Decades ago, on my first visit to New York City, we passed several blocks of brown brick apartment buildings where boys huddled in corners, smoking and hissing at passing girls, while more men. old people in undershirts and scuffed Panama hats were blowing cigars and playing dominoes. They were my Paisanos, my Puerto Rican compatriots, and it was East Harlem.
The film makes a definite and obvious effort – if primarily via artificial dialogue – to give us a multidimensional picture of Puerto Ricans in New York City neighborhoods.
When I first saw “West Side Story,” the 1961 film based on the classic Broadway musical from 1957, this scene occurred to me – and I was embarrassed. Classmates from South Carolina teased me, twittering “Maria” as they passed and begging me to teach them dance moves like Anita’s. I was mortified but I laughed at it. I was not Maria. I was not Anita. And the members of the Sharks gang weren’t like the boys I grew up with in Puerto Rico.
What I saw in that film was a one-dimensional image of Puerto Ricans that became an enduring, burning, and shameful image. But for the legions of “West Side Story” fans, it was a spectacle of exuberant dance, pulsating music, and bittersweet love.
Now, 60 years later, here comes Hollywood’s highest-grossing director Steven Spielberg with a predictably bigger, stronger, and brighter production of this familiar tale of tragic New York street gang rivalry. 1950s. Spielberg’s first musical, premiered to standing ovations in New York City, is a the essential Oscar winner. Awards Season Columnist Kyle Buchanan told The New York Times, “Spielberg’s savvy reimagining of the source material marries old-fashioned sweep with contemporary concerns, putting the film in the right spot for Oscar voters.”
I’m sure this will be the general response to a film that is deeper, more emotional, and more incisive than its beloved predecessor. The film makes a definite and obvious effort – so primarily via artificial dialogue – to give us a multidimensional picture of Puerto Ricans in New York neighborhoods in the 1950s.
But ignorance, banality, violence and racism still dominate Puerto Rican characters. (The rival gang, the Jets, made up of boys of other ethnicities, aren’t nicer, but the weight of the story falls on the Puerto Rican side.) It’s a depressing portrayal that ultimately only does further degrading the Puerto Rican experience rather than uplifting everything as Spielberg and award-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner might have said otherwise.
Only Maria, the star of the film, and Valentina, a new character brought to the heartbreaking life by Rita Moreno, are exceptions in the new production. They offer a sympathetic perspective on what it means to be a Puerto Rican trapped in the misery of poverty and discrimination. They fight against the violence and the disheartening lives around them and they believe in a better place.
So one has to wonder why another “West Side Story”, written and directed by two white men, is produced precisely when the nation is painfully divided on questions of ethnic identity and in the midst of a racial calculation aimed at s ‘ensure that stories are told by the people who lived them, rather than by powerful and wealthy insiders.
Puerto Rican author and writer Carina del Valle Schorske aptly called “West Side Story” “a monument to the authority of white Americans to dominate the conversation about who Puerto Ricans are” during a recent event. “Each revival renews that authority and co-signs the narrative for a new generation… I want it to fail so we can move on.”
Without a doubt, “West Side Story” was the first major American cultural performance of Puerto Ricans, and still the most important, and I and other critics believe that the racist and sexist stereotypes of the musical continue to influence the way which the world sees Puerto Ricans.
“It’s staggering to consider, but ‘West Side Story’ is still the most viewed and remembered film featuring a major Puerto Rican story in Hollywood history.” Columbia University professor and filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner told me.
As a result, no other image haunts discussions of Puerto Rican identity more intensely. The musical adopts old stereotypes about Latinos in which women are either virginal or sexual, says Negrón-Muntaner, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. “The men are violent and clannish. All of them are phenomenal dancers.
When the open Broadway musical – the collaboration of four white men, Leonard Bernstein (music), Jerome Robbins (choreography), Arthur Laurents (book) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).
Neither did the song “America”, the original lyrics of which included the lines: “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink into the ocean … Puerto Rico, ugly island, island of tropical diseases … always hurricanes blowing, still growing population, and money owed.
“No Puerto Rican of a certain age can look at it without gritting their teeth,” says Arnaldo Cruz-Malave, Puerto Rican professor of Latin American and Latin studies at Fordham University.
“It was sung to me when I first came to the United States in college,” he tells me. “It was bad, but hearing him married by Puerto Ricans in a movie, who also had to sing and dance, was hurtful beyond words.”
The expression “you the ugly island, the island of tropical diseases” was deleted for 1961 film, and Moreno gave a fierce take on the revised version that won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She was the only Puerto Rican in the movie, but was forced to wear brown makeup to “look more Puerto Rican.” The song was sweetened even more in the Spielberg remake, and this time she’s not wearing brown makeup.
Moreno, iconic at age 90, reflects in a new documentary that “Hollywood back then was a place where people like me played native girls. An accent was always necessary. They had dark skin. They didn’t look like me at all. And all these characters have always been treated as illiterate, immoral; they have always been little island girls for men.
Actress Eva longoria, who is of Mexican descent, also notes in the documentary that “when you only see these characters portrayed negatively, it not only educates other communities about us, but it also teaches us how we see ourselves.”
Much has been said about the ethnic and racial diversity of Spielberg’s cast. In addition to Moreno, executive producer of the film, Spielberg chose a half-Latina newcomer with an exquisite voice, Rachel Zegler, born in New Jersey to parents of Polish and Colombian descent, in place of white Natalie Wood in the original. like Maria.
Anita is played by an electrifying Ariana DeBose, who describes herself as Afro-Latina. David Alvarez, a stage star whose parents are Cuban, is Bernardo, Maria’s domineering brother and the Sharks’ aggressive frontman.
It’s a depressing portrayal that, in the end, only further degrades the Puerto Rican experience rather than uplifting it.
Spielberg himself takes a universal perspective on a story based largely on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. “Divisions between people of different views are as old as time itself. And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were deep. But not as divided as we are today ”, Spielberg said in a recent video interview.“I was 10 years old when I first listened to the album ‘West Side Story’. And he never disappeared.
Work has never gone away for Puerto Ricans either. The question is whether the 21st century ‘West Side Story’ helps bridge these divisions and bring us closer to telling our own stories. Not at one point, not somewhere. But now, here.