The High Price of ‘El Sueñito’

Photo: Warner Bros.

In 1956, Puerto Rico was home to my abuelos’ greatest tragedy. That year, their daughter Evelyn, my mother’s younger sister, died suddenly of a preventable fetal disease. The family’s home was filled with memories of their loss, so, among an influx of Puerto Rican immigrants to the U.S. mainland and in the era of West Side Story, my abuelo brought my abuela and my mother, who was 2 years old at the time, to Hoboken, New Jersey, in an attempt to escape their trauma and fulfill their sueñito: to have and provide for children who would not have to struggle and experience the loss that they did.

Sometimes Americans born in the United States seem to forget that people born in Puerto Rico are American citizens. Because of this, coupled with the racism and xenophobia that is persistent across the mainland, Puerto Ricans who come here have experiences of othering and discrimination that are similar to many immigrants’, though they do not have to undergo the dehumanizing experience of trying to achieve citizenship. Even though my abuelo held a business degree and had served time in the military, when he came to New Jersey and didn’t speak English, his only opportunities for work were factory jobs. As his family grew, he couldn’t afford to take risks — he had to work within the system to build the life he wanted for them.

For my abuelo, truly fulfilling his dream meant doing it himself. He did not ask for help. He never allowed his family to receive welfare or food stamps, even when they needed to. He endured long hours at jobs he was overqualified for because he felt it was what he had to do to provide for my abuela, my mom, and her four younger brothers. He believed the messages he had been told: that he had to work hard and make sacrifices to build a better life — one that mirrored the lives of other Americans who had been born with privileges he didn’t have.

In the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights, each character has their own sueñito and faces different challenges in reaching it. And while the film provides a colorful display of Latinx culture, it does not fully illustrate the diversity of Latinx people. The prevalence of colorism and anti-Blackness in the Latinx community contributed to the film’s casting, which intentionally left out dark-skinned Afro-Latinx people and kept their sueñitos and stories from being told. Miranda has since responded to these calls for accountability.

Although their sueñitos are varied, the main characters are united by their relentless pursuit of them and the obstacles the characters face in Washington Heights. Usnavi dreams of returning to his home in the Dominican Republic. Vanessa dreams of leaving el barrio and becoming a fashion designer. Sonny goes to protests and dreams of making his neighborhood more prosperous. Nina Rosario’s sueñito is a product of her father, Kevin, who came to the mainland from Puerto Rico and searched for work his whole life, beginning as a shoe shiner and eventually owning and operating his own car service. As Nina grows up and shows promise academically, Kevin ties his success to hers, and she becomes his sueñito. After Nina graduates high school at the top of her class, she attends Stanford University, and the film begins when Nina returns to Washington Heights after her freshman year and tells the neighborhood she won’t be returning to Stanford in the fall. When she tries to tell her father this, he doesn’t listen to her experiences of racism and classism and the ways she feels she has betrayed her community. Instead, he tells her she must return to school. In these moments, Kevin isn’t trying to help Nina achieve her own dream; he’s trying to achieve his. For many parents, fulfilling the American Dream means building a life in which their children can be successful. To be as American as possible, parents think, their children need to subscribe to Americanness as well.

At its core, pursuing the American Dream is no different from aspiring to whiteness. Nina was able to get into Stanford, but once there, she had no one to protect her or to affirm the struggles she faced. Perhaps subconsciously, my mom had aspired to whiteness herself: She hesitated to wear bright colors for fear of being seen as a “loud Latina,” and she didn’t teach us Spanish because she didn’t feel comfortable speaking it in public. She tells me now that she regrets this, but these decisions weren’t her fault — she did what she was told she needed to do to survive and to make it easier for her children to be successful in the American sense. Now, much like Abuela Claudia says in the film, my mother and I feel the same way about our Puerto Ricanness: We must be unapologetically Boricua to remind people that we are not invisible.

Unlike Nina, I have spent most of my life in predominantly white spaces, constantly oscillating between feeling too Latinx or feeling just white enough, depending on where I am and whom I’m around. Up until a few years ago, I got so used to assimilating into whiteness that I didn’t even notice the subtle racism and othering I experienced. This isn’t the same experience for many Latinx people, especially Afro-Latinx people, who do not have the ability to assimilate as easily as I do. Not until I connected with other people of color in corporate settings did I realize the experiences I had that made me pause were not a result of being too sensitive but were, in fact, valid. On the surface, I appear to have achieved my abuelo’s dream: I went to a private university, I work in corporate America, and I will be attending law school in the fall. At best, people of color experience discomfort and isolation in schools and workplaces, and at worst, we face violence. By existing in these spaces, we are aspiring to a goal that was, in many ways, never intended for us to achieve.

As I navigated discomfort in my workplace while applying for and facing rejections from law schools, I found comfort in playing the original Broadway cast recording of In the Heights on loop, replaying Nina’s opening ballad, “Breathe,” until I felt a bit more at ease. Although our stories differ, Nina and the other characters made me feel both heard in the discomfort I’ve faced and at home in the references, words, and sounds of my culture.

Throughout the film, I saw myself in Nina’s struggle to understand where she belongs and what future she wants to create for herself. In “When You’re Home,” Nina wonders aloud:

When I was younger, I’d imagine what would happen

If my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico

Who would I be if I had never seen Manhattan

If I lived in Puerto Rico with my people

My people!

I feel like all my life, I’ve tried to find the answer

Working harder, learning Spanish, learning all I can

I thought I might find the answer out at Stanford

But I’d stare out at the sea

Thinking, Where am I supposed to be?

I’ve often wondered what my family would look like if we weren’t burdened with the pressure and trauma of the American Dream. What if my abuelos had stayed in Puerto Rico? What did we sacrifice to get here?

In March, just days before he was supposed to receive his second shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, my abuelo passed away in Puerto Rico. My abuelo, still refusing food stamps and welfare, settling for poor health care and believing in the promises of lottery tickets, held on to his pride until the day he died. As I mourned his loss, I wondered if he felt like he had fulfilled his sueñito and if it was even worth it. If I told him the things that were said to me and the ways I was silenced, what would he say to me? Would he be angry? Remorseful? Would he think that feeling this way at all meant I was ungrateful? Would he wish he had stayed in Puerto Rico too? Would he see his sueñito in me?

I have no way of knowing if the life my family has now is any better than what we would have had if we’d stayed in Puerto Rico. All I know is that I hope I fulfilled his sueñito — despite the sacrifices and even if it wasn’t mine.

The High Price of El Sueñito