Quiara Alegría Hudes has my full attention. Her screenplay for In the Heights, her memoir My Broken Language, and her plays. In 2012, Water by the Spoonful, won a Pulitzer Prize. Quiara was born in the United States to a Puerto Rican mother and a Jewish American father. Hudes tells Caribbean-American stories that previously were hidden, disregarded and ignored. Her plays celebrate Puerto Rican women, traditional Afro-Boricua Lukumí (Puerto Rican) religion, and stories of immigrant Caribbean families in the US.
Here is a pronunciation guide for her name: Quiara Alegría Hudes = Key-r-ah Ah-lay-gree-ah Oo-days
Hudes’ memoir is a story of belonging, of hope and creativity, of having the language to describe one’s world. Growing up in East Philadelphia she was immersed in her mother’s world of Spanish, Lukumí worship, Puerto Rican culture, music in Spanish – Juan Luís Guerra, Spanish and English-speaking relatives, corpulence, dancing, and warm affection. Quiara was conversational in Spanish, and her environment was difficult to describe in her native English. In her memoir she says, “English doesn’t have all the vocabulary to describe my truth…to tell my world.”
She grew up loving Afro-Boricua (PR) culture. English did not describe adequately her home life, her women relatives’ unabashedly corpulent bodies dancing, the affectionate cheek kisses and hugs, and the suffering of losing loved ones to AIDS. The physical presence and touch of her aunts, cousins and mother was the core language of her childhood. In her memoir she says, “Language was not what connected us as a family….Bodies were the mother tongue at Abuela’s [grandma’s]…Hands didn’t get lost in translation.”
Quiara did not realize her search for a language to express her lived experience until she began to write her memoir. For years her soul was satisfied with the outlet of music; Chopin, Bach, Coltrane, Ramito (PR composer of Que bonita bandera – What a beautiful flag) and dance tunes in Spanish. After studying music at Yale, she began to go professional and stopped cold, realizing although she loved it but it wasn’t her calling. Her mother asked her, why not writing? You were always a writer. Quiara agreed and studied screenwriting with a fabulous, enthusiastic professor at Brown.
In graduate school, she began to write plays about her Puerto Rican heritage and family. Quiara dared to reveal the traditions of her mother’s spiritual practice, the language and rituals for the spirits, and her mother appreciated the resulting play very much. Hudes said, “Could I build a safe space on the page, in the theater? A place where ritual could flow, where I could connect honestly with myself, with my own story and the stories that inhabited me? A place where I could control the narrative, center myself and my loved ones.” The answer was yes, with great effect.
I am thinking about Quiara Alegría Hudes as a Puerto Rican oracle; a writer about the US experience of the children of immigrants living with a foot in two worlds. Hudes collaborated very successfully with Lin Manuel Miranda, who happens also to come from a Puerto Rican American family. She wrote the screenplay and he the music for In the Heights, which began as a Tony-winning musical on Broadway and is now a movie.
A month ago I saw the movie and enjoyed it. My favorite scene is a dance in the street with Que bonita bandera* cleverly woven into the music. (*The song, What a beautiful flag, was written in 1968 as a protest song against US control of the island.) I am happy that this film, by descendants of immigrants from Puerto Rico is not only mainstream, but vibrant with Latin culture, Spanish touches, and features a story based on Quiara’s stepfather’s life.
Have you seen the movie, In The Heights?
PS I recommend the film and the memoir for people 16 years of age and above, because of frank talk about sexual topics. –R