When asked to channel the frustration and cultural disconnect that comes from living in an overlooked small community, the students of the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory did not have to search far.

Coming from the southernmost part of the nation these students resonated with the characters in Lin Manuel Miranda’s, “In the Heights,” a story about a Latin community that feels their neighborhood’s identity is invisible by societal standards.

Aside from their school production, the Harlingen students were featured in a video and commercial to advertise the film.

“Washington Heights is a neighborhood in New York and they feel like their neighborhood is disappearing and that they’re not getting any recognition,” said Gilbert Zepeda, director of the promo commercial. “So, it’s this beautiful family love story about how this little small community tries to make a difference and wants to be noticed. It’s the same thing down here in South Texas.”

Director of the student production, Chris Esparza said his students were “born to play these roles.”

The students’ talent earned them exposure and recognition on national platforms such as the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and Warner Bros. Studios.

Last October, in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the foundation featured the productions’ two leads, Tristan Flores, a senior at Harlingen High School, and Gabriella Celine Garza, a freshman at Texas Lutheran University, in a video to pay homage to the cast of the upcoming film.

From that point forward, the production continued to receive more attention.

During the annual Palm Awards, an award ceremony for high school theaters, actor Jimmy Smits of L.A. Law and Star Wars fame, and who also stars in the film “In the Heights,” saw a virtual version of the production and decided it needed to be shared.

Smits went on to send the conservatory’s performance to Warner Bros. Studios.

Warner Bros. said they were impressed with the Rio Grande Valley students’ rendition of the play and gave the theater community a sneak peek of the film before its June 11 release date.

Over 400 students and community members from the conservatory, the National Hispanic Foundation and the Palm Awards attended a free screening of “In the Heights” on May 23 at the Harlingen Cinemark 16.

(Courtesy: Gilbert Zepeda)

Students were given the ultimate special treatment with a red carpet, cameras, interviews and black tie attire.

The experience moved Garza to tears.

“That was just really surreal to see myself in [the movie] theater,” she said. “I never thought that anything like that would happen.”

Since the national attention Esparza said the community has begun to be more supportive of the arts.

“Not only have we grown support from our community, we have grown support from our district,” he said. “So many more students now are wanting to join these theater programs because of the exposure that we received from this production.”

Now a role model for young students from the Valley, Garza said her message for them is to treat the stage as a home and know that the arts are a place for opportunity.

“I would want to let them know that they can always find a home there and to remember to keep following your heart and never give up on where your heart wants to lead you to,” she said.

Garza said the production has opened many doors for her career and encourages others in the Valley to try the arts.

“The reason we chose the ‘In the Heights’ story was because it portrayed the struggle that Latino people go through just every day from day to day life,” she said. “It really gives us strength through the story. It gives the kids strength that are in high school and using theatre as a way to express themselves. It really does make an impact on the kids’ lives and it’s made an impact on my life. I know that for sure. It was just an incredible story and I feel so grateful to have been a part of it.”

Zepeda said he believes local talent is often overlooked in the Valley.

“There’s so much talent down here in South Texas and it’s been awesome for me to be able to show them, ‘Hey you guys can do this too,’ you know. ‘You guys belong anywhere, like anywhere in the country or performing,’” he said. “The talent down here really is top notch and so are these theater programs.”

Zepeda believes people should place more attention on the arts because they can serve as a bridge for many students from the Valley to “go out and do big things.”

He said the lesson that he hopes students walk away with is that they are capable of doing anything. This is similar to the film’s theme.

“They won’t be forgotten,” Zepeda said.

To follow the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory upcoming productions, visit hcisdpa.org for links to shows and ticket sales.