Non-stop Between Subway Stops

Underground Reflections on Hamilton

This Café Onda series focuses on the new musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which has generated rave reviews and unmatched buzz. This series explores Hamilton's Latinidad, adding a Latina/o spin to the discussion.

I’ve probably listened to the cast recording to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recent hit, Hamilton, so many times now I actually think I can rap. But I know I can’t and I’m slowly coming to terms with that. As a New York artist of almost five years this fall, I’ve got to experience quite a few shows, but nothing like Hamilton. As the lights came up at the Richard Rodgers Theater at the end, it kind of left me in such an interesting funk. Sure, I had cried and didn’t expect to do that at this show. Sure, I had been blown away by the choreography and the pacing. Sure, I had huge expectations for this show even though the number of musicals I’ve seen, sadly, I could count on my right hand… But there was something that connected with me that I couldn’t put a finger on.  Something really spoke to me as an artist or at least spoke to me from a place of why I am an artist.

This 28-year-old half-white/half-Hispanic guy from Plainview, Texas has seen what colorblind-casting the founding fathers has done in the eyes of the artists of NYC. Flex your differences. Be original. Take and take and take because that is the only way we are going to get in the eyes of our impressionable youth so they grow up with even less bias, with less prejudices.

Legacy. Rewind. I remember that night. I was 19. My father had passed away (breath). The funeral was the next day. I wanted to say something. I would have gone my whole life regretting not speaking to the man he was so I stayed up thinking, being judged by future versions of myself on what words to put down. It was a lot to take. But legacy is everything. Who tells your story? I know that feeling. Legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you don’t get to see. I know that feeling. It’s sitting up all night knowing you have one shot. One-try and no do overs to get it right. It’s a blind jump. A push and a fall and maybe the vertigo lets you go and you stand as if nothing had happened. Yeah, I know that feeling. I see it in Hamilton. I see it in Burr.

Yo, Burr was my favorite. If I ever see that dude (Leslie Odom Jr.) on the train, I will geek out. And it’s going to happen one of these days. In my head, the perfect scenario would be our eyes would meet and I would vomit, “Showtime!!!” He would respond by immediately going into “Wait For It” (my favorite song) and I would cry/pass out. And I’m as bro-y as they come. That’s what this show has done to me.

I see the effect of the show even more in others. This 28-year-old half-white/half-Hispanic guy from Plainview, Texas has seen what colorblind-casting the founding fathers has done in the eyes of the artists of NYC. Flex your differences. Be original. Take and take and take because that is the only way we are going to get in the eyes of our impressionable youth so they grow up with even less bias, with less prejudices.

cast photo
Meagan DuBois, Oscar Cabrera, Ashley M. Ortiz, and Daveed Diggs on the set of Hamilton.

My father grew up in Plainview just like me. He went into school bi-lingual and graduated speaking only English. Spanish was a dirty language to the education system in small town Texas. Immigrants, illegals, and Mexicans were the words my father tried his hardest to dodge and not speaking Spanish was the easiest way. Assimilate. I am the by-product of institutionalized racism. I don’t speak Spanish. I never felt Latino. That was just a word until I was 23.

Rewind. I remember that night. I had a panic attack. I had just finished my first year in a two-year acting program. I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents had two jobs most of the time so acronyms like FASFA, PSAT/NMSQT, and PSAT 10 were a completely different language to me. But that night, I sat in my room looking over the sides to the In The Heights national tour I had just been given and things began to get real. I had been non-stop since my dad died. Always pushing for the next achievement to show to this phantom father in my head, so here was my first real shot (breath).

I listened to the cast recording. Paciencia y fe! You better clean this mess!  Paciencia y fe! You better learn Inglés! And I was bawling. This was ME. This was my father. Assimilated. That was seriously the first step towards finding identity for me. It happened from a song in a musical while I was alone in the computer lab of my university.  

a group of people mingling
Pre-opening events at the 2015 Carnaval of Latina/o New Works at DePaul University.

But that’s the power of art. Sure, everyone is different, and I’m sure that there are people that think that Hamilton is a decent musical. But so many people feel connected to the work. If a 55-year-old of this specific racial background can relate to a 24-year-old of that specific racial background, then we are making steps in the right direction. Then we are working on those specific casting restrictions that would have made it almost impossible for that 24-year-old to ever step on the stage. And I feel that every person that watches Hamilton owns a piece of that movement. I think people feel that in the moments after.

So what does it specifically mean to me? It simply speaks to these parts of my life. It speaks to the 19-year-old me who had just lost his father. It speaks to the 23-year-old me swamped in college. And it speaks to the 28-year-old me pushing to make something more of my life than just paying bills (breath). It speaks to me and reminds me of all these points in my life at the same time. And the cool gift from it all is that by hitting these chords, it really stitches together parts of myself that are drastically different, even though I was once that 19-year-old and that 23-year-old. And it makes me feel more complete. That’s the power of a show like Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series of blogs discussing the impact of Hamilton on the Latinx community.

Hamilton’s Latinidad

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Bravo Oscar, what a cool piece to read. A necessary voice. It's amazing because I've said it before that I wasn't a fan of Hamilton (or In the Heights for that matter,) but that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the work and what it's doing. Hey, I'm also a Fiddler on the Roof fan, and I grew up with Rondalla and Trio music that my family played, so I think my disconnect from LLM's stuff is that hip-hop is not something that ever made me feel included. I'm like an 89 year old woman stuck in a 35 year old body, ya know? Aparte, you don't really grow up with rap in México--so it always sounded "foreign" to me. You know what I'm interested in? Are the Dominicanos seeing this show? I live in Inwood and I almost feel like going down the street interviewing people and see if they a) know who LMM is and b)have seen Hamilton. I'm just curious to know about this community--so if you ever want to do brunch and some arts journalism with me up in Inwood--let me know ;)

What got me, Oscar, was the 'Spanish was a dirty language' in that small town in Texas. Right now, at a North Texas University I earn my living by teaching in that 'dirty language'. So many of my students have a similar legacy! The wonderful thing is... they regret not having learned the language of their abuelitas and abuelitos, they long to regain that RAIZ, that root of identity that is theirs, by cleaning up their Spanish. By reclaiming the language, they make it sparkle again with luster and beauty. In the process, they feel more connected to themselves and other Latinas-os. Thanks for your insights on this blog! I am sharing it with my Hispanos in the US class!

That line where you say you are a by-product of institutionalized racism...that got me. I'm realizing I am as well and my Father too. It's such a shame. Well done Oscar.