Growing up between the neighborhoods of Sunset Park and Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York, Dominican American actress Dascha Polanco (TV’s Orange is the New Black) remembers what made the communities so special to her when she was a kid. It was the people.
“They were different, but they all had the same common denominator: immigrants,” Polanco, 38, tells Remezcla during a recent interview. “They come here, and they have a dream. For some, it seems like it’s not attainable, but it is.” Polanco saw some of her neighbors achieve those dreams. Many of them were women of color who owned small businesses like beauty salons and bakeries.
“In our community, they represented more than small business owners,” Polanco says. “They were matriarchs and the backbone to what continues to allow it to flow. We all go to the salons and the bodegas. For the most part, that’s where we spend most of our time.”
The dream is attainable.
In In the Heights, Polanco plays Cuca, a hairdresser who works in a beauty salon owned by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), another woman living in Washington Heights. Cuca wasn’t in the original stage production by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). In addition to Polanco and Rubin-Vega, the film also features actress Stephanie Beatriz (TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) in the role of Carla, another salon worker.
“These salon ladies represent more than salon ladies,” Polanco explains. “They also represent women who go out and work every day and spend most of their time at their jobs to sustain their dreams. It’s the immigrant story—arriving in a new country and establishing yourself and creating these neighborhoods.”
It’s not only about attaining those dreams, however, that make these neighborhoods flourish, Polanco expands. She finds inspiration in everyone who works hard to provide for themselves and their families—from the piragüero pushing his cart around the block to the lady selling tamales on the same corner every day.
“A lot of what I saw were not franchises and huge establishments,” the artist recalls. “It was these small businesses where you go and get your birthday cakes and your drinks and your school supplies.” That’s where, Polanco said, “the hustle in me comes from.” Watching the people in her community wipe the sweat off their brow has motivated her all her life. Her father worked as a mechanic and her mother as a cosmetologist, who later went back to school.
“It’s a community that raised me, inspired me, educated me and that showed me that it takes hard work,” she said. “Every generation teaches you something. There’s no discrimination between ages. We learn from the young and from the old. I witnessed that.”
For Polanco, that determination led her to Hollywood after earning her degree in psychology and working in the healthcare industry for a short time. She could not, however, ignore her dream to become an actress. In 2013, she landed her breakout role as prison inmate Dayanara “Daya” Diaz in the Netflix comedy-drama Orange is the New Black.
“I believed in my artistry,” she says. “Now, I think I’m teaching my community that we are worthy and can be a part of these roles. We can get there, and we can do it. All it takes is for us to continue to support one another and go see these films and support these stories.”
Let’s really take the time to be as authentic as possible.
Those big-picture goals are greater than In the Heights. While the film is likely to elevate the Latino narrative in an impactful way this year, Polanco doesn’t want that to end with one blockbuster musical.
“I think the focus has to be on continuing it and making sure it’s not a one-off,” she said. “So, let’s get the writers and directors and producers in the rooms. If I was in a position of power… I would open the gates and say, ‘Let’s create and be free and really take the time to be as authentic as possible.’”