At Harvard, ‘Hamilton’ creator tells Latino students and leaders to make their voices heard
roadway theatergoers know that tickets to the musical “Hamilton” can cost more than a month’s rent, except for winners of the show’s $10 online lottery. But the hit’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, played to a different kind of packed house on Thursday night at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), speaking about Latino identity and activism.
Miranda, who is also the force behind “In the Heights,” kicked off the second “America Adelante” conference, hosted by the Center for Public Leadership. The conference drew together Latino students from across the University, as well as more than 40 Latino leaders in business, arts, and government. Through a series of panel discussions and networking events, the conference tried to foster connection and collaboration between the students and guests.
“I feel really underqualified to be here,” Miranda joked as he took the stage with Amanda Matos, M.P.P. ’19, an HKS student and co-founder of the WomanHOOD Project, a Bronx-based mentorship program for girls of color.
Since both Matos and Miranda are proud Nuyoricans — New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent — Matos fired off a few home-based warm-up questions: Yankees or Mets? The A train or the 1? Once they’d covered the basics (Yankees and the A train), Miranda settled in for a more serious discussion on code-switching, activism, and staying true to one’s roots.
“I’m in a roomful of would-be Nina Rosarios right now,” Miranda said, referring to a character from “In the Heights” who leaves her neighborhood to attend Stanford University, becoming the first person from her block to attend college. Miranda shared some of his experiences of attending Hunter College and Wesleyan University, and gradually coming to see his dual cultural identity as “a superpower.”
Miranda began work on “In the Heights” as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, mixing the salsa and merengue beats of his heritage with the musical theater and freestyling hip-hop he also loves. The result, he said, was a realization that “you have to bring all of yourself into a room, not just the parts that fit in.” He cited the problematic stereotypes of knife-wielding Puerto Ricans from “West Side Story” and Paul Simon’s 1998 musical “The Capeman” as a wake-up call, adding, “I realized: No one’s making your dream musical. You have to make your dream musical.”
Matos asked Miranda how Latinos can create solidarity and stay connected to their heritage while building bridges with non-Latino allies and supporters. “Give us some best practices,” she urged.
Miranda’s response was simple. “I think continuing to support ourselves and our humanness is so important,” he said. “That’s what ‘Hamilton’ does: It represents the other strand of the American story that we export. It celebrates the one founder who wasn’t from here — who grew up in the Caribbean. We’re a nation of immigrants, and we ought to be proud of that story.”
“Latinos in the U.S. — both immigrant and native-born — are a group that has been growing in size and influence and will continue to grow,” said Erika Carlsen, the assistant director of fellowship programs and Latino initiatives at the Center for Public Leadership, who organized “America Adelante.” “How do future public leaders understand this community, and the challenges and incredible potential benefits related to it?” She cited the great economic power of Latinos, and the need to build networks among young and seasoned Latino leaders to address key policy issues.
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