Miranda: An American Tragedy
cual es tu titular, mano.
a nuestras espaldas y en nuestras caras,
no queremos tus favores.
no es que seas el peor, es que eres
bien vestido donde nos siguen vendiendo, coartando,
what’s your headline, man.
behind our backs and in our faces,
we don’t want your favors.
it’s not that you are the worst, it’s that you are
looking sharp into
where they keep selling, cutting us off / and you invest.
-Raquel Salas Rivera, “Hamilton”
No. No more with the eerie tentacles of this play or Hamilton as character. What took place beyond the frilled curtain? Beyond the theater’s velvet walls and security ranks flanking the perimeters of the Fine Arts Center in Santurce, Puerto Rico? There was a larger, more insidious show running on the island, a clandestine yet painfully visible performance, with our hurricane ravaged reality as the stage, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as the star performer, director, producer and orchestra conductor—orchestrator, of this multi-act madness.
On November 8, 2017, nearly two months after hurricane María’s passing over Puerto Rico, Lin-Manuel Miranda announced, on the grounds of the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras Campus, that Hamilton was coming to the island, and would be staged in the theater of that very educational institution. A group of students interrupted his announcement ceremony and Q&A session, upholding banners that read, “Lin-Manuel, nuestras vidas no son tu teatro” and “Free Puerto Rico.”
The University of Puerto Rico (UPR), the only public higher education institution on the island, had recently endured the pummeling of two category 5 hurricanes, and was recovering from a two-month long strike that took place the semester before. The reasons behind the strike are many and entangled, and to understand them, Puerto Rico’s current historic moment must be understood as well.
After a thirteen-years long economic recession that started in 2006, and illegal bond issuances to keep the archipelago running, Puerto Rico fell into a debt hole the size of $74 billion in bonds, plus $49 billion in pension obligations, the likes of which have yet to be audited. The United States Congress, colonial overseer of this Caribbean archipelago, alongside former president Barack Obama, crafted and signed the PROMESA bill into law, and imposed a Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (locally known as the Fiscal Control Board, or La Junta) onto Puerto Rico, to handle the archipelago’s finances. It was endowed with overly-slippery power and jurisdiction over policy-making and legislation in Puerto Rico, and the privilege of not being liable for its actions.
The Fiscal Control Board flew in on a private jet with an austerity campaign that has been active to this very day, slashing budgets and protections to essential public services and resources, such as health, infrastructure, natural reserves, pensions, and among these, public higher education.
The University of Puerto Rico has a long history of resistance: in 1919, students fought for freedom of expression, and against U.S. intervention in Puerto Rico. In 1921, they railed against the prohibition of the Puerto Rican flag on campus grounds. In the 1960s, the student movement mobilized for the demilitarization of the University and in protest of the Vietnam war. In 1981, the University went on strike against steep increases in tuition costs, and in 2010, against increases in student fees and the elimination of tuition exemptions. And in 2017, the entire UPR system (made up of eleven campuses) went on an indefinite strike, opposing the proposed draconian budget cuts to the University in addition to other measures, and protesting the wider economic crisis in Puerto Rico.
After the strike, exhaustion plagued even those in physical proximity to the University, and to further aggravate the situation, Hurricanes Irma and María struck Puerto Rico. This cacophony of crises further stirred up the hornet’s nest of conflict within the University, and exacerbated political unrest on the archipelago.
In the context of this moment, Lin-Manuel Miranda, son of Puerto Rico’s historic diaspora, thought it appropriate to place himself at the very center of the archipelago’s chaos, make a spectacle of the catastrophe, and call it philanthropy.
“We’re going to be doing this thing where we’re trying to attract tourism: ‘Hey, come see Lin-Manuel in Hamilton’; but we’re also […] prioritizing tickets at a rate that Puerto Ricans on the island can afford to see it and see it every night, so that thousands of students, thousands of Puerto Ricans can see the show. But we’ll be here. And I’m really excited to announce that and to plant that flag in the sand for us to work towards together,” Miranda proclaimed into a crowd of University bureaucrats and students.
There’s something about the image of planting a flag that doesn’t sit right with a colonized people. Something about tourism as recovery (and in Puerto Rico’s case, as a decades-long colonial venture). Something about selling “affordable” tickets for an imperialist play to hurricane survivors, and insisting this will save them. Something about placing “Lin-Manuel in Hamilton” at the centerstage of disaster.
The embattled student banners echoed, reverberating across the makeshift island-stage: Lin-Manuel, nuestras vidas no son tu teatro. Free Puerto Rico.
Tensions with Miranda started with his support of the PROMESA bill. Which is a reflection, not only of his political stance and affiliations, but also of the oftentimes profound experiential gap between diaspora and archipelago as well. Many movements and sectors of Puerto Rico (including movements and sectors of the Puerto Rican diaspora) have been fighting PROMESA from its very conception, criticizing its undemocratic, teetering towards dictatorial, character, and drawing attention to Congress’s outward and gaudy flexing of its colonialist muscle. Miranda’s alienation from the realities of Puerto Rico, or rather, his catering to a particular and powerful political class, have been at the center of this archipelago-wide debate.
And it was his alienation from the realities of those living on the archipelago, and the problematic stances it entailed, that devolved into the complex and messy production Miranda made of Puerto Rico.
“I am super conscious that I hold a big megaphone, and at the same time, am conscious that I do not live in Puerto Rico and I always want to be careful. What I want is to amplify the voices coming from Puerto Rico, but never with a recipe for Puerto Rico, because I am from New York, and if someone who isn’t from New York came to tell me how to run New York, I would be offended. I would say, ‘you don’t even live here.’ […] At the end of the day, I am a kid from New York with Puerto Rican parents who wants the island to be proud of me,” Miranda offered up in response to a letter sent to him by UPR’s non-teaching union, warning that they were currently engaged in an ongoing struggle with the University administration, and if certain agreements couldn’t be arrived to, they might be forced to go on strike, and his production could be affected.
Miranda’s response reads like the standpoint of a person with a critical and self-reflective awareness of his positionality in relation to a place. But praxis lies a long ways away from empty discourse.
After his declaration that he would be staging Hamilton in UPR-Río Piedras’s theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda barely consulted or engaged in horizontal and direct conversations with the university communities that struggle and toil day-in and day-out, the people who inhabit and hold the institution together: the students, faculty and non-teaching staff. And speaking of conversations, he was also unaware of or indifferent to the larger conversation and conflict around the University itself, and his disruption of the political processes taking place—how he might’ve affected or hindered them. There was no genuine attempt to learn or understand what the university communities needed, and how they could be aided and helped, rather than taken over and invisibilized. No effort to explore how the ongoing artistic projects and initiatives of these communities could be advanced, rather than imposing his own, and claiming it was for the sake and benefit of the University.
Money was the excuse and justification behind this venture. Because Miranda invested money in the theater’s rehabilitation, he acted like he was entitled to overrun and overrule internal community dynamics, and play house within a space that is currently under threat of losing its accreditation. Because the play was fundraising money for “the arts” in Puerto Rico, he acted like he had the right to override the voices and claims of those living the precarious dismantling of the only public higher education institution on the archipelago.
By taking over the University theater, Miranda displaced students and professors, whose classroom and academic space was the theater itself. Collaborative efforts, involving the university communities in the production of the play, were minimal, eventually making the gesture of opening auditions to local talent and offering up four unpaid internships to select theater and/or music majors, as the University makes it almost impossible for a large portion of the student body to afford tuition and related expenses. University money, that was by no means available before to meet the needs of the community—the educational institution’s wallet as dry as the faucets of thousands of Hurricane María survivors—was all of a sudden appearing from thin air to beautify the campus in preparation for the play.
When Miranda received the letter from UPR’s non-teaching union, warning him that his production could be affected if they went on strike (which they later followed up with another letter assuring Miranda that they wouldn’t paralyze the campus until after the run of his production), he and his father decided to move the play elsewhere, blaming the non-teaching union and claiming they had security concerns if a strike or protests were to break out. Furthermore, they didn’t solidarize themselves with the realities of the university communities, or even think of adapting their production to work with the strike or whatever demonstration arose. The governor of Puerto Rico arranged for the play to be staged in the Fine Arts Center of Santurce, in San Juan, displacing performances of the original programming.
This displacement of scheduled performers only continues to showcase Miranda’s lack of engagement with and/or mere indifference to the larger artistic and cultural communities of Puerto Rico. Once again, instead of bringing his own play—his own masterpiece—why not collaborate with and directly aid local artistic and cultural initiatives? Imbuing his play with a savior quality not only perpetuates a dynamic of coloniality, but subtly invisibilizes the efforts and existence of local initiatives doing recovery work through art and culture as well, and presupposes us incapable of saving ourselves, or rather, of needing saving at all.
Why not run low-budget, absolutely public versions of the play, in accessible spaces, for the community? The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, a first-class musical gem of the archipelago, which is housed by the Fine Arts Center as well, took to different towns around Puerto Rico after Hurricane María, offering free concerts in the public plaza of each town to bring music, healing and hope to communities after the storm’s humanitarian and political blow. Selling hurricane survivors their recovery and salvation in “cheap” tickets only adds insult to injury.
Hamilton’s debut in Puerto Rico also tapped into one of the archipelago’s largest, and most sinisterly problematic, industries: tourism. The discourse around Hamilton and Miranda’s arrival to Puerto Rico, more than circulating “recovery” rhetoric, zoned in on making a safari of the archipelago’s reality. Rather than genuinely focusing on and engaging with the affected communities in Puerto Rico, Hamilton catered to the people desirous to come to Puerto Rico.
The language of exclusive Hamilton travel packages:
“Get to Know Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Puerto Rican Culture.”
“Learn about the island culture that both Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda share.”
“Take a trip to Loíza, the epicenter of Puerto Rican culture, before experiencing the tales of one of America’s Founding Fathers.”
“Visit Vega Alta, the picturesque hometown of the Miranda family.”
Mass tourism contributes to Puerto Rico’s subservience to the United States, feeds foreign companies and luxury hotels, and is transforming the archipelago into an archipelago-resort. We continue steering and churning out individuals into the hospitality and service industry, growing into a population that works and lives around the tourist experience, rather than advancing our own—our growth, subsistence and sovereignty. Tourism was and continues to be one of colonialism’s slyest enterprises, from its impact on concrete aspects of the archipelago and Puerto Rican lives (the environment, land and long-standing communities, local businesses, etc.) to the more abstract: perpetuating the toxic idea of “paradise”, the exoticization of the archipelago, the fantasy-making of a people’s reality—and given Puerto Rico’s recent climatic struggle—romanticizing disaster and a people’s recovery. Hamilton urged mindless tourists, wealthy voyeurists, safari seekers, the ravagers of Puerto Rico’s ravaging, to come to a Puerto Rico—a home—Lin-Manuel Miranda claims his own, but has barely made an effort to understand, or listen to.
Miranda’s involvement with problematic initiatives goes even further, as he partners up with Starbucks, Nestlé and the Rockefeller Foundation to “revive” Puerto Rico’s coffee industry. After hurricane María, about 80% of the island’s coffee crops were destroyed, and seeds were running scarce. As is the history and pattern of the Hispanic Federation—which Miranda’s father runs—Miranda shook hands with these controversial coffee corporations and private foundation, not just investing (yes, not donating, investing) money in the industry, but introducing “climate resistant” seeds and training sessions for small, local coffee growers and farmers in Puerto Rico. Many worry about the quality and political-economic implications of the seeds. Many are insulted by the thought that trainings are necessary on an archipelago that has been growing and distributing coffee for centuries. But to show his commitment to agriculture and the people of Puerto Rico, Miranda tattooed a miniature, barely visible, coffee cup on his ankle—a true sign of solidarity.
Come, visit, explore, “Get to Know Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Puerto Rican Culture,” which he has yet to know himself.
On a wall of the Humanities building at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras Campus, I came across words scribbled in permanent marker on the vertical concrete: Fuck Hamilton. Which is a legitimate and factually-founded sentiment, of course. Especially in the context of Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony. Alexander Hamilton is a despicable character in the history of the United States; and the play, if anything, only appears to aggrandize him.
But the lack of focus on Lin-Manuel Miranda as character, as problematic figure in Puerto Rico post-María, must be addressed as well. If we were conducting, say, as part of a literature or theater course, a character analysis of Lin-Manuel Miranda, as the main performer of this island-play, we could start by saying that Miranda is a man that performs coloniality. That as a Puerto Rican himself—but a member of a higher, ruling, white(passing), out-of-island Puerto Rican class—he enacts the living legacy and reality of colonialism. He comes from the outside in, dictating and imposing, with careful subtlety, his plays and ways, as many a people—his people—are stepped on and railing against it.
The character of Miranda is conveniently unaware of his positionality, someone who wears the badge of Puerto Rico (as he has every right to), but does not inhabit it, does not live its complex realities or endure its daily blows, and yet feels the impulse to swoop in and orchestrate as if he does. Miranda’s Puertorriqueñidad is not on trial—this is rather, and more importantly, a critique of his approach to and engagement with the archipelago and those who live it. Puerto Ricanness transcends geographic boundaries—however, it’s important to recognize the experiential differences between being a Puerto Rican from the archipelago and being a Puerto Rican from the diaspora, not because either is superior or normative, but because both entail specific living histories and realities. Ultimately, it’s a question of how those who inhabit power and privilege (whether on or from the archipelago or diaspora) perform or exert them.
Yes, Miranda’s character raised money for the arts in the archipelago with his Fundación Flamboyán; yes, Miranda has been funneling capital into Puerto Rico. But there’s something to be said of the overly-public nature of this act, of the spectacle required for the fundraising and “saving” of Puerto Rico to occur, of the Jimmy Fallon-ing and New York Times-ing of his philanthropy. Had he brought his play to Puerto Rico under any other circumstances, there would be no collective outrage (or from another standpoint, at least), no meticulous dissection of his arrival (or in smaller doses), this piece would’ve never been written in the first place. But there’s a grotesque calculation, an overt capitalization of Puerto Rico’s current historic juncture, and Miranda’s media-savvy moves, public charlatan-esque attempts at solidarity, and flagrant self-promotion do nothing to disprove it. But again, the character of Miranda thinks and communicates in money. He cannot conceive of help, of building alternate futures, of new imaginaries and possibilities for Puerto Rico in any other way.
Finally, in the process of his own character development, Miranda antagonized and misrepresented the claims and opposition of the University and other sectors of the island that questioned his play, his intentions, his maneuvering of the stage props around him.
“In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet,” Lin-Manuel Miranda sang as Hamilton during the first of seventeen days of performances at the Fine Arts Center. As himself, Miranda claimed that “we survived hurricane season.” We. A systematic inclusion of himself in the struggles and proclamations of existence and resistance of the hurricane survivors on the archipelago.
There exist multiple Puerto Ricos within Puerto Rico—stratified and segmented by class, race, region, gender and sexuality, age, immigration-background, religion, political and ideological affiliations, the list goes on. Luis Miranda, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father, explained that his son’s initiative “was not only to experience Hamilton in its artistic value, but also to leave Puerto Rico a little better than we found it.”
Whose or what Puerto Rico did they “leave a little better”?
One thing is for sure: Miranda and his traveling show, like hurricane María, came and left Puerto Rico—leaving the archipelago, however, just as they found it: devastao’, devastao’—pero nunca arrodilla’o.
 “Historianas Irked by Musical ‘Hamilton’ Escalate Their Duel”, The New York Times, by The Associated Press
 “Lin-Manuel, our lives are not your theater”
 The Conservatorio de Música and the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico are both public higher education institutions as well, but they are specialized institutions.
 A 2016 US federal law that established an oversight board, a process for restructuring debt, and expedited procedures for approving critical infrastructure projects in order to combat the Puerto Rican government debt crisis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PROMESA
 “Breve historia de las luchas estudiantiles y laborales en la Universidad de Puerto Rico-Parte 1”, El Abayarde Rojo
 “Lin-Manuel Miranda Traerá Hamilton a Puerto Rico”, El Nuevo Día, by Mariela Fullana Acosta
 Which, after public controversy and outrage, he later retracted.
 Note that his father is Luis A. Miranda, political lobbyist and founder of the controversial and corporate-courting nonprofit organization, The Hispanic Federation. Refer to: “NYC Political Funding Shenanigans With Hispanic Federation and City Council Speaker”, Nonprofit Quarterly, by Rick Cohen.
 “Lin-Manuel Miranda está preocupado por la carta de la Heend” El Nuevo Día, by Ana Teresa Toro (quote translated into English by author of this piece)
 “All 11 U of Puerto Rico Institutions Placed on Show Cause”, Inside Higher Ed, by Rick Seltzer
 “Lin Manuel Miranda’s Passion for Puerto Rico”, The New York Times, by Michael Paulson
 The University of Puerto Rico has historically regulated and restricted police presence on all campuses.
 UPR-Río Piedra’s strikes, as the strikes of the other ten UPR campuses, are famous for their educational, cultural and political outreach work with the community surrounding the campus.
 “El gobernador ofreció el Centro de Bellas Artes como alternativa para acoger la obra ‘Hamilton’”, El Nuevo Día, by Camile Roldán Soto
 “Producción que confligía con Hamilton llega a un acuerdo con Bellas Artes”, Primera Hora, by Primerahora.com
 “Directo a la fibra del pueblo”, Fundación Nacional Para la Cultural Popular, by Jaime Torres Torres
 Not to mention that the “cheap” tickets were limited in number, and sold in raffle form.
 Discover Puerto Rico: https://welcome.discoverpuertorico.com/hamilton
 Refer to, “The Caribbean continues to be advertised and marketed in North American venues as local “paradise”-near, yet remote; familiar, but exotic; luxurious and green,” by Jana Evans Braziel; A Small Place, by Jamaica Kincaid; etc.
 “Lin-Manuel Miranda is trying to revive Puerto Rico’s devastated coffee industry”, Miami Herald, by Jim Wyss
 For more on the problematics of Hamilton as play, refer to Ishmael Reed’s counter-play and critiques of it: “Ishmael Reed’s Play Challenging ‘Hamilton’ Will Get Reading”, The New York Times, by Sopan Deb
 Not to mention his gender and sexuality privileges as well, as a cis-hetero man.
 Puerto Ricanness
 “Jimmy Fallon will do special ‘Tonight Show’ in Puerto Rico with Lin-Manuel Miranda, ‘Hamilton’ cast”, NBCNews, by Nicole Acevedo
 “Lin Manuel Miranda’s Passion for Puerto Rico”, The New York Times, by Michael Paulson
 “The Mixed Reception of the Hamilton Premiere in Puerto Rico”, The Atlantic, by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner
 “Lin-Manuel Miranda está preocupado por la carta de la Heend”, El Nuevo Día, by Ana Teresa Toro (quote translated into English by author of this piece)
 “The Mixed Reception of the Hamilton Premiere in Puerto Rico”, The Atlantic, by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner
 Devastated, devastated, but never on its knees.