Beyond West Side Story, There Is a Place For Us

On the Oscars stage March 27, Ariana Debose received the Academy Award for best supporting actress as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” — the tale of star-crossed lovers from rival Irish and Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) gangs. Eyes bright and dressed in red, Debose said, “Imagine this little girl in the backseat of a white Ford Focus. Look into her eyes. You see an openly queer woman of color and Afro-Latina who found her strength in life through arts…to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces: I promise you that there is indeed a place for us.”

Debose’s promise of ‘a place for us’ soothes my inner child’s heart while simultaneously sparking my desire to see Puerto Rican actors fulfill roles written by and for us.

By the age of 10, I had only come across two quasi-representations of Puerto Ricans in media: Maria in the ‘61 “West Side Story” and Chanel in “The Cheetah Girls,” who had my ‘08 self in a pink-velour tracksuit chokehold.

After school, my abuelo would pick me up for a bookstore date, and on sight, he’d place his cap over his heart, and sing, “Maria, I just met a girl named Maria.” The “West Side Story” classic became our song but somehow, still, I never watched Stephen Sodenhein’s ’57 broadway original, nor the ’61 film adaptation, until I visited my Titis (Aunts) in San Juan this past December. 

In the shelter of darkness, the three of us sat prepared to witness Spielberg’s, “reimagining” of “West Side Story.” I fully intended to fall in love with the story congruent with my abuelos’ history: their childhoods in the New York projects following the ‘50s “Great Migration” from island to inland. But, by the final quarter, our expectations dissolved and we became heckling hyenas — my Titi Liza chastising the flat characters and Titi Christina, gasping between laughter, “Maria, just wants some sex. She don’t care about her dead brother!” 

The reality is that no attempt, nor edits, by Spielberg’s adaptation could disguise “West Side Story” from what it is: a Romeo and Juliet tale as told by, and made for, America’s white hegemony.  

The original “West Side Story,” penned by white writers and delivered by a cast in brown face, held a mirror to mainstream thought on Puerto Ricans as informed by U.S. imperialism. The opening lyrics of  “America,” declared, “Puerto Rico/ You ugly island/ Island of tropic diseases…/ Always the hurricanes blowing/ Always the population growing.”

The line “island of tropic diseases” and reference to overpopulation echoed the eugenics science of the time, neo-Malthusianism: the idea that Puerto Ricans were unfit for reproduction, as they were not white or wealthy. For Puerto Rico, the consequences of neo-Malthusianism manifested in the U.S. signing off on the mass sterilization of  Puerto Rican women through coercion, as a means of “solving” poverty and overpopulation. 

Spielberg’s rendition departed from these lyrics but reasserted the same caricatures, central to every adaptation. 

As said by Frances Negrón Mutaner, director of the Media and Idea Lab at Columbia University, the consequences of  “West Side Story’s” stereotypes live on every time the narrative is revived. 

Mutaner states on the Women’s Media Center website, “The movie [West Side Story] was the first major — and still the most widely seen and exported — U.S. cultural product to recognize Puerto Ricans as a distinct Latino group in the U.S. with specific physical characteristics (brown, dark-haired, svelte) and personality traits (loud, sexy, colorful).”

Mutaner continues, “Drawing on centuries-old stereotypes about Latinos, the women are virginal and childlike or sexual and fiery; the men are violent and clannish. [West Side Story] widely popularized racist and sexist stereotypes that continue to shape how the world sees Puerto Ricans and how they see themselves.” 

Indeed, “West Side Story” and its type contributed to formulating many of my awkward coming of age experiences — meeting a friend’s dad and him proclaiming, “you’re Puerto Rican, spicy!” and then miming a salsa movement, for instance. Experiences like these can be easily brushed off while others stick and harm. 

Media such as “West Side Story” create and reinforce the narrow scripts for how we must act and how we must look. As kids, my cousin and I would hold summertime tea parties, with cucumber-cream cheese sandwiches and Calico Critters as party-goers. I lived for his visits from Florida but our tea parties halted with Tio’s definitive words, “boys don’t have tea parties.”

For the boys like my cousin, I want their gentleness nurtured and safeguarded from machismo narratives like “West Side Story.” And, for the women in my family, who iron their hair to fit  Eurocentric beauty standards, I want their self-esteem healed and freed from these constraints. For my Abuelo, who has shown me some of my most tender moments, I want him to know that he is still my family’s protector even as we begin to take care of him in his older age, and there is nothing emasculating about that. In my family, and my childhood guided by them, my desire for fully-fleshed out representation is realized. 

To see Debose win is a triumph and an invitation towards progress: creating and telling our own stories.

I want these stories centerfold and Oscar-nominated, humanizing and unbridled by racist caricatures or lyrics disconnected from the history which is ourselves. Narratives like Nuyorican Elisabet Vasquez’s, “When We Make it,” Gisselle Yepes,’ “An Ode to April 22,” and Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentaries, “Memories of a Penitent Heart” and “Landfall.” Give them their flowers. 

It is in these stories, we Puerto Ricans find and make our place. 

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