Lin-Manuel Miranda is like a wizard who can exist in several realms at once.
You can catch the 36-year-old Miranda playing the title role in “Hamilton,” the smash-hit Broadway musical he wrote. If Miranda’s not on stage, you might find him advocating on behalf of debt-laden Puerto Rico, or freestyle-rapping alongside President Obama in the White House Rose Garden, as he did in March.
I recently spoke with Miranda, in “Spanglish,” jumping from Spanish to English with him seamlessly.
Miranda is passionately committed to his art and to Puerto Rico, where his parents were born. He spent seven years writing “Hamilton,” based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. In April, Miranda won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, and this month, “Hamilton” collected a record 16 Tony Award nominations. Meanwhile, Miranda has used some of his newfound celebrity to raise awareness about Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt.
“My role in this political drama is just to put a human face on it, you know?” Miranda told me. “I think that the responsibility of Puerto Ricans who grew up in the United States—in the diaspora—is to give voice to those living and suffering on the island.”
Miranda has lobbied Congress to end months of “inaction” on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and allow the commonwealth to file for bankruptcy protection. Thus Puerto Rico could restructure its debt obligations and avoid a looming humanitarian crisis. But so far, those efforts have been in vain.
I asked Miranda if he favored statehood for Puerto Rico, and whether he believed that the island would be facing such economic woes if it were America’s 51st state. “[Statehood is] a question for those living on the island,” he said. “I live in New York.”
We also spoke about Puerto Rican identity. I asked Miranda if he identified first as an American or as a Puerto Rican. “I describe myself as a son of Puerto Ricans who grew up in New York; I’m as ‘Nuyorican’ as they come,” he said. “But I spent several summers in Puerto Rico. I have a lot of family on the island. That question is not solely political—it’s also personal. I think the identity question should be answered by the people who live on the island, not by me.”
Though Miranda was born in New York, his family’s Caribbean-immigrant roots are reflected in his art. “Hamilton” chronicles the life of the namesake Founding Father, an immigrant born on the island of Nevis and raised in Saint Croix. Hamilton’s background fascinated Miranda. “The immigrant’s story is the story of the United States,” he said. “We have always come from other countries to improve our lives and do the hard work.”
Miranda’s earlier Broadway hit, “In the Heights” was set in New York City’s Washington Heights, the primarily Hispanic neighborhood where he was born.
I asked Miranda about the current political situation—especially the Donald Trump phenomenon. “What we are witnessing now is something that has happened all the time in our political process, although I’m not sure it was as tough as it is today,” he said. “Immigrants have always been the enemy during an election cycle. That happened in 1996 with Pat Buchanan (a Republican presidential primary candidate who assailed Mexican immigration). It happened with the Irish when they were the new immigrants in the 1800s…there will always be people who use fear and capitalize on that to get votes. And we are witnessing it today.”
Given his love of history and concern for Puerto Rico, I asked Miranda if a future in politics might be a possibility. “I have an allergy to politics,” he told me. “I’d rather be at home writing songs, creating art. But at the same time, my people there, in Puerto Rico, are suffering. So, as long as I have this spotlight on me, I will focus it on the sufferings of the Puerto Rican people…I don’t have the answer; I only have this spotlight.”
For now, that spotlight is shining full-force.
A NOTE ON POLITICS IN MEXICO
I think it’s quite brave that Mexican political analyst Denise Dresser is considering running for president in 2018. The government’s handling of the case of the 43 missing college students from Ayotzinapa has made her want to declare her candidacy. Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former secretary of foreign affairs, is similarly pondering. And news anchor Pedro Ferriz de Con has already announced that he will run. It would be marvelous to see these three debate other candidates. The first question that should be asked: How would they deal with those responsible for the Ayotzinapa tragedy? Second: Will they investigate President Enrique Peña Nieto’s connections to a government contractor who financed a luxury home for first lady? Third: How will they stop the pace of killing that has led to 100,000 Mexican deaths during each of the two previous presidential terms? Fourth: Do they know how to create good jobs? Fifth: Would they consider nationalizing Mexico’s oil industry once again? Sixth: How much money does each candidate have in the bank? Seventh: Should just one independent candidate be allowed to run for president, or several? Eighth …
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s weekly television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of several best-selling books. His latest book is: “Take a Stand: Lessons From Rebels.”