When Luis Miranda arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1970s, he looked like many young students of his time, with his jeans and shaggy hair. In the Big Apple, though, he realized that not everyone wanted people like him. Instead of culture shock, he experienced discrimination. “It didn't matter if you were a janitor or a PhD student,” Miranda recalled, “what they saw was Puerto Rican, some brown person, some brown kid. Not a real American.”
Miranda went on to become an activist, a government official, a political consultant, and a loving father to three children—including his son, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway smash, “Hamilton.” Now the older Miranda, who has long been a behind-the-scenes player in Democratic politics, is in the spotlight in a new documentary, “Siempre, Luis,” debuting October 6 on HBO and HBO Max.
A camera crew spent a year following Miranda around, capturing his family life, political work, heath issues and humanitarian efforts. Watching the film, Miranda told NBC News, was an emotional experience for him.
“What comes to mind is how many great people I have met and known throughout my life; people who either convinced me that I had to join their fight, or I convinced that they had to join me, and together we have moved forward," he said. "It was a reminder of how many people have helped me, (and) that I didn’t have time to thank them all.”
Luis A. Miranda Jr., 66, was born in the town of Vega Alta in Puerto Rico. A sharp student, he headed for New York City in the 1970s to continue his graduate work, inspired by—of all things—the character played by Debbie Reynolds in the 1964 movie musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
In Nueva York, Miranda became an advocate for the city’s Latino residents, who were then predominantly Puerto Rican. By the 1980s, Miranda was a special advisor to Mayor Ed Koch, eventually becoming the Director of the Mayor’s Office for Hispanic Affairs.
In 1990, Miranda founded the non-profit Hispanic Federation, and has also been a key Democratic political consultant, working on U.S. Senate campaigns including Hillary Clinton's as wellas Rep. Adriano Espaillat's, D-NY, who became the first Dominican American in the U.S. Congress.
Miranda has been a champion of his son’s ambitions as well. When a young, struggling Lin-Manuel received an offer for a full-time teaching job, his father advised him to follow his dreams instead. He helped promote his son’s off-Broadway musical “in The Heights” until it became successful and transferred to Broadway.
In fact, the younger Miranda credits his Dad as being part of his inspiration for “Hamilton"—Founding Father Alexander Hamilton also arrived in New York from the Caribbean—he was from the island of Nevis. “When I was playing him, I was just playing my father," said Lin-Manuel.
“Siempre, Luis” highlights the devastating impact that Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Rico in 2017, and in the documentary, Miranda cries as he recalled the destruction. “For me, Puerto Rico is this untouchable, perfect place,” he says in the film, “that all of a sudden, doesn’t exist anymore.” A central focus of the film is the lengthy process, that was not without controversy, by which Miranda and Lin-Manuel bring a production of “Hamilton” to the island as a way of raising funds for Puerto Rico’s recovery.
Despite a lifetime of activism, Miranda believes that there is much work to be done for Latinos to achieve full equality in society. “Fighting the same battles doesn’t equate with having made gains as a community. If we have learned anything from Black Lives Matter, it is that—despite the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s—here we are still fighting open discrimination in every institution of this country.” He pointed out that Latinos have shown record gains in Congress, but their numbers are still low.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Miranda has been quarantining with his family and has stayed as busy as ever. “I certainly have been more productive than ever in my life,” he said. “But you miss so much when you are not face-to-face with people. I miss the human interaction; the sense you get about someone when you are talking to them in person.”
Miranda described himself as a fundamentally optimistic person. “I like to feel great about things, until things are not great anymore. I like to operate from a positive perspective more than a negative one.”
While he decried President Trump’s unwillingness to condemn white supremacy during the recent presidential debate, Miranda feels that the upcoming election will mark a turning point for the U.S. “I believe at the end, we (Democrats) are going to win and the country will show the world that we made a mistake four years ago and that we are brave enough that we can rectify it.”
Throughout his ups and downs, Miranda remains grateful for the one constant in his life. “My greatest accomplishment is my family. They have been there, every step of the way, por toda la vida, throughout my whole life,” he said. “In all of the spaces I get involved in, my family is there—and they have been an incredible source of growth and strength to me.”