West Side story stereotypes Puerto Ricans
Published: Sunday, April 1, 2001
Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 16:08
The play West Side Story was first staged in New York in 1957, and the film was produced in 1961. In 1999, a production of the play at Amherst High School was cancelled after students and parents objected to the musical's stereotyping of Puerto Ricans. On April 12-14, Torn Ticket II will be presenting the play at Tufts in the Balch Arena Theater. Do I believe that there are problems with West Side Story and that it stereotypes Puerto Ricans?
Yes, I do. Despite its many redeeming qualities, the film, seen by millions all over the world, reinforces the image of Puerto Ricans as violent gang members, criminals and welfare recipients. It also promotes the image of Puerto Rican women as subservient to the men. Do I advocate canceling the play at Tufts? Absolutely not! In fact, I want every Tufts student to see it, think about it and discuss it. In order for this to happen, however, students need to have the context with which to have an intelligent discussion.
Unfortunately, intelligent discussions about West Side Story will be difficult for many students, including Latinos, because the educational system in this country has excluded Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans from the curriculum. How many courses about Puerto Ricans were offered at your high school? How many courses about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans exist at this moment in the Tufts Bulletin? The answer is ZERO!!!! Puerto Rican culture and history is not taught in Latin American courses because it is not considered Latin America and it is not taught in US history because it is somehow not part of the United States (unless we need Puerto Ricans to fight in wars). So how do we, at Tufts, learn about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans while we wait for the faculty to be hired to teach these courses? The answer is by taking the initiative as individuals to read as much about Puerto Rico as we can get our hands on.
Here is a little bit of an introduction to the history of the Puerto Ricans in the United States: The largest migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States occurred after World War II. On the island, this period was characterized by a changing Puerto Rican economy that displaced a large number of agricultural workers and did not adequately provide replacement jobs. On the mainland, the US was in the midst of a booming economy that needed workers to fill jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector. In other words, Puerto Rican migration to the US was a classic push/pull situation. Puerto Ricans were pushed away from the island because of high unemployment and pulled to the US by the need for workers to fill needed jobs. In fact, US companies, with the promises of a better economic life, actively recruited Puerto Ricans on the island. In the early 60s, Puerto Ricans in New York faced a great deal of discrimination based on race and language. West Side Story takes place within this historical context.
What are the problems with West Side Story? Let's begin with the casting of the roles. In the film, for example, the only major role that went to a Latino was that of Anita, played by Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno. Natalie Wood, who played Maria, had her skin darkened for the role. This also happened to Puerto Rican actress Jossie de Guzmán, who played the role of Maria in the 1980 production on Broadway, because she was too light skinned. Imagine that! A Puerto Rican playing a Puerto Rican who has to darken her skin because she doesn't look Puerto Rican!?!
The Puerto Ricans in the film are depicted as violent gang members, the first to fight and the first to kill. They are symbolized as sharks, a bloodthirsty fish with large teeth. There are constant references in the movie about the criminality of Puerto Ricans. In the prelude to the song "America," for instance, one of the young women says, "You'll go back with handcuffs!"
The film is filled with many other examples of stereotypes that cannot be ignored. These stereotypes are very powerful in that they further reinforce and perpetuate the negative image that already existed about Puerto Ricans in New York during that period. These include references to cucarachas (including whistling the song) such as "These PR's are different. They keep on coming like cockroaches". "Boy, what you Puerto Ricans have done to this neighborhood." "All right, Bernardo, get your trash outa here." Or the negative references to Puerto Rico included in the song "America," ironically sung by a Puerto Rican. "Let it sink back in the ocean." "Always the population growing. And the money owing." "And the natives steaming." In the original text Puerto Rico was described as "You ugly island...island of tropic diseases." "And the bullets flying."
Some people might argue that I am making a big deal out of nothing - that West Side Story is just a fun musical with good music and good dancers. Yes, it's good music and good dancing, but it is also the only play about Puerto Ricans that most people will ever see. How can anyone have a positive or balanced view of Puerto Ricans after watching this play?
Others might argue that the white gang (Jets) and other white characters (i.e. police) were also portrayed in a negative way and even less sympathetically than the Sharks. This argument, however, ignores the racism that Puerto Ricans and Latinos have confronted in this country. It negates the historical reality that Puerto Ricans have been the target of racism, not the white Europeans. It also ignores the colonial relationship that Puerto Rico has with the United States.
In conclusion, go and see West Side Story this weekend. Think about the images of Puerto Ricans (and Latinos) that it portrays and decide for yourself if you believe them to be negative stereotypes. But before you come to any conclusions, read books about the history of Puerto Rico and about Puerto Ricans in the United States. You can start by coming by the Latino center and looking through our library of books and videos. You are all invited.
Rubén Salinas Stern is director of the Latino center.