U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 3)

[Editorial note: this is the third in a series of guest posts by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.]

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 3)

by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez

The enduring significance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in the U.S. mainstream public was recently reiterated by the uproar surrounding Mike Pence’s attendance to the Broadway musical. Voiced in the name of “diverse America,” the cast’s moving plea to the Vice-President elect turned Broadway momentarily into a mirror of the sociopolitical debates that have unfolded as a result of Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

The actors’s words articulated concisely the affective crisis—the sense of “anxiety” and “alarm”—experienced by those who fear that the Trump presidency will not “work on behalf of all of us” and “uphold our inalienable rights.”  Predictably, Trump took to Twitter to lambast Hamilton, which jumpstarted a campaign among his supporters to boycott the musical.  To nobody’s surprise, the Hamilton phenomenon went on unabated, achieving record ticket sales during the Thanksgiving week.

Albeit the agitated reaction of Trump and his followers, the cast’s plea was couched in a deeply civil tone that echoed the politics of the musical itself: as I described in my last two posts, the actors’ bodies and hip hop aesthetics in Hamilton stage the liberal politics of multicultural visibility in the Obama era.  By expressing their “hope” that the show would “inspire” Mike Pence to “uphold American values,” the cast underscored the symbolic power of Hamilton as a celebration of racial diversity.  They also reminded us that the world of popular theatre can embody social and political ideas worthy of our attention—even of the Vice-President elect—, like any other cultural form.

Thus, to think of Lin-Manuel Miranda as a public intellectual entails in part to consider how his work produces (and reproduces) ideologies in the public arena, keeping in mind Michael Kramer’s important words in this blog about embodied practices: “The ideas of bodies should join the body of ideas.”  In an article for the Chronicle Review, Corey Robin explains that the public intellectual “sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.” Robin is of course referring to the intellectual as a writer, but this definition pertains to cultural and social producers of all sorts, beyond a particular aesthetic or ideology.  My aim in viewing Miranda as a public intellectual is not to privilege him as a cultural agent, but to call attention to how his interventions—including not only the musicals but also his TV appearances, interviews, twitter posts, and op-eds—have articulated a mass public around a specific set of issues.

Antonio Gramsci’s notes in The Prison Notebooks about the organic intellectual remain valuable in order to understand the social function of a figure like Miranda. Gramsci points to how the organic intellectual’s function is to articulate the concerns and ideas of the social class they belong to.  Needless to say, alongside class difference, intellectuals also speak to communities that have been formed through historical processes of social identification and disidentification. In the case of Miranda, he not only speaks to a mainstream liberal public but, as he highlights repeatedly in interviews, to a U.S. Latinx public.  Speaking to a reporter during his celebrated visit to Puerto Rico in July, Miranda expressed that theatre is “a form of building community” and in creating In the Heights he “wanted to feel part of a Latinx community.”  Like for many other Latinx writers and artists, Miranda’s cultural production appears to speak to the experiences of people of Latin American descent in the United States, ranging from the disrupting, often traumatizing effects of migration, racism, and xenophobia to a culture of assimilation—and even whitening—that embraces a narrative of individual progress within the so-called “American dream.”

Where does Miranda stand in this respect, what particular Latino ideologies does he reveal to us through his work?  Eight years ago, his award-winning breakout musical In the Heights signaled his dedication to imagining and affirming Latinidad. Set in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican enclave in New York City, In the Heights is a feel-good spectacle of romance and self-perseverance set to the tune of bachata, merengue, salsa, hip hop, and good old-fashioned Broadway pop.  The musical’s playful incorporation of different music genres already presaged Miranda’s skills at fusing cultural forms and subjects in Hamilton.  But in In the Heights, cultural fusion is not limited to just music; it integrates diverse Latinx figures and themes as if they were a homogeneous whole.  In the musical’s most celebrated song, “Carnaval del Barrio,” the myriad ethnic and national differences of the characters—which include Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, as well as an African American—are superseded through the spectacle of song and dance in an affirmation of belonging to the barrio. The song’s concluding call to “raise the flag,” which is sung in Spanish, calls on the respective Latin American background of the characters, but this distinction is transcended through the use of a common language, their common experiences as migrants, and a common social space: the barrio.  Unfortunately, spectators will leave the theatre without knowing much about what differentiates these characters, beyond geographical markers and a few cultural references.  What’s more, this fantasy of Latinx unity dissolves the history of Washington Heights, a neighborhood that in the last five decades has become the central haven for Dominicans in the United States, in replacement of older resident ethnic groups, including Jews, Greeks, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans.

Some of the characters of In the Heights do face economic hardship and the possibility of being displaced from the neighborhood, which hints at the deleterious effects of neoliberal gentrification on communities of color and working-class people.  Yet this plot line is not developed.  In fact, the threat of community fragmentation is not dispelled at all through social unity: the barrio is saved because of a winning lottery number.  The Latinx fantasy of In the Heights ultimately follows an individualist logic of upward mobility that has not much to do with the Latin American background of its characters. Much like Hamilton, it upholds a vision of cultural diversity founded on the values of the “American Dream.”  In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words: “…I think the show is a nice reminder that, you know, we are the latest chapter in this thing called the American Dream and we’re trying to get our foot in the door.”  In my last post, I will examine further Miranda’s vision of Latinidad in connection to his Puerto Rican background, offering also a historical context to his ideas.

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Kahlil Chaar-Pérez is an independent scholar whose work addresses Caribbean and U.S. Latino aesthetics and politics from the nineteenth century to the present. He has a forthcoming article in the collection Uncle Tom’s Cabins: The Transnational History of America’s Most Mutable Book, to be published by University of Michigan Press.