 different fucking countries with one world,” Miranda said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Literally, no word is going to make everyone happy.”
In conversation, Miranda often defaults to describing himself and others as Latinos, the most natural term for native Spanish speakers. However, Miranda noted that the debate over “Latino” predates the existence of “Latinx” and variants thereof. “When I was in high school, every week, the Latino club would debate ‘Latino’ versus ‘Hispanic,’” he said. “Now ‘Hispanic’ has really fallen into the rearview, and it’s all these variations on the rear-end of the word.” These include not only “Latinx” but “Latiné,” the gender-neutral term more commonly used by people of Latin descent in the LGBTQ community. “Latiné is great because it’s Latino-created,” he said. “I’m cool with all of it. I use them interchangeably because I think the pie is still cooling and it will never be perfect, because it’s trying to capture too much stuff.”
In any case, Miranda takes an expansive view to the kind of American immigrant experience he has explored in his work. His long-gestating adaptation of “In the Heights,” which began as a student project as Wesleyan and turned into Miranda’s Tony-winning breakout in 2008, has been directed by Jon M. Chu, whose own heritage can’t be described with any of the aforementioned terms. Yet Miranda justified the decision to hire Chu in part because of his own background as the child of Chinese immigrants. “He grew up in a family-owned first-generation immigrant business,” Miranda said. “He understood that texture… We all grow up hearing the crazy story of how our parents got a foothold in this country and then wonder how to honor that going forward. Jon knew that in his bones. He understand the material in a lived way as if he were a first-generation immigrant Latino.”
Beyond that, Miranda said, he was drawn to the “Crazy Rich Asians” director because of his work on “Step Up 2” and “Step Up 3D,” which captured the kind of boisterous musical energy Miranda wanted for his adaptation. “I knew he could shoot the shit out of a dance number in the old Hollywood way,” Miranda said. “That predisposed me to liking him.”
With “In the Heights” set to open the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in-person next month ahead of its release, Miranda has been looking back on his decade-spanning journey with the material that launched his career. “I really learned to write musicals by writing ‘In the Heights,'” he said. “I wanted a life in this business and I literally didn’t see any career paths. In a lot of ways, ‘In the Heights’ was an attempt to write something that was missing.”
“In the Heights” opens theatrically on June 11 and on HBO Max for one month.