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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.

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7 comments Log in to Comment

dougo51
Tue Feb 26 2013 13:29
Although this article is dated, it's message remains current. Racism and prejudice abound and this production is immersed in both. At issue, however, is that the Sharks and Puerto Ricans are not singled out. The Jets have their own significant social issues (listen carefully to the Officer Krupke number). Also, Lt. Shrank does not discriminate. Although he first comes across as sympathetic to the home boy Jets he is quick to offer racial epithets to them as well as jab sharply at family issues of the broader Jet family. WSS has a message, but it is not limited to just the Sharks. By the way, if I was in a gang at the time I would certainly have preferred to be named a "Shark". "Jets" doesn't sound so tough to me.
dougo51
Tue Feb 26 2013 13:27
Although this article is dated, it's message remains current. Racism and prejudice abound and this production is immersed in both. At issue, however, is that the Sharks and Puerto Ricans are not singled out. The Jets have their own significant social issues (listen carefully to the Officer Krupke number). Also, Lt. Shrank does not discriminate. Although he first comes across as sympathetic to the home boy Jets he is quick to offer racial epithets to them as well as jab sharply at family issues of the broader Jet family. WSS has a message, but it is not limited to just the Sharks. By the way, if I was in a gang at the time I would certainly have preferred to be named a "Shark". "Jets" doesn't sound so tough to me.
Anonymous
Sun Oct 3 2010 16:39
I want to go back to San Juan.
I know a boat you can get on.
Everyone there will give big cheer!
Everyone there will have moved here.
Anonymous
Fri Oct 1 2010 11:00
I 'm a puerto rican of parents of indo parents felt the same way the to groups where portrade as thugs and of lower class it a wonderful movie but it sadden me to think that they cant make a movie of the hard working people , the one that fought in the war, who have science and other achievements it really get you thinking why the peolpe of puerto rican and the true story of our taino indians are not told how we are good people, kind, hard workers and excepting of all cultures even after what they did to our people is it the truth hurts to face the hurt of how they screw us over and we still forgive i want to see a show in day time not at night about our true people and who we really where and the contribution we ahve made to society. That where living on the island or all over the country we came to have better life and how they became depressed, and discrimated against when we came the alternative when the jobs didnt no longer exist was WELFARE our people hate it they dont care for it we continue fight to be givin a oppurtunity to work
Jorge Hernandez
Wed Aug 5 2009 21:19
It would be interesting to visualize WSS as a study of peer pressure to conform and establish territoriality within a social, academic and opportunity limited environment. To understand how closely WSS imitates the reality of the period, one must understand the low average level of formal education, the post-war distrust of foreigners or perceived foreigners and the fresh hostility that had prevailed between ethnic groups for the previous 100 years among blue collar inner-city dwellers in NYC during the setting period, long before the Puerto Rican diaspora of the late forties-early fifties had begun. Organized crime, gangs, violent union activism and political machines, all basing their dynamic on aggressiveness and territoriality for short term gain, filled their ranks from this subculture. Puerto-Ricans were even more poorly adapted to cope with the ever-changing urban environment of the time. Most of them came from poor rural backgrounds with extremely limited opportunities for self-improvement on the island to work as cheap labor at factory or service jobs for which they were poorly trained if at all, not knowing the language or the culture, yet naively expecting social acceptance as de-facto U.S. citizens.
WSS also serves as a self-measuring tool for those of us who have the presence of mind to understand their own cultural bias within our own ethnic background (we may need external help for this). Having lived in the Bloomingdale district of NY during the sixties and seventies, Puerto Rico during the eighties, and nineties, the Dominican Republic, Curazao and British Virgin Islands for shorter periods and finally the U.S. Deep South I have seen this immigrant-native dynamic of resistance, identity crisis, assimilation and mutual acceptance everywhere. Puerto Ricans in the N.Y.C., Dominicans in P.R., Haitians in D.R., Brazileiros in N.A. Mexicans in Atlanta and ironically, American expats in B.V.I.
We are, none better than the other in regards to this until we allow ourselves to be educated a little by the cultures of others.
newperspective
Tue Jul 7 2009 12:01
Maybe take an approach at looking at this film as representative of the mass immigration of Puerto Ricans during this time in history and the ethnic communities they established. I think this film and play demonstrate the type of diversity present, not the attempt to degrade a specific ethnicity. The marginalization and lack of assimilation of the Puerto Ricans is put into perspective through the hate the rival gangs have for each other. I think both sides clearly demonstrate criminal and gang related actions, not just the Puerto Ricans. I completely agree with 'independentminded'.
independentminded
Sat Jul 4 2009 07:37
As a devout fan of the film version of West Side Story who has also seen several really good stage productions of this dynamic musical, I disagree with the notion that West Side Story presents a stereotype of Puerto Ricans. Considering the racism that's been deeply ingrained into the very fabric of the United States as a whole since day one, I believe that West Side Story, on the contrary, conveys a message about the destructive consequences of racism and the subsequent violence that often ensues because of it.

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