On Jan. 11, Lin-Manuel Miranda starred in his hit musical “Hamilton” on the opening night of the almost three-week fundraising performance series in Puerto Rico. “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico was marketed as a huge effort to support the island’s people, who are still struggling to recover nearly a year and a half after Hurricane María hit the island in September 2017. Miranda’s “homecoming,” as it was referred to, was intended not only as a concrete effort to boost the devastated economy but also as a meaningful gesture of solidarity that was greatly celebrated by many. However, as much as I, too, love and respect Miranda as a representative of Puerto Rican culture, his production in Puerto Rico ignored and contributed to already-existing points of tension on the island, including slow hurricane relief efforts and contentious political structures. As the performances come to a close, it is worthwhile to reflect on what this event revealed about how Puerto Rico has changed, and how it hasn’t, almost a year and a half after Hurricane María.
As Puerto Ricans from all around the island gathered to receive Miranda at the airport, the “Hamilton” production team was busy at the theater of the University of Puerto Rico, working on a million-dollar renovation to prepare the space for the long-awaited performance. The decision to host the show at the UPR was important in defining what Miranda was trying to accomplish — supporting and honoring the struggle of the recuperating community. The UPR is an institution that has suffered tremendously over the past several years, not only as a result of Hurricane María’s devastation but also due to the huge budget cuts demanded by the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, the fiscal control board undemocratically imposed by the U.S. government to deal with the island’s debt crisis. Nevertheless, the students of the UPR have been leaders in Puerto Rico’s struggle for fair political representation as well as for adequate and responsible hurricane relief. Choosing to host “Hamilton” at the UPR was a sign of solidarity for these efforts as well as a confirmation of the cultural, social and political importance that the University holds.
Unfortunately, it only took one email from a union representing university staffers warning the production team that protests might arise if “Hamilton” were performed on campus to get the performance moved to a different venue, even after its renovation was underway. The students at the UPR have been protesting PROMESA and the United States’ inadequate response to the Puerto Rican crisis for years. Student efforts have been criminalized and marginalized, and yet students have continuously held their ground as one of the most powerful social and political forces on the island. The hasty decision to move venues on such short notice — so much so that opening night had to be postponed — not only undid all that “Hamilton” had accomplished by endorsing the UPR, but further cemented the characterization of students as radical, violent and dangerous. “Hamilton” and Miranda lost many supporters after this move and were seen as participants in the efforts to subdue the voices of the UPR and, by association, those of the Puerto Rican people. This incident, combined with the fact that despite holding extensive auditions on the island, only one Puerto Rican was cast in the show, tainted Miranda’s time in Puerto Rico.
These incidents reminded me and others of other recent conflicts surrounding the superstar. Miranda had already received some heat for meeting with former President Barack Obama to lobby in favor of PROMESA when the Obama administration was first drafting the bill. When Miranda gave a talk at the UPR in 2017 to announce “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico, a group of students marched on stage with a sign that read, in Spanish, “Lin-Manuel, our lives are not your theater,” in response to his involvement in PROMESA. When questioned about his stance after a performance in Puerto Rico, Miranda said that while he supported the idea of the control board initially, he does not support the strict austerity measures that have been implemented. During this same questioning, Miranda was asked about Trump’s recent proposal to take money from disaster relief efforts to pay for the U.S.-Mexico wall, to which he responded that he had not yet heard of the proposal but that he considered the idea “absolutely monstrous.” The way Miranda and his team handled the “Hamilton” production in Puerto Rico casts doubt on the consistency of Miranda’s words and actions. Furthermore, Miranda’s political statements might be quite appropriate for a socially conscious actor and writer but do not meet the standards of consistency and knowledgeability we should require from political lobbyists, to which Miranda should be held if he continues to behave as a representative of Puerto Rico in Washington.
As a Puerto Rican, I admire Miranda as a Puerto Rican cultural icon who has done a lot of good for the island’s people. However, within the context of Puerto Rico today — existing as neither a state nor a nation, governed by an undemocratically imposed control board, devastated by a Category 4 hurricane, denied the necessary aid and relief and continuously insulted by a U.S. leader who has done nothing but belittle the state of emergency — Miranda and his team seem to be missing something. Miranda is an artist, not a politician. By lobbying for political causes, he disrespects qualified Puerto Rican professional politicians, including our only representative in Congress. It could even be said that his spotlight draws more attention than the voices of Puerto Rico’s chosen political representatives.
Similarly, while I find it extremely exciting that Miranda brought “Hamilton” to Puerto Rico, attitudes around the show’s run have served to further highlight a dangerous force that has long plagued the Puerto Rican people: complacency. Despite political and physical circumstances that should infuriate even the least politically involved, Puerto Rico is consistently presented as a tropical paradise that has succeeded in bringing itself back up from ruin. This representation has only been further cemented by the press surrounding Miranda’s homecoming and the “Hamilton” performance, as well as other celebrity appearances such as the Jimmy Fallon special held in Puerto Rico featuring Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny. Puerto Rico has not recuperated — not from the devastation of Hurricane María and not from the hardship that has resulted from the intensifying austerity measures imposed by PROMESA. Ignoring this fact, a practice adopted both from inside and outside of the island, serves to rationalize an attitude of complacency toward the current circumstances. The focus needs to be shifted toward the struggle that lies ahead rather than the strides we have already made. There is a lot left to fight for and, unfortunately, this is a time for action, not celebration.
Marysol Fernandez ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.