Why it's time to move on from 'West Side Story' stereotypes about Puerto Rican life
I have never seen the 1961 film version of "West Side Story," nor have I listened to the original 1957 Broadway soundtrack. To me growing up in Puerto Rico, "West Side Story" was an outdated musical meant for people like my grandparents, who migrated to New York City in the '50s.
My father was born in the Lower East Side and remembers the gang and territorial wars. He also remembers being discriminated against for being Puerto Rican.
I always knew there was some historical truth to "West Side Story," but I never really paid attention, until my musical theater group in college performed "America" from the 1961 film.
"Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion — let it sink back in the ocean,” are the words Anita sings. In the 1957 musical soundtrack, the lyrics were “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases.”
I remember clearly thinking that no self-respecting Puerto Rican would ever say this — and I wasn't the only one.
What is different this time around?
It should come as no surprise that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, released Dec. 10, is a visual masterpiece. From the colorful costumes to the exceptional performances by Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose, the nearly three-hour movie is a stunning blur of song, dance and drama.
Critics lauded the film for giving a fresh spin to a musical theater classic while still honoring the original. "West Side Story" is beloved by all, the retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" but with racism and xenophobia.
Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner were also praised for major changes they made to the story's Puerto Rican characters by casting actual Latinos to play the Sharks — instead of white actors in brownface like the 1961 film did — and by using Puerto Rican Spanish without subtitles. More notably, this movie includes the original lyrics of the revolutionary hymn of Puerto Rico, "La Borinqueña" by Lola Rodríguez de Tió, which was later rewritten to favor the Spanish colonization and turned into the official national anthem of the island territory.
Rotten Tomatoes' audience score is on par with the critics, and despite it tanking at the box office, for critics and fans of musical theater alike, Spielberg’s "West Side Story" is an enormous success.
'I am not that color': Rita Moreno pushed back against dark makeup in original 'West Side Story'
An important detail to keep in mind is that the majority of film critics in the United States are male, and most of those are white, according to a 2018 study from USC Annenberg, so it's not surprising that the majority of the praise isn't coming from the people the film is about.
But hidden among the waves of praise for the breakout performances, cinematography, and rewriting of problematic language, more Puerto Rican critics have spoken up against the franchise as a whole.
"There is a disconnection between Spielberg and the story," said Puerto Rican film critic Josie Meléndez.
Why is it time to move on?
While it’s true that Spielberg did travel to Puerto Rico in 2018 to talk to students at the University of Puerto Rico about the changes to the classic story they would like to see, Meléndez feels that in the end, the Puerto Rican experiences throughout the film feel performative.
As journalists, we are expected to source every quote and reference. But in this case, it is hard to source a feeling. Why am I so bothered by such an entertaining movie?
Thankfully, other Puerto Rican journalists and critics could put this feeling into words much better than I ever could.
The Cut's Andrea González-Ramírez wrote about the distaste Puerto Ricans have felt toward the franchise since 1961 in a now controversial piece titled "West Side Story Can’t Be Saved."
González-Ramírez argues that the remake focuses more on staying loyal to the source material than on adding nuance to the Puerto Rican experience.
"For the most part, the film struggles to engage with the elephant in the room: Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, and most of what the Sharks experience is directly linked to imperialism on top of your classic American racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. There are weak attempts to address this," González-Ramírez wrote.
Meanwhile, Yarimar Bonilla, director of Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, wrote "The ‘West Side Story’ Remake We Didn’t Need" for the New York Times opinion section.
"They say the devil is in the details, and there are many that this film gets right, from the pale blue of the Puerto Rican flag on the nationalist murals in the set, to the specificity of slang words. But just because a historical text is accurate, does that make it authentic?" wrote Bonilla.
For film critic Meléndez, it's these details without context that felt like pandering, saying that those pieces felt like ornaments — beautiful but without nuance — and they mean nothing.
"Spielberg is a great director for a reason, it's beautiful, and he really listened to us ... but it's bittersweet because it's not coming from us," said Meléndez.
Meléndez argues that "West Side Story" is supposed to be a representation of the Puerto Rican experience, but even with historians and cultural consultants, the story still relies on stereotypes.
"It feels like a betrayal of the culture you're using for your art," Meléndez said.
This is why folks like González-Ramírez, Bonilla, Meléndez and more like the New York Time's Magazine's Carina del Valle Schorske and Latino Rebel's Cristina Escobar and Primera Tanda's Mario Alegre are hoping this is the end of "West Side Story."
And in its place, stories about the Puerto Rican experience — both on the island and in the United States diaspora — written, directed and performed by the people it's about.
Natalia Rodríguez Medina is a bilingual reporter covering the Puerto Rican and Latino population for the Democrat and Chronicle in partnership with Report for America. Follow her on Twitter at @nataliarodmed or email her at [email protected]. You can support her work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America.