A Politics of Memory and Hope: The Catholic Political Ethos of In the Heights

During the last presidential election, it was not unusual for commentators to reference Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton as a counter-narrative to the rise of Donald Trump. The story of an immigrant, who was integrally involved in the American experiment, who was concerned about the dangers of populist politics in particular, resonated with many across the political spectrum. It functioned as an anti-narrative to Trump’s faux-populist, anti-immigrant political platform.

Yet, perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda’s political masterpiece is not the thoroughly re-imagined life of Alexander Hamilton but his first musical, In the Heights. In this musical about the gentrification of a once Dominican-American (and before that Irish) neighborhood in Washington Heights in New York City, Miranda artistically describes a culture that attends to both the importance of memory and the hopes of a future. It is precisely these two dispositions that must become the heart of a Catholic political culture in the age of an ideological and divisive politics in which human dignity is often forgotten by those who profess the credos of their respective parties.

A Politics of Memory

The act of remembering is a constant throughout In the Heights. There is the memory of immigrants, who have left behind their homeland, to discover in the United States something akin to a “new home.” There is the remembering of the neighborhood itself, which is undergoing significant changes because of the gentrification caused by hipsters (ironically now flocking to Hamilton but that’s a story for another time). Although Miranda does not himself say it, artisanal cheese shops are replacing neighborhood bodegas and hair salons where stories (and thus) human relationships are being forgotten. As Nina and Benny walk the neighborhood, they remember a world that is disappearing before their eyes.

The heart of this remembering is Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood’s grandmother who keeps alive the stories of each family. Her death is a moment in which each character encounters the dissolution of time and thus of place. Their stories, like many stories of that neighborhood before, will be forgotten.

This emphasis upon memory in the musical is the heart of the political vision of In the Heights. Memory is not a form of traditionalism whereby one simply refers back to some idealized past. After all, this comes to be the great foible of Usnavi in In the Heights—he imagines that he can return to the Dominican Republic as his home, all the while forgetting that his home is now where he was raised, where he has established particular relationships with others.

Memory is not traditionalism but a constant referring back to those narratives by which we must make sense of the present. And these memories are tied to particular places, not simply ideas. As Paul Connerton writes in his classic, How Societies Remember:

Groups provide individuals with frameworks within which their memories are localized and memories are localized by a kind of mapping. We situate what we recollect within the mental spaces provided by the group….It is our social spaces—those which we occupy, which we frequently retrace with our steps, where we always have access, which at each moment we are capable of mentally reconstructing—that we must turn our attention, if our memories are to reappear. Our memories are located within the mental and material spaces of the group. (37)

Thus, the restoration of a political culture must take place through attending to the public spaces that we share in common. A Catholic political philosophy is not fundamentally about ideas, about the creation of a utopia apart from particularity. It is always about the particularities of place, of time, of the spaces that we call home.

The danger of the present American political arena is that it forgets about the particularities of place, where political culture is actually lived in concrete human communities. Politics cannot simply be about regulations, laws, and elections. It is not an on-going drama whereby a certain elite class of citizens in Washington DC entertains the American citizenship whose eyes are glued to the carnival of excess. It is not the exercise of raw power for its own sake. Politics is about the ordering of local life toward the common good. As Pope Francis notes about the establishment of this local ecology: “Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlook the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes…need to be based in the local culture itself” (Laudato ‘Si, no. 144).

Both Democrats and Republicans seem to get this wrong. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike fail because they too often seek to create a global citizen (or financier), who is not attached to any local culture. They look with derision on those who choose to live in spaces outside of the city, committing themselves to a particular narrative that is often radically distinct from the one told by cultural elites. These are not backwards people, who need to get with the times. They may disagree with progressive and conservative politicians alike on social issues, on how to best take care of finances for the nation-state, even about what public education should include.

The Church has an important function here in holding up particular memories in these local communities. We read old texts, because what is passed on to us is a privileged source even now for present wisdom. We hold onto old buildings, because the stones themselves are steeped in memories of redemption both ancient and new. We acknowledge and foster the memories and cultures of local peoples, precisely because everything that is human may become a source of redemption—an image of divine love for us to contemplate. It is not enough for the Church to form consciences for faithful citizens every four years. Instead, like Abuela Claudia in In the Heights, we must become custodians of memory for a society that seeks increasingly to forget.

A Politics of Hope

It is because of this politics of memory that we dare to hope. In the Heights often concerns itself with the hopes of its residents. Vanessa wants to move uptown, away from the barrio, to the heart of uptown Manhattan. Usnavi wants to leave behind his bodega, opening a bar on a beach in the Dominican Republic. Kevin Rosario wants his daughter, Nina, to have possibilities for success that he couldn’t by obtaining her degree from Stanford. Dreaming is such a large part of In the Heights that much of its action revolves around the hope of winning the lottery.

There is a subtle critique throughout In the Heights relative to the rather limited “hopes” that many of the characters have. They want to win the lotto so that they can pay an entry fee to a business school and thus become a multi-millionaire engaged in business dealings on the golf course (with ironically now President Donald Trump as a caddy). They want to use the money to leave Washington Heights behind, fulfilling the American dream of “making it.” But the social conscience of In the Heights, Sonny, opens up alternative possibilities for what fulfillment of the American dream might look like:


With ninety-six thousand, I’d finally fix housin’

Give the barrio computers with wireless web browsin’

Your kids are livin’ without a good edjumication

Change the station, teach ‘em about gentrification

The rent is escalatin’…

The rich are penetratin’…

We pay our corporations but we should be demonstratin’…

What about immigration?…

Politicians be hatin’…

Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant…

I’ll call my ticket and picket, invest in protest

Never lose my focus ‘til the city takes notice

And you know this man! I’ll never sleep

Because the ghetto has a million promises for me to keep! (“96,000”)

Sonny’s desire is to transform the particular place that he calls home. It is not to leave behind the place for the sake of his own individual success. He wants to bring the community of Washington Heights along.

It takes a long time for Usnavi to come to the same conclusion. Only after encountering the hopeful depiction of a graffiti artist’s series commemorating the death of Abuela Claudio does Usnavi realize what his dream must be:

I illuminate the stories of the people in the street

Some have happy endings

Some are bittersweet

But I know them all and that’s what makes my life complete

And if not me, who keeps our legacies?

Who’s gonna keep the coffee sweet with secret recipes?

Abuela, rest in peace, you live in my memories

But Sonny’s gotta eat, and this corner is my destiny (“Finale”).

Usnavi assumes his vocation as the one who remembers the people of Washington Heights, who undertakes responsibilities for the hopes expressed by Sonny. From memory comes hope.

Once again, the present political situation is short on hope. Political parties flourish (or at least politicians believe they will) through the inducement of fear. “Elect me or else the worst will occur” was the theme of the last presidential election. Yet, human beings can change the world precisely because human beings can dare to hope. This hope is not a memoryless hope that bypasses the particularity of local communities, of the wisdom passed on by our forebears. For it is a hope that sees the possibility of a present world that conforms itself more fully to the gift of love at the heart of existence itself. As Benedict XVI writes:

…every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed…every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom (Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, no. 25).

The Church most of all has a responsibility to perform this politics of hope. We dare to hope for a world in which the unborn, the immigrant, African-American men and women, the man sentenced to death row, every human being created in the image and likeness of God is treated as a person worthy of love.

This is not our present world. And sometimes, this world can be rather dark. But, through the witness of love, we hope that a new world conformed to divine love can take shape in local communities. This work of hope is at the heart of the Church’s effort of evangelization. We do not spurn the world, opting for some escape from the present age, but we take the world along with us toward the fullness of redemption. Because God first loved us, we can love the world.

In this way, In the Heights can function as a parable for the Church’s present mission of politics in this age. We pass on a memory of what authentic human flourishing can look like at the local level. Narrating this memory through our very lives, we learn to hope that human dignity can become not a political football between conservative and progressive Catholics or politicians but a form of life lived concretely in South Bend, in Washington DC, and in Charleston, SC.

It’s time for the Church to cease simply thinking about how we should vote. Instead, our work is to rebuild a political ethos outside the sphere of ideological politics that have poisoned the political well. We do so not as naïve millennials but as those who have attended to the memories of hope that manifest themselves in the Tradition that has given shape to our identity in late modern society.

Who knows? Perhaps, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next musical will be about us.

Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.