Last Friday evening, as spectators streamed into the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré, San Juan’s main performing-arts center, a man in a Colonial waistcoat, breeches, and cravat spoke into a microphone in the plaza. “We want everybody to join this fight for Puerto Rico to become the fifty-first state,” he said. He was joined by about a dozen demonstrators from the pro-statehood group Sociedad Civil Estadista, holding signs that said “We Want to Be in the Room Where It Happens” and “We Are Not Throwing Away Our Shot.” “Alexander Hamilton was a good man,” the speaker continued. “He was one of the Founding Fathers. He was an intellectual author of this nation. So thank you, everyone, and welcome to Puerto Rico.”
Across the plaza—and across the island’s political spectrum—a Ph.D. student named Zorimar Rivera Montes stood beside steel barricades wearing a backpack. “My doctoral dissertation is partly on ‘Hamilton’ and its politics,” she said. She didn’t have a ticket but was hoping that something would turn up. Rivera Montes was raised with an “anti-colonial upbringing,” she said, and supports Puerto Rican independence. The opening-night spectacle, she observed, was “laced with so many ironies. Hamilton was born in the Caribbean. And now we have his ghost coming back to the Caribbean. He was the founder of the American debt system, right?” She went on: “I’m very curious to see how a Puerto Rican audience connects to the story of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton is big in the U.S., because that’s your forefather.” Her friend Gisela Rosario Ramos added dryly, “There’s a new Founding Father: Lin-Manuel Miranda.”
How did a bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman get dropped in a bruised-but-not-forgotten spot in the Caribbean, sixteen months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island? It all had to do with Miranda, the show’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author and star, who was returning to the title role on a tide of good will, for the first time since leaving the Broadway production, in 2016. In the wake of the hurricane, which knocked out the island’s power grid and caused some three thousand deaths, Miranda has become a tireless fund-raiser and champion for Puerto Rico, where his father was born and where he spent summers as a child. He released a charity single and helped raise forty-three million dollars in relief funds. He urged people to “keep Puerto Rico in your hearts” from the red carpet of the Academy Awards. And he currently appears in a Web series from the tourism outfit Discover Puerto Rico. Around the island, pretty much everyone referred to him as Lin-Manuel.
Miranda’s return to “Hamilton” this month is the capstone of his efforts to bring attention and resources to the island, whose crippling economic problems were only compounded by the hurricane. Tickets range from ten-dollar lottery seats set aside for locals to five-thousand-dollar tickets benefitting the Flamboyan Arts Fund. The arrival of “Hamilton” also came at just the moment that Puerto Rico is eager to turn the page on disaster coverage and emphasize the positive. “There’s an increased awareness of Puerto Rico, which is an opportunity for us to motivate people to travel,” Carla Campos, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, told me. “At the same time, we really don’t want to perpetuate that sense of crisis, because it is detached from reality.”
It is and it isn’t. Cosmetically, San Juan is in good shape, apart from a decapitated tree here and there and some traffic lights still on the fritz. In Old San Juan, a guy who sells Panama hats told me, “The last couple of weeks, it’s gone back to normal. Five days of the week, we have three or four cruises.” I heard the phrase “open for business” constantly, starting with Jimmy Fallon’s announcement that he would film a live episode in Puerto Rico with Miranda this week. The Times recently named Puerto Rico its No. 1 travel destination for 2019. “Demand is what we need to improve,” Campos said, “and that is directly related to perception.”
But the island faces entrenched problems. Some rural communities spent up to eleven months without power after Maria. There’s the catastrophic debt crisis, brought on largely by Congress’s elimination of manufacturing tax breaks, in 2006, and exacerbated by the 2008 recession. Under a widely despised federal-oversight board, hundreds of schools are closing. The population fell by a hundred and thirty thousand in the last year, as people sought opportunities on the mainland. And the island has been unsettled by a rash of shootings, including, last Thursday, of the gay singer Kevin Fret.
Though the Puerto Rican government has estimated the financial toll of Hurricane Maria at forty-three billion dollars, the San Juan-based economist Heidie Calero puts the number at a hundred and fifty-nine billion, with a recovery period of at least fifteen to twenty years. “We need to address infrastructure as quickly as possible,” she told me, “and that includes the electrical system, which is just glued by chewing gum.”
In bringing “Hamilton” to Puerto Rico, Miranda called international attention to the island’s progress and also to its daunting obstacles. The island, in return, projected both its hopes and its frustrations onto the show. On the morning of the première, Miranda tweeted a message to Alexander Hamilton: “Happy birthday, man. I have kind of a weird present for you this year.” But the gift was clearly for Puerto Rico, delivered from the heart and received with ripples of excitement and a degree of wariness.
Sixteen miles west of San Juan—and two hundred and sixty miles northwest of Hamilton’s birthplace, on the island of Nevis—Miranda’s father, Luis Miranda, Jr., held court one morning in Vega Alta, his home town. Miranda père is possibly even more animated than his son, though his career is not in musical theatre. He left Puerto Rico, at eighteen, to study psychology at N.Y.U., and had an unhappy few years as a therapist (“I hated people’s problems”) before entering Democratic politics. In 1980, he moved to Washington Heights with his wife, Luz, who is a psychologist (“She loves people’s problems”), and their infant son, Lin-Manuel.
But he kept coming back to Vega Alta, bringing Lin-Manuel to spend the summers there. A month before Hurricane Maria, he opened La Placita de Güisin, a small plaza across the street from a gas station, featuring an arepa stand, a café, and a gift shop that sells Lin-Manuel Miranda merchandise, including mugs, T-shirts, and stickers with inspirational messages. (“Love is love is love . . .”) “We figured we’d use it as a little cultural hub,” Miranda told me. He was dressed in a pink guayabera shirt and stood in front of a mosaic of his father, Luis Miranda, Sr. (nicknamed Güisin), who ran the town’s credit union, and of Lin-Manuel as Hamilton. He opened the door to an adjacent building, which used to house the Board of Elections but is now Museo Miranda, a gallery for “Hamilton” fan art, Miranda family portraits, and Lin-Manuel’s Tony Award for Best Original Score. If you ever imagined what it would be like if your parents opened a museum about you, this is it.
The placita was unscathed by the hurricane, but the house where Luis Miranda’s parents once lived, in Maricao, was destroyed. “We just finished rebuilding,” he said. “In fact, we reopened the house on New Year’s Day.” He walked me down a commercial street, past a banner of Lin-Manuel with the hashtag #YoSoyVegaAlta. Across from a shuttered eye clinic, Miranda stopped in the square next to the town church.
“When we got power in Maricao, probably the end of February, they saw the power-authority brigade going in—and those were celebrations,” he recalled. “It was unbelievable. My brother called me on FaceTime so I could live with him the coming of power to the town. And it continues to be a traumatic experience. Everybody has some story. That’s why, when they said that thirtysomething people had died, I’m, like, that’s not possible! From this town, I know twenty people who said some family member died because their medical machine malfunctioned, and they’re not counting that as collateral damage of the hurricane.”
Since he opened the placita, three other businesses have opened nearby. “Two-thirds of the town is closed,” he said. “Lots of people are just leaving. Even though people want to come back, you’ve got to give people a good reason to be back.”
Luis Miranda was one of the driving forces behind bringing “Hamilton” to Puerto Rico. The original plan was to stage it at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus, driving money and attention to an institution that needed some love in a neighborhood far from the tourist center of San Juan.
But the well-intentioned plan fell apart just before Christmas, after talk spread of possible demonstrations over staff-budget cuts. A practice of restricting police presence on campus raised security concerns. The producers scrambled to move the show to Bellas Artes, a Lincoln Center-like facility in Santurce, a neighborhood described by one resident as “the hot-shit center of hip San Juan living.”
Luis Miranda told me that the last straw, for him, came when he ran into three students after a production meeting. “One of them says, ‘Oh, yeah, we have dedicated entire classes to discuss if this is good for the University of Puerto Rico or not.’ ” He blanched. “I’m listening to this discussion, and I’m thinking, Is this for real? I remember looking at one of the kids and saying, ‘You know what? We made the right decision to come to Puerto Rico. We made the wrong decision of going to the U.P.R. theatre.’ ”
Although “Hamilton” poured more than a million dollars into renovating the university theatre, there was still disappointment on campus. Sylvia Bofill, who teaches playwriting and dramatic history there, told me, “The impression of students was, they felt somehow it was going to be more approachable, that they were going to be able to see the play.” (A thousand of the ten thousand lottery tickets were set aside for students.) “I think, at the end, it was a loss both for the university and the production. It would have been great for the students to have a forum with Lin-Manuel to ask questions about the controversy.”
The day before the première, outdated “Hamilton” banners still hung around campus. Classes had not started, so there were more stray cats than students in the main quad. Near the theatre, I spotted a young woman with curly hair painting a bench with the word “HUMANIDADES.” She had specks of white paint on her cheek, and introduced herself as María Rosa López, a science student.
“It’s complicated,” she said, of the “Hamilton” drama. Her English was spotty, so her friend Christopher Pacheco, who was helping her paint, translated. “They should have consulted at least with the students,” he said. “The government is saying it’s the workers’ union’s fault. They didn’t want a protest here, so they moved the play. But they weren’t going to protest. It was just an excuse. The government wants to close the university down.”
When I asked why, López reverted to English. “They don’t want people to get educated.”
Pacheco added, “Education here is not good. They’re closing a lot of public schools.” Tuition has gone up, they noted, to a hundred and fifteen dollars per credit. “The costs have only gone higher, and the buildings are deteriorating,” Pacheco said.
A clocktower rang, and they returned to painting.
Around Bellas Artes, “Hamilton” fever had taken hold. At Lote 23, a food-truck park near the theatre, venders had seen cast and crew members stop by. The guy at the alcapurria stand knew the exact hours of their lunch breaks, and a woman who worked at the fried-chicken place had taken a selfie with Lin-Manuel two days earlier.
Next door, I found possibly the one person in San Juan who had no idea who Lin-Manuel Miranda was. Her name was Cassandra Jiménez, and she worked at Gorilla Vapes, a vape shop a block from the theatre. “I think I heard something about the show on NBC,” she said, then mixed me a bottle of coconut-flavored vape juice.
The store’s proprietor, Derek Sweeney Kesler, strolled in. A motor-mouthed thirty-six-year-old with a beard and a buzzcut, Kesler was born in San Juan and spent parts of his life in Atlanta and New York. He returned to Puerto Rico, three years ago, and decided to open a franchise of Gorilla Vapes, he explained, because “I couldn’t get vape juice anywhere.”
After Hurricane Maria, he said, the shop became a “crazy oasis.” The store had a generator, air-conditioning, and a working bathroom. To protect from crime—the police were spread thin, and the streets were dangerous—Kesler hid a metal rod behind the counter. “I went full Captain Ahab,” he said. People would line up for cash at Banco Popular down the street, and Kesler saw potential customers. “I wrote ‘Gorilla Vapes: Stop Smoking’ on paper plates and handed them out to people, so they could use them as fans.”
He saw a similar marketing opportunity with “Hamilton,” which he figured might draw in some pre-theatre vapers. On his phone, he showed me a truly unsettling flyer that he was planning to post in the window, with the words “BIENVENIDOS HAMILTON” printed over a profile of a Founding Father with a cartoon gorilla face.
Jiménez lives in the mountain town Caguas, which lost power for nine months. “You get used to not being able to take showers, not being able to sleep well,” she said. Kesler added, “I think there’s a little bit of shell shock that no one’s really acknowledging.” He told a harrowing story about a friend who went to the bank down the street after curfew. A mysterious car drove by, and the driver reached for something from his waistband—but sped off when the friend spotted him.
“Right there!” Kesler said, pointing down the street. “Next to the theatre where we’re going to show ‘Hamilton’!” He took a puff of his custom-blend “Bad Juice” and grinned. “Welcome to Puerto Rico.”
Five hours before opening night, workers were still prettifying Bellas Artes: planting greenery near the driveway, ironing the gray carpet up the steps. A gigantic banner had been draped over an abandoned building, announcing A.T. & T. as the production’s proveedor oficial de internet. In the plaza, a haunting group of sculptures of dancing women was joined by a dandyish Johnnie Walker statue.
By six o’clock, the plaza was packed: camera crews, ticket-lottery winners, demonstrators, the Hamilton historian Ron Chernow, V.I.P.s in suits and cocktail dresses. Zorimar Rivera Montes, the Ph.D. student, pointed out David Bernier, a former candidate for governor of Puerto Rico. She was skeptical of all the hoopla. Like others I met, she had been irked by Miranda’s initial support for Promesa, the act establishing the financial-oversight board. He has since recanted and endorsed debt forgiveness over debt relief.
But something else was nagging at Rivera Montes. As she e-mailed me a few days later, after scoring a ticket, “The play is as catchy and fun as I remembered the soundtrack to be, but watching a celebration of the American Revolution on Puerto Rican soil felt nothing short of perverse. I find it is colonialist that we have to be thankful to Miranda for whatever crumbs of help he throws our way.”
I spoke to Dan Santiago, the pro-statehood speaker in Colonial garb. (He had bought it at a costume shop in Florida, where he relocated after the hurricane.) Hadn’t Hamilton fought to overthrow imperial rule? “That’s something that people talk about,” he said, “but what’s important in democracy is the will of the people. The independence movement in Puerto Rico doesn’t gain more than three per cent of the votes. I’m pretty sure that, when Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers, he was trying to convince everybody that this new form of government was going to be the best thing for the colonies. And it was so good that it became the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. That’s the nation that we want to be part of.”
Suddenly, there was a screech from the middle of the plaza. It came from Gustavo Rosa, a seventeen-year-old from Toa Alta. He had been taking a picture with the show’s producer, Jeffrey Seller, when his high-school theatre director surprised him with a ticket. Immediately, camera crews descended on him.
“I’ve been taking musical theatre for seven years now,” he said, shaking. “I’m exhilarated. Oh, my God.”
Inside, the opening-night crowd took their seats. Within moments of starting, the play stopped in its tracks, when Miranda’s first appearance got a euphoric two-minute standing ovation. The political resonance of “Hamilton” has shifted with the times, and in Puerto Rico its anti-imperialist spirit felt particularly knotty. Here was a story, after all, of a revolutionary charting a path for an underdog nation—one that now holds Puerto Rico as a territory, without voting rights. The appearance of King George III, played by the San Juan-born actor Rick Negron, carried a Trumpian whiff: you could imagine him chucking paper towels at the audience from under his cape.
The most striking moment came in Act II, when Miranda, alone in a spotlight, sang “Hurricane.” In the song, Hamilton is in crisis: he’s been having an affair and paying off the woman’s husband, and his political rivals have him cornered. In San Juan, the lyrics took on an inescapable poignancy, encompassing all the trauma and resilience of the battered island:
In the eye of a hurricane,
There is quiet
For just a moment,
A yellow sky.
When I was seventeen a hurricane
Destroyed my town.
I didn’t drown.
I couldn’t seem to die.
At the curtain call, Miranda stepped forward and said, “Miracles happened to make this night happen.” He thanked the producers and designers and brought out his father, in a snazzy red blazer. In a final flourish, he whipped a Puerto Rican flag from his costume and wore it as a cape, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Minutes later, Miranda appeared in the adjacent black-box theatre in front of a scrum of reporters. He had taken off his Hamilton wig and changed into a dapper blue suit. Standing at a microphone, he looked emotionally drained but upbeat.
Within moments of starting, “Hamilton” stopped in its tracks, when Miranda’s first appearance got a euphoric two-minute standing ovation.
Photograph by Erika P. Rodriguez / NYT / Redux
Someone asked him about reports that the White House was considering diverting disaster-relief funds to the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Miranda grew quiet. “That’s the first I’m hearing about it,” he said. “I’ve been a little busy.” During the performance, he said, he had been listening to King George’s line “You say the price of my war’s not a price that you’re willing to pay” and, for the first time, heard “war” as “wall.” He pondered for a moment, then said, “I think that’s absolutely monstrous. Next question.”
Alternating between English and Spanish, he fielded questions about the ovation at the top of the show (“I felt my hair move”); about the security concerns at the university (“If there’s the slightest chance something goes wrong, I cannot have that on my conscience”); about his reading from the celebrity astrologer Walter Mercado (“I know the future, but I’m not going to tell you”); about his first visit after the hurricane (“To see an island without leaves—I never thought I’d see winter in Puerto Rico”). He said that “Hamilton” would bring people to Puerto Rico to spend money, “but they’re also going to see blue tarps, and they’re also going to see how much is left to be done.”
A reporter asked, “What spoke to you tonight, as you were standing there for the first time here in Puerto Rico?”
Miranda answered, in Spanish, that “Hurricane” had been particularly emotional—he hadn’t been able to get through it in rehearsal. The line about the silence in the eye of the storm had reminded him of what members of the Puerto Rican diaspora had felt during Maria, not being able to reach family and friends. “That quiet,” he said, slipping back into English. “That terror.” Then he said something everyone could agree on: “That’s the thing about this show: you put it at this angle, and suddenly you see different things come out.”