Being a lover of the performing arts, the thought of being able to have a heart-to-heart talk with a favorite character from film, theater or literature thrilled me. And then came the dilemma, who to choose? In a home full of books, dvds, and a drawer with all my Playbills, I had hundreds of choices. Did I want to discuss Elizabethan era pageantry with Skye O’Malley, the heroine of Bertrice Small’s historical romance saga. Did I want to discuss investigative techniques with The Red Violin’s Charles Morritz. Or, did I want to get Soledad, from Soledad Speaks, to open up about her journey to self-awareness and power.
I decided to interview the much beloved, Abuela Claudia from In The Heights, a show I had the pleasure of seeing three times. We learn so much about her through the lyrics, written by Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. We know that she had a poor childhood in Cuba and that she immigrated to NYC in 1943 with her mother. We know she was illiterate and cleaned homes on the Upper East Side upon her arrival, while struggling to learn English. We also know that she was a much loved member of her neighborhood and helped raise, and care for, Usnavi, Sonny, and Nina.
So, now that the cafe con leche is ready, the conversation might go something like this:
Mariposa Social: Please, have a seat Doña Claudia. I’m so pleased you were able to take out the time from your busy celestial schedule to have some cafe with me.
Abuela Claudia: Thank you so much for the invitation. As you know, my job as a guardian angel keeps me busy.
MS: I know there “ain’t no Cassiopia in Washington Heights”, but could you tell us a little about how it was in 1940s when you arrived with your mother?
AC: “Fresh off the boat in America, freezing in early December. Sharing double beds, trying to catch a break, struggling with English. Finally got a job as a maid, polishing with pride, scrubbing the whole of the Upper East Side. Paciencia y fe.”
MS: So “what do you do when your dreams come true”? And what dreams did you inherit from your mother?
AC: Pues, niña, the same dreams as any other mother figure has. To be able to take care of those they loved. As you already know, I won 96,000 in the lottery and immediately I thought of Usnavi and Sonny. I wanted to make sure that their dreams would also come true. I told Usnavi, “a third for you, a third for me, the rest for Sonny. And with our share of the money – dream of seaside air. Think of the hundreds of stories we’ll create. You and I”.
MS: I just want you to know that your death made me choke up. I felt like I was losing my grandmother all over again. You two were so similar. For years, she put gifts away, always saying, “Esto es pa’ cuando me mude pa’ Puerto Rico”. In the end, she couldn’t leave all of us. I visit her at St. Raymond’s now. Could you tell us a little about the box of memories that Nina found?
AC: Ah yes, the box. Pues, I have “a picture of the ladies at Daniela’s. You can tell it’s from the 80s. There’s Usnavi, just a baby. There’s a picture of me in Havana. I’m holding a rag doll, unsmiling, black and white. There’s a picture of Nina’s high school graduation, a star beside her name. A picture of her parents as she left for California. I saved everything they gave me, every little scrap of paper. Their lives are in my boxes. They thanked me for everything they know.”
MS: I know that your dream for Usnavi was one he told you frequently, “a little beach named Playa Rincon with no roads. Just a stone’s throw from his folk’s home. Before he was born. Before they passed on”. How did you feel when he decided to stay in Washington Heights?
AC: Bueno, Chica, Usnavi already apologized. He said, “Abuela I’m sorry, but I ain’t going back because I’m telling your story. And I can say goodbye to you smilin’. I found my island, I’ve been on it this whole time”. He proclaimed my stoop, a throne, and said he was home. Alabanza!
Alabanza, indeed. As someone who loves live performances, I saw myself and my family In The Heights, even though we were from the Bronx. A novel experience, for sure. So, yea, if someone could make this into a movie, I would be so appreciative and those reading this homage, who never had a chance to see the show would be also. A great story transcends borders, whether those of country or socioeconomic status.
Writer’s note: Except for my grandmother’s quote, everything in quotation marks are lyrics from the show.