This weekend we went to see In The Heights, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical about a community of Lantinx immigrants living in Washington Heights in NYC, where he grew up. Although he’s more famous for his musical Hamilton, I’ve actually been a bigger fan of In The Heights for a few years now. I love the Latin dancing and singing which reminds me of the feel of community I experienced in the Canary Islands. One of my favorite numbers is Carnaval del Barrio, in which the entire community is experiencing a multi-day blackout during the hottest part of the summer, and everyone is languishing until a lone woman reminds them of their shared Latin heritage that is no stranger to the heat, and that they are proud people who stick together to get through tough times.

While their Washington Heights community share an identity as immigrants, they also have sub-cultures and identities based on the countries they are from, why they are there, what their little dreams are, their family situations, and whether or not they are documented. There’s a refrain in the number that I particularly love in which each group of immigrants proudly group by their country of origin:

P’arriba esa bandera (hey!)
Alzala donde quiera (hey!)
Recuerdo de mi tierra
Me acuerdo de mi tierra
Esa bonita bandera! (Hey!)
Contiene mi alma entera! (Hey!)
Y cuando yo me muera
Entierrame en mi tierra!

English Translation:

Raise that flag (hey!)
Raise it wherever you want (hey!)
Souvenir of my land
I remember my land
That beautiful flag! (Hey!)
It contains my whole soul! (Hey!)
And when I die
Bury me in my land!

There’s a phrase from a song I heard during Carnaval in Tenerife (in the Canary Islands) that sounds very similar to this. The refrain is “entierra me donde quiera / solo que sea en tierra chicharrera.” (Translation: “Bury me where you will, as long as it’s in “Chicharrero” land.” Chicharrero is a nickname for all things from Tenerife, named after the mackerel fish that is abundant there.) The idea of where you are buried being your true home is apparently ubiquitous in Latin cultures. [1]

For a Mormon equivalent of this “flag” sub-culture among the immigrant population in Washington Heights, it reminded me of a meeting a few years ago when our stake decided to do a Trek activity for the youth. Everyone in the meeting was invited to stand based on which company of pioneers had been their ancestors. As group after group stood up in the stake center (while I remained seated), it occurred to me just how provincial Mormonism still is. Finally, almost as an afterthought, those with no pioneer ancestry were invited to stand and (maybe half-heartedly) haled as “modern day pioneers” briefly before the meeting shifted more comfortably back to how amazing they all were for being descended from pioneer stock that they were now about to re-enact by pulling handcarts around a cell phone tower in the desert wearing uncomfortable underwear. As I pointed out, I was unable to feel like I fit in among my non-Mormon school friends (most of whom didn’t know anything about Mormons), but I was also unable to fully feel like I fit in among other Mormons, those with multi-generational roots, particularly when being pedigreed was touted as if one were a member of royalty. I was an immigrant in both places, even if my status was only known to me.

This concept of two (or more) identities that is woven throughout the musical is one that feels incredibly familiar to me. Immigrants often feel conflicted in embracing both their native culture and their chosen culture. Likewise, when I was growing up in an area with very few Mormons, I embraced my Church culture as my “true” culture, but I often felt like an imposter in my school culture. I stayed on the fringes, afraid of being found out and identified as “not one of them.” As an adult looking back, I can see how this fear of exposure led me to reject the community of school friends, to stay on the fringes, to keep myself to myself, to avoid investing in that community. A few years ago, when two of my school friends were in town and reached out to meet up, I realized that they didn’t know that I felt like an outsider, that I didn’t think I was really part of their community, that I was surprised that they considered me enough of a friend to invite to dinner. When I left, I planned to never look back. [2]

A few years later, I was talking with one of my non-religious high school friends who was reading my mission memoir, and he said he had a hard time imagining that the person he knew was the same person in the book. Rather than thinking I was my real self in the book, he saw the person he knew as the real me, and that the missionary me had to hide my true personality to survive in an oppressive religious culture. I’m still not sure which was the real me: both? neither?

A few years ago, I was talking to a friend who had left the Church. He said that non-believers often stayed in the Church for social reasons, either to appease family members, to honor their heritage or forbears, or to access the benefits of the community. At the time I remember saying “But the community is the worst thing about the Church!” Now I realize that I was partly wrong about that. For those who belong, the community is their support network. It makes their life easier and more worth living. A high ranking leader I worked with at American Express once observed that Mormons were lucky because no matter where we moved in the world, we had an instant trusted community: people who would help you move, babysit your kids, or loan you tools or help you needed; it was like the prestigious international clubs in Singapore (and the steep member dues are similar!). For the most part, his observation is true.

But I was also right to say that the Church community can be the worst. There are things in a community that bring people together and things that tear them apart. Communities are built deliberately. In the musical, neighbors create families from among the immigrants. The abuela is not actually anyone’s grandmother, but she adopts the kids of the neighborhood, helping them grow into happy and healthy adults, hosting meals for the neighborhood, and reminding them all to pursue their dreams, to be patient, to have faith.

Communities don’t flourish without some degree of intentionality. When anti-social elements are deliberately fostered in a community, the community is going to have some toxicity that pulls it apart, ostracizing or harming individuals. In The Heights does a great job of portraying a true community, one that avoids these common traps that erode trust and cohesion. Some of these pitfalls to avoid include:

  • Boundary policing / encouraging tattling on others. The musical includes a great song No Me Diga about how gossip at the local salon keeps the society together through concern for each other, and even if they are sharing salacious stories designed to titillate, the stories are still shared with fondness and love for the people involved, not in a mean-spirited or judgmental way. By contrast, a culture that rewards tattling by punishing the “accused” and elevating their accusers is not a community; it’s a police state. This is unfortunately the culture at BYU and in too many wards. It’s also the thinking behind occasional General Conference talks.
  • Elitism. When some members of the group are elevated above others, without organically rising to the top, this creates social problems in the community. Making it clear that some are deemed more important than others erodes a sense of community. A hierarchy is not a community; it’s a business. Elitism is only rendered worse by nepotism, which often accompanies it. It creates an inequality in which some people have more power and visibility than others who are powerless, a refrain from the song Blackout that recurs throughout the musical to illustrate that outside of their community, many of these immigrants feel invisible or lacking power; they don’t qualify for the white, multi-generational elitism that is the norm in the US. Their community is the one thing that strengthens them all.
  • Correlating individuals’ thoughts and values. When there is only one right way to think or to be, the community is not a collection of individuals sharing and caring for one another; it’s a place where everyone has to hide their real selves for fear of being found to be unacceptable. This also becomes an even bigger problem if elites want to organize the group to work together toward a shared aim that not all agree with.
  • Echo chambers / group think. This is the “natural” version of the preceding problem. Sometimes a group (particularly if it’s hierarchical) deliberately tries to fit its members’ thoughts and values into a box, and other times the group evolves into something smaller, as people with “unpopular” ideas leave the group. Those that remain are more aligned, but at a great cost, and seeing the brutality with which others are discarded undermines the trust one can have in the community.
  • Protecting predators. When some individuals (worse when they also have elite status and more power) are allowed to benefit at the expense of others in the group or to harm them without consequences, this also erodes cohesion in a community. Unfortunately, sometimes community elites and members, like antibodies that attack the body rather than a disease, aren’t good at telling the difference between culling predators and boundary policing.
  • Lack of casual, natural social contact. At the beginning of the Carnaval del Barrio number, the community isn’t interacting. Each person is suffering independently, too focused on his or her own misery in the heat or the problems of businesses shut down, ruined inventory, gentrification and rising rents, and the loss of loved ones. The musical number brings these individuals out of their negative siloes and into direct contact with one another. They dance together, they look one another in the eye, they remember their shared heritage, and they rally together to get back to making their little dreams a reality and supporting one another. Historically, we’ve had some great programs to bring people closer: road shows, dance festivals, youth conferences, basketball games, camping trips, linger-longers. Without these casual contacts, people just can’t relate or get to know each other well enough to care and support one another.
  • Artificial communities and friendships. The Church preaches to “bloom where you’re planted,” which is a fine enough sentiment. Unfortunately, when your ward is assigned purely based on geography, any ward split or personal move breaks up the community that may have been building organically for a years. Likewise, many lament the forced nature of friendships based on ministering assignments; changes can disrupt positive, natural friendships, but also, you can’t create a friendship unnaturally that doesn’t work, particularly not when people are wary of voluntary spies and snoops among the membership. At times, the forced nature of these programs reminds me of the dance scene in West Side Story when community organizer Glad Hand (his name is a bit on the nose) forces the teens to pair up randomly by dancing in two circles and when the music stops, the person you are next to is your new partner. As soon as the music stops, the teens all quickly reach back for their preferred dance partner, and immediately the dance erupts into a Mambo fight between the Sharks and Jets.[4]

I was listening to a podcast interview about the “extended brain” this week (on You Are Not So Smart podcast). The interview discussed the idea that we are limited in how we view our minds, that we think of the brain as existing in a box (our head) which is why we try to teach students by eliminating all distractions and context, forcing them to sit still and quiet and receive the knowledge the teacher is giving them from one brain to another. But this is not really how brains work. Our thoughts, values, feelings and ideas emerge as we interact with the world around us, as we move our bodies, as we exist in nature, particularly outdoors and as we relate to other people. Eliminating movement and speaking reduces how we think; we learn less than we can when we move and interact. True community allows our minds to be more effective and creative and enriches our lives; we are smarter when we use our brains and bodies together and when we interact with others socially. Unfortunately, too often our Church interactions are limited to sitting quietly or being in meetings, not engaging physically in activities that allow our minds and bodies to work together. Church meetings, despite being surrounded by other people, often feel solitary.

Within the US, the Church is a minority religion that wants to attain the status, power and recognition of higher-profile religions, able to exert their political preferences on society under the guise of religious freedom.[3] That’s the opposite of the approach the immigrants demonstrate in In the Heights. Whenever they begin to despair of being powerless, one or two natural leaders in the group (often someone different) will remind them that they can work together to support and help each other, that their own individual dreams matter; they can fight for the members of their community. They don’t have to be in charge of the country or compete with one another for the top spots. They can instead be generous and act like a family, even if they aren’t one by relation. That’s a community!

  • Do you find the Church community to be a true community? Why or why not?
  • Is community enough of a reason to stay for non-believers? Would it be if the community negatives were eliminated?
  • Which of these anti-social elements do you think are a problem in community-building for the Church? Are there others?
  • Have you experienced the anxiety of a dual identity within a community? How did you work through it?
  • What can the Church do as a whole or at the ward level to improve its ability to build communities that people want to join? Or can this only happen organically?


[1] It’s telling that despite the home pride, these characters are ultimately buried in their chosen home in the US, not in their native home of origin; this is intentional in the story telling.

[2] I explored this “Third Culture Kid” identity in more depth here.

[3] It’s one reason I’ve observed before that the Church is truest in the areas where it’s in the minority, not where it wields power. Organizations with power don’t need community to get things done.

[4] Sorry, Jets, but you don’t have Rita Moreno.