Writers & Company

Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegría Hudes on her journey to writing the hit musical In the Heights

The acclaimed American playwright spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about her popular musical — and the questions of identity that inspired her new memoir, My Broken Language.
Quiara Alegría Hudes is an American playwright and author. (Jon M. Chu)

Quiara Alegría Hudes is best known for her collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda to create the hugely popular musical (and now feature film) In the Heights. It ran for three years on Broadway — winning four Tony Awards, including best musical, in 2008 — and became an international success. Hudes herself adapted and produced the movie version, released last summer to great reviews.

Hudes was born in Philadelphia in 1977 to a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother and grew up steeped in the culture of the Caribbean. She's drawn on that rich family background as a playwright, winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Water by the Spoonful. Now she's come out with a memoir, My Broken Language, which traces her early childhood and her development as an artist, exploring the intersection of language and identity in relation to home.

Hudes spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Manhattan. 

Taking the train to see my father

"I'm not sure that my dad's household itself had particularly more money than my mom's household did, but certainly the setting was shockingly different. My dad moved out to the suburbs. In my experience out there, it was a very segregated white community. My mom and I were in West Philly and North Philly.

"West Philly was diverse and mixed with predominantly African-American history, but it also had a lot of international families. North Philly, where my Puerto Rican family lived, was also segregated 'Boricua,' which is what we affectionately and more historically say for Puerto Rican.

When I started taking that train ride in elementary school — for an hour by myself — a big knot started to tie itself in my gut. My life was simply a process of continuously seeing how the other half lived, the other half being my two halves, so it was very disturbing. It was a real American education for me to say, 'Wow, three train stops later, look what they have. Look how nice it is. Look how clean it is.' You go to North Philly — and I loved that neighbourhood. I loved the community ethos. It was wonderful, the spirit there — but there wasn't any trash collection. There weren't even trash cans on the corner for municipal trash collection. There were a lot of burned out buildings. There was a lot of blight there. That was depressing and eye-opening."

Music education

"I had been privileged to have the most diverse musical education imaginable. My mom would have batá drums as part of her ceremonies. They were so powerful. You would feel your body quaking from them because the batá drum is actually an orisha — it is a source energy. I would go sit on the bandstand with my Aunt Linda and turn her pages as she would play her original music compositions. I played classical. I studied Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban piano. I studied the best of so many traditions.

At Yale, the word 'music' no longer referred to an entire world in which human beings make sound and bodies move in response.

"And then I got to Yale and I thought, 'This is going to be even better, right? I mean, it's a famous college, so I'm going to learn even more.' And what I found was that they used the word 'music,' but what they meant was Western classical music. The word 'music' no longer referred to an entire world in which human beings make sound and bodies move in response. There was no dancing. Music certainly wasn't for dancing. It was a much more rigid image of what music was, and that was such a bummer. It was such a killjoy.

"I love classical music, so I was able to enjoy that part of it. But the fact that someone like Stevie Wonder, for instance, really could not be brought up seriously in any of my music classes — and trust me, I tried and got put in my place — that was really dispiriting to me. I think in some ways, it started a heartbreak I could never quite get over."

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from "In the Heights." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Becoming a writer

"My mother's an observer. Some of us are louder observers and some of us are quieter observers. Writing didn't come along; writing had been there all my life. I just didn't know it and I didn't see it. I didn't know any writers. I certainly didn't know any Boricua or Latino writers — are you kidding me? I had no examples of this. I had hardly read a Latino book.

Writing didn't come along; writing had been there all my life.

"So my mom pointed it out. I was in my 20s and she said, 'You've always been a writer. Why did you not pursue that?' I said, 'What are you talking about? I mean, writing is fun, but that's not a job someone does. It's not a life path.' She just looked at me with her knowing eyes and said, 'Your Abuela's getting old and she doesn't have the privilege of a platform. She doesn't know how to write her bit of history down. So when she goes, there goes her slice of history forever. You have the ability and the skills to record that history.'

"And, boom. Literally, my life changed in that moment, and I still feel that impulse right now as I describe it."

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Olga Merediz in a scene from "In the Heights." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Adapting for the screen

"I didn't want the movie to try to capture too closely a theatre experience, because that just seems like a lost cause of a goal. I wanted people to be able to go see In the Heights in the theatre and have them feel a different experience. Also, the world had changed a lot. Immigration has always been a very painful challenge and hurdle in Latin American communities, but it had reached a fever pitch. It wasn't that the immigration debate was new, but the national temperature with which people were talking about immigrants was really extreme. And that started with Trump discussing the border with a new sort of vilified rhetoric.

The national temperature with which people were talking about immigrants was really extreme.

"I felt I had to address it in a new way in the movie. That was one of the tiny changes. Also, we had this word called 'microaggressions' — and a lot of first-generation college students of colour had this vocabulary to discuss the things that made them feel on the outside of their college campuses. I didn't have that same vocabulary when I was a student in college.

"So I was like, 'Let me bring Nina's experience as a first-generation college student to life in a new way, in a slightly updated way.' Those were two of the things I looked at updating."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?