How Melissa Barrera Came Full Circle

In the Heights took its star back to where she first found the inspiration to pursue her dreams.

Photo: Maiwenn Raoult/The New York Times/Redux
Photo: Maiwenn Raoult/The New York Times/Redux
Photo: Maiwenn Raoult/The New York Times/Redux

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

Melissa Barrera was a high schooler on a Model UN trip to New York City when she first watched a new musical by a then-unknown: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. She was at a crossroads in her life and had her doubts about leaving her home in Monterrey, Mexico, to pursue acting. After exiting the theater, she knew she was going to chase her dreams. “I was just so moved and so inspired and it gave me so much hope because I could clearly see myself in this musical,” Barrera remembers. “Watching In the Heights gave me the confidence to do it.”

After seeing In the Heights about 15 times on Broadway, Barrera is now starring in Jon M. Chu’s movie adaptation as Vanessa, a headstrong young woman with dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She’s one of the main characters in a story about a community on the verge of change, where residents nurture their own aspirations like starting a new business, moving back to their parents’ home island, helping their children through college, and finding wealth and fulfillment at the end of a hard day’s work.

Even in an ensemble filled with lively personalities, Vanessa’s voice is not one to fade into the background, and neither is Barrera’s. She’s a fast and spirited talker, quick to recall stories and share details. As a singer and dancer, she’s among the most powerful in the cast, belting through emotional notes and making her way through rapid-fire salsa steps with a graceful ease. When we talk, Barrera is exuberant, remembering those long hot days of filming In the Heights during New York City’s unforgiving summer and the extra hours of practice to perfect her choreography with an enthusiastic smile. “It felt like a party every day,” she said. “We were all very conscious that it was going to go so fast and that before we knew it was going to be over, and we were trying to absorb every second that we had together.” In the two years since the cast sang and danced in Washington Heights, Barrera says she and her co-stars have become like a family of their own, complete with its own group chat where they send supportive messages to one another.

Since Vanessa finds her passion in designing clothes, her wardrobe was an integral part of Barrera’s character-building process. Working with the film’s costume designer, Mitchell Travers, Barrera found Vanessa’s DIY style while trying on different outfits, nixing anything that seemed too expensive or impractical for her on-the-go life. “Once I’m in the clothes, I see her, I see who she is,” Barrera said.

From the moment she tears into the film’s central bodega in a pair of heels, Barrera is an unstoppable force. In the opening number, Vanessa is on the phone pushing back against a real-estate agent and breezing by Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and his failed efforts to ask her out. Vanessa has no time for a weak pickup line. She’s got her sights set on getting out of Washington Heights. She doesn’t suffer from the shyness that plagues Usnavi, and she doesn’t suffer fools. “She is a woman in control,” Barrera said of her character. “There’s a lot of anger in her. There’s a lot of shame. There’s a feeling that she’s been rejected so much, but her passion for designing clothes is so much stronger.”

Photo: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Vanessa’s determined spirit is one many viewers can relate to, including Barrera. “I am that character. This idea of a woman who wants to get out of her neighborhood or her small town and pursue her dream somewhere else was something that I wanted to do,” she said. Watching In the Heights, I find myself identifying with several of the characters’ stories, but Vanessa’s ambitious moxie is what resonated the most. I recognize that hell-bent energy as the same one that pushed me to buy a one-way ticket out of Central Florida when it came time to go to college. Since then, I’ve moved from coast to coast and in between the plains and the mountains in pursuit of a career my parents never knew existed. The desperate search to find a cheap apartment to live in? I’ve done it. Working long hours while trying to land a dream job? I’ve done that, too.

As in real life, not all of Vanessa’s attempts at moving up in the world are met with success. While studying at New York University, Barrera originally envisioned acting on Broadway after graduation. Instead, she found more opportunities back home in Mexico, where she worked on both the stage and screen. “That’s what I thought my life was going to be, and then life changes, and different doors open up for you,” she said. “And you’re like, all right, I’m going to go in here and see where this takes me.”

And it took her right back to where she first found the inspiration to pursue her dreams. Intimidated by the prospect of creating the cinematic version of Vanessa, Barrera said she took on the challenge by creating a backstory, explaining the absence of her character’s parents and how hard she’s worked over the years to launch her fashion career. “She feels like she’s at a disadvantage, and I feel like that’s why she tries to distance herself as much as she can from the community and from the people,” she said. There were a handful of moments where Barrera made a few suggestions about what Vanessa does or says in the movie, and the filmmakers trusted her instincts. That included an instance during the joyous “Carnaval Del Barrio.” Barrera and Chu first thought Vanessa could dance with those hoisting the Mexican flag and the song’s refrain about feeling “powerless” could go to another co-star, but Barrera realized that at that point in the musical, Vanessa would not be in good spirits. As much as she wanted to represent her country’s flag onscreen, it felt better for her to stay true to her character’s emotions.

Barrera describes the experience of playing Vanessa as coming full circle. It’s not just a performance she took on for nostalgic reasons. She knows just how powerful representation in art can be, seeing as a Broadway musical starring people who looked like her changed the course of her life. “The point of this movie is for people to connect and to be for people to feel seen,” she said, adding that the cast put all their effort into make their communities proud. To Barrera, the release of In the Heights feels like the dawning of a new era.

“The healing starts with this movie, [going] back to our lives and back to happiness and back to freedom is what this movie feels like,” she said. “We’re opening back up, and I’m so excited for the world to get to share in all the love of this movie.” In the Heights is also a celebration of the communities that lift us up through good times and bad. Barrera hopes the film will start “a domino effect” of many more movies that depict the Latinx, Black, and Asian American talent that made the movie possible as human beings, each trying to pursue their own dreams every day.

How Melissa Barrera Came Full Circle