What “Hamilton” in San Juan Means to Puerto Rico

Source: The New Yorker

Last Friday evening, as spectators streamed into the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré, San Juan’s main performing-arts center, a man in a Colonial waistcoat, breeches, and cravat spoke into a microphone in the plaza. “We want everybody to join this fight for Puerto Rico to become the fifty-first state,” he said. He was joined by about a dozen demonstrators from the pro-statehood group Sociedad Civil Estadista, holding signs that said “We Want to Be in the Room Where It Happens” and “We Are Not Throwing Away Our Shot.” “Alexander Hamilton was a good man,” the speaker continued. “He was one of the Founding Fathers. He was an intellectual author of this nation. So thank you, everyone, and welcome to Puerto Rico.”

Across the plaza—and across the island’s political spectrum—a Ph.D. student named Zorimar Rivera Montes stood beside steel barricades wearing a backpack. “My doctoral dissertation is partly on ‘Hamilton’ and its politics,” she said. She didn’t have a ticket but was hoping that something would turn up. Rivera Montes was raised with an “anti-colonial upbringing,” she said, and supports Puerto Rican independence. The opening-night spectacle, she observed, was “laced with so many ironies. Hamilton was born in the Caribbean. And now we have his ghost coming back to the Caribbean. He was the founder of the American debt system, right?” She went on: “I’m very curious to see how a Puerto Rican audience connects to the story of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton is big in the U.S., because that’s your forefather.” Her friend Gisela Rosario Ramos added dryly, “There’s a new Founding Father: Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

How did a bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman get dropped in a bruised-but-not-forgotten spot in the Caribbean, sixteen months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island? It all had to do with Miranda, the show’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author and star, who was returning to the title role on a tide of good will, for the first time since leaving the Broadway production, in 2016. In the wake of the hurricane, which knocked out the island’s power grid and caused some three thousand deaths, Miranda has become a tireless fund-raiser and champion for Puerto Rico, where his father was born and where he spent summers as a child. He released a charity singleand helped raise forty-three million dollars in relief funds. He urged people to “keep Puerto Rico in your hearts” from the red carpet of the Academy Awards. And he currently appears in a Web series from the tourism outfit Discover Puerto Rico. Around the island, pretty much everyone referred to him as Lin-Manuel.

Miranda’s return to “Hamilton” this month is the capstone of his efforts to bring attention and resources to the island, whose crippling economic problems were only compounded by the hurricane. Tickets range from ten-dollar lottery seats set aside for locals to five-thousand-dollar tickets benefitting the Flamboyan Arts Fund. The arrival of “Hamilton” also came at just the moment that Puerto Rico is eager to turn the page on disaster coverage and emphasize the positive. “There’s an increased awareness of Puerto Rico, which is an opportunity for us to motivate people to travel,” Carla Campos, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, told me. “At the same time, we really don’t want to perpetuate that sense of crisis, because it is detached from reality.”

It is and it isn’t. Cosmetically, San Juan is in good shape, apart from a decapitated tree here and there and some traffic lights still on the fritz. In Old San Juan, a guy who sells Panama hats told me, “The last couple of weeks, it’s gone back to normal. Five days of the week, we have three or four cruises.” I heard the phrase “open for business” constantly, starting with Jimmy Fallon’s announcement that he would film a live episode in Puerto Rico with Miranda this week. The Times recently named Puerto Rico its No. 1 travel destinationfor 2019. “Demand is what we need to improve,” Campos said, “and that is directly related to perception.”

But the island faces entrenched problems. Some rural communities spent up to eleven months without power after Maria. There’s the catastrophic debt crisis, brought on largely by Congress’s elimination of manufacturing tax breaks, in 2006, and exacerbated by the 2008 recession. Under a widely despised federal-oversight board, hundreds of schools are closing. The population fell by a hundred and thirty thousand in the last year, as people sought opportunities on the mainland. And the island has been unsettled by a rash of shootings, including, last Thursday, of the gay singer Kevin Fret.

Though the Puerto Rican government has estimated the financial toll of Hurricane Maria at forty-three billion dollars, the San Juan-based economist Heidie Calero puts the number at a hundred and fifty-nine billion, with a recovery period of at least fifteen to twenty years. “We need to address infrastructure as quickly as possible,” she told me, “and that includes the electrical system, which is just glued by chewing gum.”

In bringing “Hamilton” to Puerto Rico, Miranda called international attention to the island’s progress and also to its daunting obstacles. The island, in return, projected both its hopes and its frustrations onto the show. On the morning of the première, Miranda tweeted a message to Alexander Hamilton: “Happy birthday, man. I have kind of a weird present for you this year.” But the gift was clearly for Puerto Rico, delivered from the heart and received with ripples of excitement and a degree of wariness.

ixteen miles west of San Juan—and two hundred and sixty miles northwest of Hamilton’s birthplace, on the island of Nevis—Miranda’s father, Luis Miranda, Jr., held court one morning in Vega Alta, his home town. Miranda père is possibly even more animated than his son, though his career is not in musical theatre. He left Puerto Rico, at eighteen, to study psychology at N.Y.U., and had an unhappy few years as a therapist (“I hated people’s problems”) before entering Democratic politics. In 1980, he moved to Washington Heights with his wife, Luz, who is a psychologist (“She loves people’s problems”), and their infant son, Lin-Manuel.

But he kept coming back to Vega Alta, bringing Lin-Manuel to spend the summers there. A month before Hurricane Maria, he opened La Placita de Güisin, a small plaza across the street from a gas station, featuring an arepa stand, a café, and a gift shop that sells Lin-Manuel Miranda merchandise, including mugs, T-shirts, and stickers with inspirational messages. (“Love is love is love . . .”) “We figured we’d use it as a little cultural hub,” Miranda told me. He was dressed in a pink guayabera shirt and stood in front of a mosaic of his father, Luis Miranda, Sr. (nicknamed Güisin), who ran the town’s credit union, and of Lin-Manuel as Hamilton. He opened the door to an adjacent building, which used to house the Board of Elections but is now Museo Miranda, a gallery for “Hamilton” fan art, Miranda family portraits, and Lin-Manuel’s Tony Award for Best Original Score. If you ever imagined what it would be like if your parents opened a museum about you, this is it.

The placita was unscathed by the hurricane, but the house where Luis Miranda’s parents once lived, in Maricao, was destroyed. “We just finished rebuilding,” he said. “In fact, we reopened the house on New Year’s Day.” He walked me down a commercial street, past a banner of Lin-Manuel with the hashtag #YoSoyVegaAlta. Across from a shuttered eye clinic, Miranda stopped in the square next to the town church.

“When we got power in Maricao, probably the end of February, they saw the power-authority brigade going in—and those were celebrations,” he recalled. “It was unbelievable. My brother called me on FaceTime so I could live with him the coming of power to the town. And it continues to be a traumatic experience. Everybody has some story. That’s why, when they said that thirtysomething people had died, I’m, like, that’s not possible! From this town, I know twenty people who said some family member died because their medical machine malfunctioned, and they’re not counting that as collateral damage of the hurricane.”

Since he opened the placita, three other businesses have opened nearby. “Two-thirds of the town is closed,” he said. “Lots of people are just leaving. Even though people want to come back, you’ve got to give people a good reason to beback.”

Luis Miranda was one of the driving forces behind bringing “Hamilton” to Puerto Rico. The original plan was to stage it at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus, driving money and attention to an institution that needed some love in a neighborhood far from the tourist center of San Juan.

But the well-intentioned plan fell apart just before Christmas, after talk spread of possible demonstrations over staff-budget cuts. A practice of restricting police presence on campus raised security concerns. The producers scrambled to move the show to Bellas Artes, a Lincoln Center-like facility in Santurce, a neighborhood described by one resident as “the hot-shit center of hip San Juan living.”

Luis Miranda told me that the last straw, for him, came when he ran into three students after a production meeting. “One of them says, ‘Oh, yeah, we have dedicated entire classes to discuss if this is good for the University of Puerto Rico or not.’ ” He blanched. “I’m listening to this discussion, and I’m thinking, Is this for real? I remember looking at one of the kids and saying, ‘You know what? We made the right decision to come to Puerto Rico. We made the wrong decision of going to the U.P.R. theatre.’ ”

Although “Hamilton” poured more than a million dollars into renovating the university theatre, there was still disappointment on campus. Sylvia Bofill, who teaches playwriting and dramatic history there, told me, “The impression of students was, they felt somehow it was going to be more approachable, that they were going to be able to see the play.” (A thousand of the ten thousand lottery tickets were set aside for students.) “I think, at the end, it was a loss both for the university and the production. It would have been great for the students to have a forum with Lin-Manuel to ask questions about the controversy.”

The day before the première, outdated “Hamilton” banners still hung around campus. Classes had not started, so there were more stray cats than students in the main quad. Near the theatre, I spotted a young woman with curly hair painting a bench with the word “humanidades.” She had specks of white paint on her cheek, and introduced herself as María Rosa López, a science student.

“It’s complicated,” she said, of the “Hamilton” drama. Her English was spotty, so her friend Christopher Pacheco, who was helping her paint, translated. “They should have consulted at least with the students,” he said. “The government is saying it’s the workers’ union’s fault. They didn’t want a protest here, so they moved the play. But they weren’t going to protest. It was just an excuse. The government wants to close the university down.”

When I asked why, López reverted to English. “They don’t want people to get educated.”

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