Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda and his family this month announced $225,000 in grants to eight groups that help immigrants. Those donations marked a departure from his usual giving, which has chiefly focused on the arts. But they also reflected the central theme depicted in his new movie, In the Heights, about an immigrant neighborhood in New York City—namely, that perseverance and hard work, combined with supportive family and neighbors, can surmount even the most daunting challenges.
Except for a brief scene, the movie tells the story of the ups and downs of a group of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and other Latin American countries without reference to their legal problems or restrictions on their civil rights. While six of the eight organizations that received money from the Miranda family provide legal aid to or advocate on behalf of immigrants, two of the groups point toward a different focus for philanthropy—and one that figures prominently in the film.
In the Heights is, of course, a work of the imagination, a Hollywood film based on a Broadway musical. As depicted in the movie, life in the barrio is unrealistically lively, tuneful, dynamic, and full of beautiful people. Barely visible are the poverty, potholes, uncollected trash, and drugs often found in low-income, urban neighborhoods—though less so in today’s gentrified Washington Heights, where the film is set, than in the past. The main calamity is a summertime electrical blackout, which prompts the ensemble to sing and dance.
But as with any creative work, the vision expressed by Miranda and his collaborators matters as much as the movie’s fidelity to real life. And the picture they paint of immigrants may be the best tribute to the importance of what used to be known as bourgeois values that Hollywood has created in years.
The main character is a small shopkeeper who is trying to decide if he can succeed in the United States or should return to the Dominican Republic. The female lead excelled in the neighborhood schools, went to Stanford University with financial help from her father, and is back home for the summer and wondering whether she belongs at the elite California institution, where, among other things, she was mistaken as a member of the serving crew at a university reception.
The showstopper is a song by an elderly Cuban woman, the neighborhood abuela, who recounts how with paciencia y fe—patience and faith—she worked hard and fulfilled her mother’s hope for a new life in New York.
By the end of the film, all the problems the characters face are resolved—spoiler alert—happily. The message of In the Heights is that with help from relatives and friends, immigrants can achieve their dreams through their own efforts and by following the rules of American society.
The Broadway version of In the Heights opened in 2008 before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was established. The film adaptation added an update: a short scene in which a secondary character, a teenage boy whose parents came to the United States as undocumented immigrants, takes part in a DACA rally. However, thanks to a winning lottery ticket, he is eventually able to retain his own lawyer to try to attain legal immigrant status for himself and set aside money for the college education he craves.
Hard work and faith matter
Over all, Miranda strikes just the right balance: not denying race-based obstacles but not dwelling on them, either. Undoubtedly, writing a hip-hop song about getting a green card would have its challenges—even for the remarkable talent behind In the Heights and Hamilton. But perhaps Miranda is making another point, too. As important as legal protections and favorable immigration policies are, success in the United States still depends, as it did for earlier immigrant groups, on ability, hard work, values, and faith.
Two of the eight groups that received grants from the Mirandas seem to embody this view. On its website, the Utah Refugee Connection in Salt Lake City lists its mission as helping refugees make the community contacts they need to develop “self-sufficient and fulfilling lives.” The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, Mich., is a multi-service center providing medical, education, housing, and other types of help to newcomers, mostly from the Middle East.
Although each undoubtedly assists with legal problems and advocates for policy changes, what distinguishes them is their commitment to providing immigrants the means to succeed in American life.
A century ago, these types of organizations were more common than they are today. The settlement-house movement, which started in England and was brought to the United States by Jane Addams, created outposts in impoverished urban neighborhoods that brought together upper- and middle-class settlement-house workers with recent immigrants to share knowledge and culture.
They not only served as steppingstones into American life but produced more than a few great artists, writers, and musicians who left their own marks on American culture, as Miranda is doing today.
But a number of changes have diminished their importance, including the increasing specialization and professionalization at social-service organizations, the growth of government programs, evolving donor preferences, and, not least of all, the success of the people they served in entering the American mainstream.
There are no settlement houses in In the Heights—unless one counts the abuela’s apartment, where the key characters go for advice. But the neighborhood’s residents display the types of skills and attitudes cultivated by those institutions and that helped so many immigrants get ahead. Similar work is still done today by organizations such as branch libraries, cultural and recreational clubs, local newspapers, religious societies, family circles, and other civil-society groups.
Supporting legal protections and political advocacy, not to mention addressing the real-life problems facing low-income neighborhoods, will always be necessary. But donors might also consider following the example set by the Mirandas and directing some of their support to programs that help immigrants join the middle class.
Indeed, the obstacles to better policies might become more manageable if recent immigrants were more widely seen as the group of strivers In the Heights portrays—even if they can’t belt out a Broadway show tune.
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor emeritus of philanthropic studies and public affairs. This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.