The Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan has been home to thousands of Dominican immigrants since the early 1980s. Stretching from 155th street in northern Manhattan and bordered by the Hudson River on the west side, the neighborhood is an area that notables like New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez and composer Lin Manuel Miranda grew up in.
And now it’s official: The reign of “Jersey Shore” has ended and it’s time for “Washington Heights” to embrace the spotlight.
“We each have a story that millions of people can identify with,” “Washington Heights” show creator and cast member Jonathan Perez says of the series, which premieres on MTV Jan. 9th at 10/9c. For Perez, an aspiring rapper, buying a camera with which to film music videos of his own became a way to capture his neighborhood for a bigger audience.
“I wanted to do something big that my family and friends could all be a part of and I eventually made a little sizzle reel that ended up with executives at MTV,” recalls the 25-year-old whose friends Reyna, Frankie, Ludwin, Jimmy, Rico, Fred, Taylor and Eliza round out the cast of the show. “Washington Heights could be like other neighborhoods, slowly losing its culture and history; people forgetting their roots. But I’m proud to be a Dominican in the Heights, doing my thing. And that’s what we want to show the world, the audience of kids in Kansas and the grandparents who have no idea what we represent.”
For Perez – who is half-Dominican, half-Cuban – appearing on the show wasn’t without some heartache. The show depicts him struggling to pay rent and follows him as he tries to jump-start his music career. “For a long time, I was a victim of the mentality that I couldn’t do anything to help myself,” says Perez, who was born and raised in Washington Heights. “I was used to people being too scared to make their dreams come true. So now that I’m working towards that, I want to show how people from the ‘hood can be really real and make it.”
“Being real” is a sentiment that cast mate Reyna Saldana takes to heart. She’s known Perez since she was 16 (they live just a few blocks apart from each other), and as an aspiring singer herself, didn’t think twice when given the chance to appear on a reality show.
“I feel like I don’t see Latinas like me on TV, trying to do their thing, doing what I do – singing pop, R&B,” says Saldana, whom executive producers have dubbed as the show’s resident diva. “The real world has been tough but life is short, I need to be happy. And I think this is a way to make my dreams happen.”
And while the show follows the cast as they pursue their careers – Saldana and Perez want to be part of the music industry, one cast member dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, another wants to make it as a poet and another, an artist – Saldana admits that she knows the show will be examined because of its representation of 20-something Latino youth.
“My parents did a good job raising me, making sure I went to school and participated in every activity,” recalls the 24-year-old, whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City to raise their family. “Even though they didn’t know English, they always defended us and did what was best. But I do feel pressure – I want them to be happy of [sic] who I am, American and Dominican.”
And as she navigates the world of reality television – full of confrontation, heartache, tested friendships and of course, plenty of fist-swinging drama, Saldana admits one certain truth.
“I know people are watching. And I’m ready to show the world what Washington Heights is all about.”