In the Heights

Photo probably taken at the park on 175th and Fort Washington, ca. 1990.

When the trailer for In the Heights was released in late 2019, I got flashbacks of my childhood and I couldn’t wait to watch it. I never got the opportunity to see the musical live, but I am drawn to anything about the neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City, since it was the backdrop to my more recent family history: it’s where I spent my formative years and where my parents met and fell in love.

I saw In the Heights a few weeks ago this summer cuddled up with my daughters on the living room couch here in Boston. The film brought back memories of family get-togethers with banquets prepared in tiny Manhattan kitchens, running through open fire hydrants or splashing in the community pool to cool off in the summer (the pool scene was shot on location at Highbridge Pool), and having Latin music and hip hop as the soundtrack to our daily lives. Through the film I was able to show my girls a glimpse of my childhood.

My husband Chris Child has discussed my Dominican heritage in some of his prior posts. The Dominican settlement in Washington Heights began in earnest with the fall of the Trujillo dictatorship in 1961 and the passage of the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act in 1965. My paternal grandmother, born in 1931, was one of seven children who grew up in Los Limones, Dominican Republic. In the 1960s five of her siblings (Felipa, José, Fidelina, Mirope, and Amado) would emigrate to New York City, while she and one other sister largely remained in Dominican Republic. Most of these siblings worked in New York’s Garment District. In the movie In the Heights the characters fantasize about what they’d do with a winning lottery ticket. My great-uncle, and godfather, José Badía struck it big with a winning lottery ticket and used his earnings to update the family farmhouse in Los Limones and establish a chicken farm there.

My great-uncle, and godfather, José Badía struck it big with a winning lottery ticket and used his earnings to update the family farmhouse in Los Limones and establish a chicken farm there.

In the late 1970s, my parents both made their way to the United States. My mother Claudia was the tenth of eleven children from La Vega, and graduated from high school at the same time as her brother, thirteen months her senior. While her parents sent their son to college, their daughter would go to New York City, and rented a room from Fidelina, a family friend also from the Dominican Republic, at 590 West 172nd Street.

My father skipped his college graduation ceremony to board an airplane bound for the United States with a work visa in hand. He moved with a friend to an apartment in New Jersey near his job in a lab. With several aunts, uncles, and cousins in nearby New York City, he had a family circle to visit on the weekends. While visiting his aunt Fidelina he met Claudia. He found every excuse to visit his aunt weekly. Fast-forward to a few years later and I was born!

The author at center with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, published in the New York Daily News, 27 January 1993.

While my mother and I would soon move back to Dominican Republic for a few years while my father worked in New Jersey, by the mid-1980s we were reunited in a small apartment in Washington Heights. Throughout my childhood, I lived close to several relatives, some recently arrived in New York, and some who had lived in the city since birth. My parents and I, and by this point two younger brothers, would move to rural New Jersey in 1993. The lack of city noise initially made it difficult for me to sleep! Several relatives live in Washington Heights today (some are still in the same building where I spent a large portion of my childhood), as well as in the Bronx. While our daughters’ nearest relatives are more than an hour away from where we live in Boston, when I was growing up I always had between twenty and forty relatives living within a few city blocks.

Much like Nina and Vanessa, the lead female characters of In the Heights, my sueñito while I was living in Washington Heights had a lot to do with leaving the neighborhood behind. Just like them I’ve realized that the neighborhood will always define a part of who I am as I make my dreams into reality.

About Arlene Ovalle-Child

Arlene Ovalle-Child grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, a child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. She attended Drew University, where she concentrated in both Physics and Spanish, then received her M.A. in Hispanic Studies from Boston College. She earned her doctorate at Boston University with a dissertation entitled Objetos de deseo en los cuentos de Silvina Ocampo. She is a member of the Modern Languages Department at Simmons University, where she teaches Spanish.

6 thoughts on “In the Heights

  1. Arlene, What a wonderful description of your childhood and journey to the present, from Washington Heights to your current residence in Boston!!! Your students at Simmons clearly have a second education they’re receiving in addition to your expertise and fluency in Spanish when you share your journey.

  2. Genealogy is more than the past! (But yours has presented Chris will REAL challenges that have only made him a better professional at this.) Will be thinking of you when I see ITH. Best wishes. (Oh, and Chris? Good decision.)

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