Siempre, Luis documentary shines light on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pop
When we first meet the subject of the new HBO documentary, Siempre, Luis, he is having a matter-of-fact conversation with his doctor during a 2018 follow-up visit to his cardiologist’s office following a heart attack he suffered the year before. He admits he is busier since before his cardiac blockage and his devoted wife, Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda chimes in that he’s quite tired, Luis A. Miranda Jr. admits he goes to bed at midnight and sleeps for five and a half hours, “…which is a little more than I used to sleep.” Of course what he left out was that he spent the prior 12 months spearheading the campaign to get Letitia James elected to become New York State’s first female African-American attorney general, got the vote out in the Latino community for a number of 2018 Democratic mid-term races and helped his oldest son Lin-Manuel Miranda bring the latter’s Hamilton to Puerto Rico as a means of raising disaster relief to the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation.
And while the world knows his son via his offspring’s wildly successful entertainment career that has yielded a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, three Grammys, an Emmy, two Olivier Awards and an Oscar nod, that drive for success can be directly traced to the Miranda patriarch, who has spent the past three-plus decades helping shape New York politics. Currently a founding partner alongside Roberto Ramirez in the MirRam Group, an independent consulting firm designed to offer clients the benefit of their deep understanding of New York’s political, corporate, labor, and non-profit landscapes, Miranda was content to remain behind the scenes. That is, until Siempre, Luis director John James, who works at the MirRam Group, approached the loquacious sexuagenarian four years ago about capturing some of his anecdotes on film.
“I guess J.J. heard me over a couple of years tell outrageous, colorful and sometimes insightful things in the kitchen, which is the most important part of the office where everyone congregates for breakfast and lunch,” Miranda said. “He came over and asked if it would be okay for him to follow me around with a camera, which was a little surprising because that’s not my lane. Being on camera is not what I do. For a long time for a living, I worked with elected officials, institutions, causes and my kids—that’s not my lane. I actually remember telling him that I needed to talk to my family because we are a family that’s always in each other’s business. We are sort of a family package. If you get one of us, you get all of us. I told J.J. that I needed to ask, particularly my daughter, who is the most private of all of us. He had already spoken to my daughter and she had already said yes. Then he started following me. In the meantime, I’d gotten a heart attack, Maria destroyed Puerto Rico, we took Hamilton to Puerto Rico—the only thing I did not do was to die. That was not going to happen.”
For roughly two-plus years, James and cinematographer Carlos Garcia de Dios followed Miranda around during a particularly whirlwind span of time for the film’s namesake. As someone not used to being the center of attention, the process was foreign, but the Inwood resident adjusted and found the pace of what was going on to be the greatest obstacle in making the documentary.
“It was tough to be the subject,” Miranda admitted. “As I said to you earlier, that’s not my lane. But I’m pretty good about getting used to things, accepting them, incorporating them and moving forward. So I quickly learned that I needed to think about the camera, Carlos and J.J., who were usually the two people that were usually around, and consider them to be part of my furniture. They were one more thing that existed in my life and I found quickly looking at it that way was the quickest way I could be myself. The amount of things that were going on [made for a] very busy time in our lives. And because I had the heart attack earlier that year, my family was on my ass about taking it easy and not getting on the plane so often. So I had family pressure that I know was out of love, but it was annoying. I knew I needed to take it easier, even though I was feeling well. I’m pretty compliant as a patient. I take my pills, I exercise every day and I eat well. I have eliminated almost every great Puerto Rican meal that you can buy. So that was the norm. My family felt I was doing too much. Quite frankly, it really was not the cameras in the documentary, it was the circumstances that were the challenge.”
Coming To America
Tracing Miranda’s arc not only proves to be a fascinating journey, but the combination of old family photos and vintage news footage give unique insight into what New York City was like in 1974. This was when the then-18-year-old Puerto Rican leaving behind a job and a wife he’d only been married to for a few months to attend New York University as part of psychology Ph.D program that recruited Latinos from the island.
“It was a different time and a different experience,” explained Miranda’s old friend, New York State Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez. “I think it was the same DNA that connects all of us that come from Puerto Rico, particularly of a certain age. We share an experience. It’s one of family. It’s one of trying to do better. And it’s one of exploring this other place they call Nueva York.”
It’s an assessment Miranda agrees with, although he admits not recalling culture shock when he came to live with his aunt during his first six months in the United States.
“My aunt lived in Chelsea at a time when, believe it or not, Chelsea was a Puerto Rican neighborhood,” he said. “We lived on 232 W. 21st St. The super was Puerto Rican and in the basement was a pool table and a couple of domino tables. My aunt was a single mom with two little kids and she was the only person and family member that I knew in New York.”
It was at NYU where Miranda’s developed his thirst to battle the discrimination Puerto Ricans faced (“I always want to right a wrong”) and also where he met his future wife, a single mom with a young daughter named Luz. Within a few months of meeting, Miranda married Luz Towns and adopted her child. Son Lin-Manuel would be born in 1980.
Finding His Political Groove
The elder Miranda’s biggest break came when he was hired as a special advisor for Hispanic Affairs by Mayor Edward I. Koch during his last term from 1987 to 1989. According to former Koch assistant Michael Stolper, it was a move Miranda maximized.
“He took what had been a token position and turned it into a real position with access and influence,” Stolper said. “He became one of Koch’s top advisors and one of the folks Koch really relied on, especially during the stress of a campaign.”
Miranda acknowledges this entry into New York City politics proved to be a watershed moment for him.
“No doubt, it was a life changer,” he said. “First of all, it put me front and center of being able to push agenda items that were important to me and important for the time. The main issue why I took the job was because the city was experiencing massive immigration, particularly given the fact that President Reagan had signed the amnesty bill in 1986. To me, that was an unbelievable opportunity to begin organizing the Latino community and work in the Latino infrastructure in the city to get the word out for hundreds of thousands of people that were living in the shadows and to let them know that now there was an opportunity for them. The second important part of this experience is that because this was his last term, it really toughened me up. It allowed me to understand that you have to practice and attack criticism of the administration in a way that will help you to do your job in a good way and be able to get home and enjoy your family in spite of the tension of the job.”
Post-Koch, Miranda had roles in the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, serving as chairman of the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, increasing market improvements in quality of care and financial stability before resigning a year in after refusing to enact cuts as the city was entering the second decade of the AIDS pandemic. Miranda parlayed his political savvy and connections into becoming a driving force behind a number of successful political races including Senate campaigns for Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand. He’s also used this acumen to help his son bring Hamilton to Puerto Rico for a three-week run in January 2019, where the duo had it play before 40,000 people and nearly $15 million was raised for the arts on the island. And despite his recent health scare, Miranda hasn’t slowed down, particularly in his quest to continue fighting for his principals of fairness and equality.
“I’m working on mobilizing Latinos to vote for Joe Biden in Florida and in battleground states where Latinos make a significant portion of the electorate,” he said. ”The only way I know is to not give up and figure out how to get something accomplished, even when it seems that it is not doable. My hopes with this documentary is that a viewer could be inspired to work as hard as they can for their dreams.”
Siempre, Luis can be viewed on demand on HBO Max.