A Chat About Immigration, Rap Musicals, and Crying With Olga Merediz, In the Heights's Abuela Claudia

"I want people to see that immigrants are like everyone else."

Illustration for article titled A Chat About Immigration, Rap Musicals, and Crying With Olga Merediz, In the Heights's Abuela Claudia
Image: Courtesy of Warner Media

There are two things on this planet that have been making me cry for more than a decade. The first is the Disney film The Fox and the Hound. The second is the voice of actress Olga Merediz as she sings “Paciencia y Fe,” an absolutely heart-wrenching number from the original Broadway show, In The Heights, which she reprises in the film.

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Merediz’s performance is a spine-tingling, high-note-sustaining journey of one woman’s life from poverty in Cuba to a new life in the United States marked by racism and finding her place in Washington Heights. Towards the end of the song, when Merediz tells the ghost of her mother, “I spent my life inheriting dreams from you/I made it through/I survived/I did it,” it is physically impossible to not shed a sea of tears. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu and out June 10, makes many changes to the original show—but thankfully, one thing that remains the same is Olga Merediz, belting out “Paciencia y Fe” alongside stunning visuals that render the song more powerful.

Jezebel spoke with Olga Merediz about her iconic role and how difficult it is to sing a song like “Paciencia y Fe” 13 years after the show originally debuted. Like Abuela Claudia, Merediz is an immigrant from Cuba, and she credits her own experience and those of the women in her family for giving her the necessary experience to create such an iconic character. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


JEZEBEL: How did you first get involved with In the Heights when it was first making its way to Broadway?

OLGA MEREDIZ: Originally I was there to play Mrs. Rosario, Nina’s mother. And I remember, going all the way back to the first workshops, they could not find an elderly woman to play Abuela. Long story short, Quiara Alegría Hudes said let’s try Olga Merediz. I auditioned, I got the part, and I had to grow into the part and grow into the song.  It’s a challenging song, emotionally, physically, breath-wise, technically. And I had to grow into it and I had to tell the story of Abuela Claudia, this immigrant that had come to America.

This song is her story and the story of so many different immigrants that have come to America for a better life. And so I had to embody that woman. And I used all the women in my family and all the women that I loved in my life to make her this quintessential matriarch that we all wanted in our lives as our mothers or just in our lives. And I had to kind of really tell that story in a profound, deep way. And by the time I did the film, it had taken yet another dimension, you know, a deeper dimension with Jon Chu’s directing and the whole cinema aspect of it.

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You’ve been singing “Paciencia y Fe” for a long time, does it ever get easier?

No. It’s my opinion and perhaps I’m wrong, but if it gets easy, then you’re not singing the song. It’s got to cost you because you have to show what that woman, what Claudia and all the other matriarchs and caretakers, what they all went through.

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When you first saw the concept Jon Chu was putting together for this number and the historical references he was putting into it, what was your initial reaction?

I said three locations in a subway station, what? And a night shoot? Belting at four in the morning!? No, I’m kidding. I couldn’t believe it. I was in awe of his vision and how he put that all together because it was magical what he did. I can’t wait for everyone to see it and see how it was put together visually. It’s so stunning and it really utilizes the New York underground as well.

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Did you cry when you saw the finished product? Because I have seen the film twice and even when I knew it was coming I was in tears.

That means a lot to me that it touched you, that’s really the whole point [of the scene]. I cry thinking about it. I cry for that woman, but I couldn’t cry when I was performing it. I have to be in it. But it touched me, and she touched me. It’s taught me so much, so yes, and I am definitely crying right now.

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Oh my gosh, I’m sorry!

(Laughing) Shame on you.

Did you know, back in 2008 that In the Heights would turn into what it is now and the enormity of your character in particular?

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I remember when we first started the workshops and I was telling my reps, my agents, I was like, “I don’t know these kids, they’re rapping? It’s a rap musical? I don’t know, I mean it’s got a lot of heart. Maybe it has something?” So it’s been quite a journey at least for me.

What was the hardest part about bringing Claudia to the big screen?

A couple of things, I believe when you’re a performer, you do a project, you give it your heart and soul, one hundred and fifty percent, and then you close the chapter. When it’s done, you’re done and it’s finished and you move on to something else. So I had to kind of go back. I was literally looking at my notes and my music and my script to kind of go back to piece her together again. That’s number one.

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And number two, when you’re performing [live], there’s a beginning, a middle, a climax, and the end. And you have to take yourself on that journey. In cinema, you’re like, OK, we’re doing the last part first. And then we’re going to do the middle part. And then we’re just doing this chunk. And then tomorrow we’ll do the beginning. And so you mentally, you have to know where you are in the song so that you don’t lose your place. So that it flows properly and that’s extremely challenging.

I went to a virtual event for this movie and during the stream, Lin-Manuel Miranda said that once he heard you sing “Paciencia y Fe” he knew there was no one else who could sing this song. Obviously, he is completely correct, but let’s pretend we are in an alternate universe for a moment. Who would you cast for this part if it couldn’t be you?

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My mother. She’s ninety-six years old but she can really sing. I bet you weren’t expecting that.

I wasn’t!

I really don’t know who I would cast, they had a lot of problems casting this role so I’d really have to think about who else I would cast.

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What is it about this role that makes it so hard to find someone in your opinion? Are Claudia’s chancletas just too big to fill?

I think you have to have gone through those experiences yourself or have had members of your family go through those experiences or people close to you have those same experiences as an immigrant to be able to tell that story with that kind of impact and tell it correctly, is what I think.

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What do you want people to take away from this movie when they see it?

I want people to see that immigrants are like everyone else. We have a family, we love our families, we love our communities, we have the same wants and needs as everyone else. We’re hardworking, we’re funny, we’re deep, we’re smart, and the pride that we have in our culture. But we’re also Americans. I also just really want people to be singing and dancing with joy.

DISCUSSION

jeyfree21
Jeyfree

Olga Merediz is the only one I couldn't imagine being recast, she's simply perfect, and paciencia y fe is always a showstopper, so glad she reprised her role. Too bad in my country I have to wait until the 18th to watch it, so until then muting everything related to ITH.