Sunday, June 16, 2024

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tales of Many Islands

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Damn, is she talking about In the Heights again? Well, yes, because I haven’t covered everything about it just yet. After a comparison with the Martells, placing Nina Rosario in the vast category of Dutiful Princesses, and with West Side Story, analyzing the use of the Spanish language in both works, it’s time to compare this beautiful musical about the Latinx community of the NYC neighborhood of Washington Heights with the latest work In the Heights’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contributed to, Disney’s Moana.

Now, admittedly, he was only listed as the lyricist of this amazing new animated movie, not as a screenwriter. His impact on the writing process was probably minor. I’d argue that technically, he is also only listed as the lyricist and composer of In the Heights, but as this story was his precious project for years, ever since he was in college, it’s without a doubt that he had a word to say on every level of the production. There is no such certainty for Moana, and indeed I will just point out the similarities between the two stories without assuming that they were with intent. I found interesting that they seem built off the same core building blocks and send the viewer off with a similar message.

As the story and resolution of both stories will be explored, this piece isn’t spoiler-free for either one.

A Multitude of Islands

Moana is a story of Pacific Islanders, In the Heights is a story of Caribbeans. As such, they are deeply connected with the cultures they depict. However make no mistake, there is no one culture depicted in either story. In In the Heights, there is Cuban Abuela Claudia, Dominican Usnavi De la Vega, Puerto Rican Nina Rosario… Their cultural differences are openly acknowledged within the narrative with Benny, an outsider to Latino culture, commenting that it’s not just one culture he has to get to know if he wants to be accepted within their community.

“It’s like two different languages! You got Dominican Spanish, and Puerto Rican Spanish…”

Likewise, the story of Moana is not inspired by any particular culture. Just the fact that the two main protagonists are voiced by a Hawaiian girl and a Samoan man proves that this is not meant to be a monolithic cultural depiction. However, rather than openly exploring the cultural differences between the many cultures of the Pacific Islands that inspired it within its story, Moana is a synthesis, borrowing elements here or there, paying homages to many cultures, forming cohesive cultural surroundings for the story but that have no exact equivalent in reality. In this regard, it is similar to the Avatar universe: Avatar was inspired by many Asian cultures and within any given episode, you can point to several cultural references from different countries. There is no sense in saying that the Earth Kingdom is solely inspired by China or the Fire Nation solely by Japan, just like Moana wasn’t just inspired by any single specific Polynesian or other Pacific Islander culture.

Blurring of Old and New

The core theme of both stories is the exploration of the old and the new, the past and the future, and the balance found between personal development and community. However, both stories blur the lines between what’s new and what’s old.

Moana is taught by her father to love and appreciate her culture, her island, and her people; she’s taught the ancient dances, the stories, the traditions. It would be easy to perceive that this side of the story is the past, however this is never treated as just that by the story. Chief Tui takes pleasure in teaching his daughter the ways of their people not to keep her stuck in the past but rather because he envisions a future where she’s leading the village, has hopes and dreams for her. His wish to perpetuate the tradition is everything but past-oriented.

“When I look to the future, there you are.”

Similarly, it’s easy to consider that Moana’s desire to sail the ocean symbolizes the individualistic future, but the song “We Know the Way” shows that wayfinding is an ancient tradition of the people of Motunui. In that way, when she learns the ways of seafaring from Maui, she isn’t only finding her call in life, finding who she really is, but she is also getting closer to her true culture and creating new ties to her people’s history.

In the same way, In the Heights tries to make a distinction between the old and the new, but it isn’t as clear cut as one might think. Indeed, you might consider that the past is represented by the islands these immigrants came from, and indeed, the actual immigrants in the story all talk fondly about the island they immigrated from, but then, there is Usnavi for whom Dominican Republic represents his ultimate goal of an ideal future. He longs to go back to the island his parents came from before he was born, but there is no doubt that this dream is treated like an idealized individualistic future rather than a community-based one.

This sort of longing is present in Nina’s story as well, as she is going through an identity crisis of not knowing if she belongs with the likes of the American students she’s frequenting, of wondering what it would be like if her family had never left Puerto Rico at all.

In this way, in this case the parents were the ones desiring American life and the children are the ones who crave to go back to the old ways, to reconcile with their island. America, or more accurately the close-knit community of Caribbean immigrants in Washington Heights, may well represent the future, but there is no ignoring that the older characters were the ones who created the community to begin with.

“One day you said ‘Vamos a Nueva York’ and so we came.” − Abuela Claudia about her mother

And indeed, if the 183rd Street represents the newly found future in the resolution of Usnavi’s story, there is no doubt that it has already become a status quo in Nina’s story. Her father longs to launch her higher than he has and treats their community as a place she’s stuck in.

“So you can end up just another girl stuck en el barrio?”

So the same community can be representative of a new future for Usnavi, an achievement in and of itself, and of Nina’s past from which she goes further.

Duality of Heroes

The protagonist of Moana, the girl herself, explores the balance between the new and the old. This is her true conflict, her own identity, more so than main plot. She wants to reconcile her desire for the vast ocean with her love for her people on her island.

“Moana, listen, do you know who you are?”

This conflict is also present in In the Heights.

But whereas Moana has one protagonist, In the Heights has two. Don’t let the fact that Usnavi introduces and closes the show fool you. Nina has more stage scene and more songs than him and her story is just as big as his. The duality of finding the right harmony between the old and the new is present in both their stories. Usnavi ultimately finds balance between his Dominican and American identity, just as Nina with her Puerto Rican one. Whereas Moana is divided between the two perspectives, Usnavi and Nina both strongly lean towards one side of the issue. Usnavi is much more concerned with keeping tradition and maintaining his Latino identity than Nina, who has been planning her future from the time she was born, a future where she may have to leave the block one way or another. Each learn to reconcile with the opposite side in their own way.

A Family’s Tale

Moana may be an adventure comedy, but at its core it is also the story of a family, more specifically of a father and his daughter, with some intervention from the ladies of the family. Moana’s father has had big dreams for her ever since she was born, wanted to bring her higher than he’d reached, as illustrated by the sacred pile of stones on top of the island where he expected her to add her own, but his dreams were cut short by her failure to comply. Moana longs to navigate the sea like her ancestors used to do, escapes from the island against her father’s will and eventually learns who she truly is through the help of her dead grandma. She reconciles with her parents who adapt to a new reality for their people.

This is, of course, completely ignoring the adventure aspect of the movie, which is important and infinitely enjoyable, but not the focus on this comparison. Because when you lay out the facts in this way and think about Nina’s story, then you realize that the bare bones of the story of these girls are very similar.

Nina’s father has certainly had big dreams for her ever since she was little. Her family saved every dollar from the time she was born to make her go to college, encouraged her learning, wanted everything good for her beyond what they had reached themselves. Those dreams were seemingly shattered by Nina’s failure in school. The reason for her dropping out? Besides money issues, a key issue she mentions is her lack of belonging. She felt like she didn’t have a place at Stanford University, she longed for Puerto Rico and finding a place besides her people. Just like Moana wanted to teach herself wayfinding, we know that Nina taught herself Spanish. During the musical, she runs away from home for the night and the next day is reminded of her priorities, finds her new motivation through the help of her dead Abuela. She reconciles with her parents who decide to sell their business to pay for her tuition and have to adapt to the new life circumstances they have.

In both situations, the main familial conflict is between the girl and her father. The father had dreams that the daughter was pressured to complete. The mother also fills a similar role. Both Sina Waialiki and Camila Rosario have a scene filling the same narrative purpose. In the scene before Moana tries to sail on her own as well as in the song “Enough!!!”, the mother points out to her daughter how the father really wants the best for her and begs her to consider his point of view. She also points out how similar her daughter is to her father. And in the end of the story, she plays a supporting role in the reconciliation of father and daughter.

Dead Grandma of Love

Two unbelievable characters like you don’t see many, Grandma Tala and Abuela Claudia are both central to the stories of the protagonists. While the family conflict present in Moana’s story was reflected in Nina’s story only, both Nina and Usnavi are deeply influenced by the memory of their (adoptive) grandmother.

All three characters grew up very close to their grandmother. Grandma Tala and Abuela Claudia were both completely immersed in their culture, Tala with her traditional tattoo and her teaching the young children the stories of their people, Claudia with her role as the core lady of the Latinx community of Washington Heights whom everybody knows and loves. She is a symbol for the concept of home itself.

“I had to make sure you remembered the flavor of home.” Claudia to Nina

Although they are not exactly the same character, of course, and have very distinct personality traits, they still share some. Both are revered by their community as wise people who have a lot to teach the young ones. Both are pretty stubborn, but ultimately very kind and devoted. They also were fond of telling the many stories of their people.

“I’ve told you hundreds of stories about home.” Claudia to Usnavi

They both believed in the dream of the child, Moana’s wish to sail the ocean, Nina’s urge to go farther and beyond people’s expectations, Usnavi’s dream to move to Playa Rincón. They tried to make it possible, by giving Moana access to sailboats, by offering Nina money for her tuition or Usnavi for the plane ticket that would bring them. In Usnavi’s story just like in Moana’s, the grandmother was even responsible for actually setting their plan into motion. Moana’s grandma died and her last words were prompting her to sail the ocean and restore the heart of Te Fiti. Abuela Claudia won the lotto and gave a third of her money to Usnavi to move back to DR.

“Whatever we do, it’s you and I.” − Claudia to Usnavi

“There is nowhere you could go that I won’t be with you.” − Tala to Moana

Sadly, both grandmas did happen to die of seemingly natural causes, or rather because the main character needed development. Thank God for the dead grandma of everlasting love and support.

Moana’s grandma came to her in a vision when she was at the deepest of despair and helped her realize her true destiny, that her calling for the ocean was out of love for her people and that she should embrace who she was. In Usnavi’s story, she materializes in the form of a mural painted on the grate of Usnavi’s shop. Her joyful face makes him realize that he’s been longing for a future that isn’t aligned with what he stands for. He now knows that he’s considered DR home all his life, and didn’t even notice until now that he’d been home all along.

Nina’s moment with her dead grandma of love is more similar to Moana’s. When her dream to go to college and be successful failed and she was at her saddest, her memories of Abuela Claudia helped her realize that she could go to college to make her Abuela proud and embrace her Latino identity to go forward.

Resolution, Compromise

Here, it is quite obvious that Moana is a story for children and that it has a much happier ending than In the Heights. Moana discovers that Te Ka was Te Fiti all along, helps her find herself again. She saves her island and her people and they go back to the ancient ways of sailing across the ocean. She is even blessed by the reincarnation of her grandma in the form of a manta ray.

Usnavi and Nina have harsher compromises to make. Usnavi realizes that the block where he grew up was his home all along, found pride in his identity as both American and Dominican, and although he did win the lottery, the neighborhood is still going to be poor, to suffer from gentrification, to be dismantled. Nina realizes the same thing, she now knows that she can find purpose in her background and family and that they are a strength to her, but still it does not take away the hard reality that her father had to sacrifice his life’s business to help her achieve her goals. Both of them ultimately decide to live a life that pays homage to their lost Abuela Claudia.

And so the stories are about identity at their core. Whether as a wayfinder or as a Latinx child of immigrants, the protagonists find purpose in the past experiences of their people to inform their future as a new guide for the community, Moana by saving the world and getting her people back on water, Usnavi by keeping Abuela Claudia’s legacy and telling her stories, Nina by making her community proud and succeeding in college.

Tears of Feels

Both Moana and In the Heights will make you sob your eyes out. There’s that.

Overall, of course, the two stories have a very different tone, style, polish to them. It’s only normal, as they are both the product of completely different mediums and are telling a different story. It’s just nice to think about their similarities. Disney really made the right choice hiring Lin-Manuel Miranda to work on that particular story.

Images courtesy of Disney

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