Powerless: lessons in power from ‘In the Heights’

Last month I went to see the musical ‘In the Heights’ with my family.  This is a musical about a block in Washington Heights, where the population is mostly immigrants and first generation Americans from the Caribbean — Dominicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans take the spotlight.

The musical takes a look at several different issues that are all important.  From Usnavy’s attempts to keep his store up and running, to Vanessa’s attempts to leave the barrio, to the Rosario’s struggle to help their daughter pay for Stanford.  Nina struggles with the pressure of being ‘the one who made it out’ and Benny tried to fit in as the lone Black character in the show.  Characters remember what it was like where they came from and try to reconcile that life with their new life of struggle in New York.

The musical touches on almost every issue imaginable when discussing Caribbean immigrants in New York.  As my sister said, there are so many layers to the musical. I won’t begin to discuss all of them here.  But through the whole play, one thing kept nagging at me, one thing felt like it was missing.  Briefly in the live show, I heard Sonny (Usnavy’s cousin and helper in the store) talk about his desire to organize the community politically.  He is dismissed with a ‘that’s so cute.’

This is what was missing for me.  There is a moment in the second act, once the power on the black has gone out.  Vanessa and Benny both sing ‘we are powerless. we are powerless.’ It’s the beautiful juxtapostion between the literal and the figurative, a reminder that they are constantly at the intersection of being powerless and, well, powerless.

Powerless in the first sense being the very real powerless that comes with being without electrical power.  Vanessa sees this as a sign that the ‘block’s getting worse by the hour.’  But why they are powerless is missed.  This is where Sonny’s refrain comes in. The block is powerless (without electricity) because they are powerless politically.  They have no voice, no representation.  They have no power because they are dismissed.

The solution is presented in two ways, again using Vanessa and Sonny. Vanessa’s solution is to leave.  Save her money and get an apartment in another neighborhood.  Later in the act, Usnavy points out that Vanessa is leaving just as he is (in a variation of Vanessa’s theme, Usnavy plans to leave the neighborhood to go back to the Dominican Republic).  Vanessa defends herself, saying she’s just moving a few blocks away, she’ll still be close enough to the neighborhood.  However, the point is that she is leaving.

The other option is Sonny’s choice.  He opts to use his money to revitalize the store.  In the small glimpse we get into his life, we hear that he wants to organize politically, help the people in the neighborhood to have a voice.  He says ‘The ghetto has too many promises for me to keep.’  He isn’t leaving — he wants to stay and do something about the area.

This is think is the same thing that we all face — the decision between leaving and staying, being powerless physically and being powerless politically.  So many people I know opt to not engage in politics because ‘there is no point.’  We are called the apathetic generation because so many of us decide to simply leave, rather than to stay and do something about it.  Or if we opt to do something about it, we are dismissed for our age or inexperience. I, for one, want to stay and do something.  I want to change from being powerless to having power.

And I want you to join me.

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