CSUCI student’s letter to Lin-Manuel Miranda will be shared on Apple TV’s “Dear…” series

A letter she wrote to “Hamilton” and “In The Heights” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda landed CSU Channel Islands (CSUCI) Performing Arts major Melina Ortega a place in Apple TV’s “Dear…,” which premieres Friday, June 5.

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker R.J. Cutler created the 10-part docu-series to tell the stories of some of America’s pop culture icons through the eyes of those inspired by them.

Soledad O’Brien moderates an intimate conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Luis A. Miranda, Jr. at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse regarding Puerto Rico’s long-term recovery and relief efforts from Hurricane Maria on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. All proceeds benefit Hispanic Federation UNIDOS Fund and Geffen Playhouse’s Education and Community Engagement programs. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision for Geffen Playhouse/AP Images)

Ortega’s tale will be told during the “Dear Lin-Manuel” segment, which can be streamed beginning June 5 along with the nine other segments, which profile pop culture luminaries like women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem; director Spike Lee; talk show host/media executive Oprah Winfrey; and Big Bird, a beloved Sesame Street character.

Ortega was first moved by Miranda’s work during rehearsals for CSUCI’s 2018 production of “In The Heights,” the story of a largely Dominican-American neighborhood in the Washington Heights area of New York City.

“Lin’s one of the first people to really have stories of Hispanic Americans go mainstream using rap.” said Associate Professor of Performing Arts Heather Castillo. “We chose “In The Heights” because the story resonates with many of our students and their families.”

When Ortega auditioned for “In The Heights” during the 2018 fall semester, she couldn’t know that the week before opening night would bring a horrific mass shooting at her favorite country and western nightclub followed immediately by two fires. And that compassion for the students’ circumstances would bring CSUCI’s “In The Heights” cast face-to-face with Miranda himself.

After auditions, Ortega learned she had landed the part of Vanessa, the love interest of the main character, Usnavi. Vanessa, a hard-working hairstylist, dreams of getting out of the barrio and getting an apartment downtown, but cannot yet afford it.

“She is this girl who just wants to get out and wants something better for herself,” Ortega said. “She’s like ‘I need more,’ and I feel like I connect with that.”

Like the characters in “In The Heights,” Ortega grew up in a largely Latinx neighborhood. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico 30 years ago in hopes of giving their children a better life. Ortega’s father, the oldest of seven, quit school after 7th grade and went to work to support the family. Her mother raised Ortega and her two older siblings and eventually went to community college herself.

“I was born in Santa Barbara and grew up in Oxnard,” Ortega said. “I went to bilingual schools until 4th grade. Everybody was so immersed. Then I got to CSUCI where they have a large population of Latinx students who are the first in their family to attend college,” Ortega said.

Ortega said she hadn’t experienced racism until she was a young adult.

“Once I was asked if I was legal before they even asked my name,” Ortega said. “Another time, somebody asked me a question and I said ‘pásale’ which means ‘go ahead.’ And he said ‘I don’t speak immigrant.’”

Incidents like this chipped away at Ortega’s trust, but rehearsing “In The Heights” and frequent visits to her favorite country and western bar, the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, helped her regain her sense of self.  And that’s where she would have been the night of November 7, 2018, had the cast not been doing final dress rehearsal for “In The Heights.”

“I was a Borderline regular. I was there at least two to three times a week. That night of the shooting I was going to go because rehearsal was getting out earlier,” Ortega said. “They dismissed us and I wanted to go over a couple of dance steps, but my friend suddenly runs over and says ‘Melina, there’s been a shooting at Borderline!’ So, I ran over and grabbed my phone and there were about 50 messages or missed calls of people making sure I’m OK.”

The students were still in shock when the Hill Fire ignited in Ventura County November 8 followed 21minutes later by the Woolsey Fire, and the campus was evacuated. The show they had worked on for so long was postponed, but, rehearsing the part of Vanessa had changed Ortega. She poured out her feelings in a letter to Miranda.

“I wrote a letter to Lin and explained the shooting and ‘In The Heights’ and how much it meant to us,” Ortega said. “I explained that before ‘In The Heights,’ I was afraid to be fully myself.”

Meanwhile, Castillo had made contact with theater acquaintances she made while working as a professional dancer/choreographer. She was hoping for a video clip or small gesture, but Miranda and the Geffen Playhouse surprised them all with an invitation to join him in Los Angeles for a question and answer presentation he and his dad were doing as a fundraiser.

The trip to Los Angeles and meeting with Miranda after the show was enough of a thrill, but later learning a film crew would be coming to campus to tell Ortega’s story helped close a series of painful incidents with healing.

With the unrest across America at the moment, Castillo said she can’t think of a better time for “Dear Lin-Manuel” to share its message of hope and inspiration. “The most beautiful thing about Lin bringing out our students to his talk was not just the opportunity for our students to meet their hero, but how their hero’s platform of social justice and philanthropy was important,” Castillo said. “That his success as an artist demanded that he used his privilege to help others.”