Lin Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 4)
by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez
My posts about Lin-Manuel Miranda in this blog have meant to address both the significance and heterogeneity of the U.S. Latinx historical imaginary from a contemporary perspective. As I have indicated before, discussions about U.S. intellectual culture barely recognize the long tradition of Latinx creative production in the United States—if they do at all. To fully grasp the emergence of a figure like Miranda within the mass public it is thus necessary to scrutinize his specific position within this tradition, while also taking into account the instability of Latinidad as a social and political category: how multifarious communities, cultures, ideologies and racial differences are grouped under the rubric of Hispanics and Latinos in the mainstream eye.
As he often points out himself in interviews, Miranda’s formative experience as a Puerto Rican raised in New York City has evidently shaped his work and ideas, leading him to write, perform, and speak out in public about the ongoing socioeconomic crisis in Puerto Rico. At the center of Miranda’s interventions was the passing of PROMESA, the federal law that in June created a Federal Oversight Board in order to supervise and manage the restructuring of the debt of the Puerto Rican government. Appointed by President Obama, the board is in essence a group of unelected, unaccountable individuals whose connections to neoliberal economic and political interests presage a barrage of harsh austerity measures, including the lowering of the minimum wage to $4.25 an hour for people 25 years old and younger.
When the bill was still being discussed and drafted, Miranda took to newspapers, TV, and even Congress to plead with politicians and ordinary citizens to support a version of PROMESA that enabled Puerto Rico to restructure its debt while still giving it a chance to thrive, as the headline of his first New York Times op-ed stated. In the same op-ed piece, Miranda argued for the need to envision the debt crisis in Puerto Rico as “an American issue,” echoing the same ethos that the actors of Hamilton invoked when making their own overture to Mike Pence in the name of “American values.” It should not be surprising then that Miranda concludes the piece with an analogy between his “kindred spirit,” Alexander Hamilton, and himself: “I write about Puerto Rico today just as Hamilton wrote about St. Croix in his time.” Miranda is referencing Hamilton’s heartfelt public appeal for hurricane relief as a teenager, which was couched in the rhetoric of Christian suffering and compassion.
Empathy is perhaps the key attribute of Miranda’s social performance: in a press conference he gave in Puerto Rico, he underlined this, avowing that an “artist’s responsibility is to create empathy.” Although Miranda has confessed to finding the political sphere to be unappealing—even saying that he feels “allergic” to it—, like all discourse of sentimentality, his invocation of feelings is grounded in its own politics. In linking the times of Hamilton with the present, Miranda evokes the moral sentiments of the founding fathers, who engaged in varying ways with Protestant ethics, the ideas of the Enlightenment, and historical figures such as Cato as they articulated what Julie Ellison describes as “the affective ideals of republican emotion.” Perhaps what matters most then about Hamilton is the realm of affect, how the musical pulls the strings of our hearts to identify with its idealized presentation of Alexander Hamilton as a tragic hip-hop hero that is meant to be both “inspirational” and “aspirational.”
But as Miranda’s interventions on the plight of Puerto Rico demonstrate, performances of empathy have their limits. His comparison between the Saint Croix hurricane and Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic crisis almost suggests that the latter came to happen because of a natural disaster: unfortunately, he never offers any political or historical explanations for the crisis. What’s more, he chooses to remain silent about the colonial relationship between the U.S. and the Caribbean territory, arguing that we should “not get bogged down in Puerto Rico’s status.” In the op-ed mentioned, Miranda refers to Puerto Rico as a “territory” while in his rap performance in Last Week Tonight with John Oliver he describes it as “A commonwealth with not a lot of wealth, a not quite nation.” Reacting to Miranda’s performance, Puerto Rican intellectual Ed Morales noted how his unwillingness to confront the question of status served to silence the colonial roots of the debt crisis.
Once it was clear that PROMESA would not give much leeway to the Puerto Rican government, Miranda wrote another op-ed, this time for the U.S. Latino newspaper El Diario. Even though he recognized the bill’s “many shortcomings,” Miranda ultimately approved it and maintained that Puerto Rico should “make the best of a less-than-ideal situation,” turning again to the rhetoric of feelings at the end of the piece: “We make our voices heard. De corazón (from our heart), we must. We cannot go it alone.” In sentimentalizing the predicament of Puerto Rico, Miranda closes the door to any alternative actions or imaginaries that might contest the Federal Oversights Board and its colonial foundations. Meanwhile, the use of “alone” in this context signals the impossibility of an independent or sovereign Puerto Rico; its voices and hearts are inexorably connected to the United States, apparently forever. In this manner, the affective ideals of Miranda end up reproducing what the Puerto Rican poet Guillermo Rebollo-Gil pithily labels “colonial politics in post-colonial times.”
Even so, it is worth noting that Miranda has explained his position on the issue of political status by alluding to his identity. As he puts it in the press conference, this is an issue that should be solved only by Puerto Ricans from the island and never by those who live outside. Like in the case of other Puerto Ricans from the diaspora, one can detect here an aura of ambivalence and anxiety surrounding the meanings of Puerto Rican identity as it travels from the Caribbean to the United States and back again. In an interview with a Puerto Rican TV station, Miranda alludes to this quandary, pointing out that as a child he felt “en el medio” (“in-between”): on the one hand, as a “gringuito” (“American”) in Puerto Rico and, on the other, as a “boricua” in the US. It is this sense of feeling “in-between” that attracted Miranda to the transnational story of Hamilton in the first place. But, unlike many past U.S.-based Puerto Rican artists and writers who chose to form Latinx counterpublics in opposition to the racialized, classist myth of the American Dream, Miranda has positioned himself for the most part as an easily marketable icon of mainstream Latinidad. As Hamilton, he has donned the U.S. liberal performance of “republican emotion.” It remains to be seen if Miranda’s affective ideals translate into an alternative vision, or if they are merely a spectacle of and for the status quo.