We took my dad to see “In the Heights” at the Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas, for Father’s Day. He loved it. We loved it. But best of all, this musical about a New York City neighborhood I’ve never seen gave me back my mom, both while I was at the show and each time I’ve listened to the soundtrack thereafter.
I can’t believe Lin-Manuel Miranda started writing this when he was in college. Doesn’t that mean it should hit the three Ds: dark, disturbed, and depressing? But “In the Heights” is none of those. We get “Paciencia Y Fe,” patience and faith. Also love and a profound sweetness.
How did he write Nina’s parents so well before he became a parent? My husband teared up at Kevin Rosario’s “Inútil,” the lament of every father watching a daughter grow up. And Camila Rosario’s “Enough” — don’t you think Linda Loman from “Death of a Salesman” seriously needs to sing along?
The character Miranda plays, Usnavi, is not the hot guy. (That’s Benny.) Usnavi is a little awkward— he can’t even open a bottle of champagne. But his love for Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood grandmother, causes the neighborhood to sing one of the most lovely songs I’ve ever heard, “Alabanza.”
Because my Spanish-speaking mama raised me, I think alabanza sounds prettier than “praise.” “Sunrise” is nice, but amanecer sounds musical, especially when Nina and Benny sing it as a duet. Even no me diga, as compared to “you don’t say” or “don’t tell me” is, well, mejor.
Ever since my mom died seven years ago, hearing Spanish or someone speaking with some sort of Spanish accent undoes me. (And I live in Texas, so it happens a lot.) Spanish means she’s here.
That’s because Merry Nell Drummond often spoke Spanish. She learned it during the summer she spent in Mexico City after high school, and she learned more when she met my father on a University of Texas student exchange trip to Chile a few years later. In the 39 years I knew her she was always happy to translate for anyone who needed a little help navigating a grocery store counter or a doctor’s office or what have you. When my parents wanted to say something they didn’t want me to hear — often something lovey-dovey — they spoke Spanish.
As I listened to “Breathe,” I felt like my mom was singing to me along with the community singing to Nina. She doesn’t anyone to know she’s dropped out of Stanford because she doesn’t want to let them down, especially not her parents. But while she’s singing this gorgeous, heartfelt ballad, the community shares their love and support:
Sigue andando el camino por toda su vida [Continue walking the path all your life]
Y si pierdes mis huellas que Dios te bendiga [And if you lose the way God gave/blessed you]
There was a note on Genius.com about that third line, that the traditional way to say “God bless you” is Dios te bendiga, so the line could read, “And if you lose the way, God bless you.” I like that. Because I did lose my way for a while when my mom died. The word huellas literally means “footprints,” and I can say that with Mom’s footprints gone, mine were no longer as steady. So I wrote 72 poems about her, and eventually I was able to continue walking on the path. I guess I’ll keep walking it for the rest of my life.
Alabanza means to raise this
Thing to God’s face
And to sing, quite literally: “Praise to this.”
So, yes. Alabanza a Merry Nell Drummond. Like Doña Claudia, “she was just here.” And alabanza a “In the Heights.”