Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and U.S. Puerto Rican Identity

Read an excerpt from Boricua Pop by Frances Negrón-Muntaner.

There are cultural icons that never seem to die no matter how much dirt you throw on them. And the multi-faced West Side Story—Broadway show, Hollywood film, staple of high school drama programs, inspiration for the 2000 Gap campaign featuring “the latest Spring styles and colors of the Khakis and the Jeans,” and possible remake featuring a “real” Puerto Rican cast—refuses to bow out after way too many curtain calls. Like the Spanish-American War for the Island nationalist elites, the 1961 film version of West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, can be dubbed the diaspora’s “trauma.”

A symptom that West Side Story remains a constitutive site for American ethno-national identifications is the fact that although the film is neither the first nor last portrayal of Puerto Ricans as criminal men and “fiery” women, hardly any boricua cultural critic, activist, or screen actor can refrain from stating their own very special relationship to West Side Story. References to the film tend to convey a sense of shame or pride in the speaker’s ethno-national identity, a desire for valorization, and/or a struggle to articulate an oppositional voice in American culture.

Jennifer López, the highest-paid Latina actress in Hollywood today, recalls that West Side Story was her favorite movie as a child. “I saw it over and over. I never noticed that Natalie Wood wasn’t really a Puerto Rican girl. I grew up always wanting to play Anita (Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning role), but as I got older, I wanted to be Maria. I went to dance classes every week.” For the Bronx-born López, causing the Jets and the Sharks to rumble in West Side Story may signify that a boricua can indeed be valuable enough to play her own stereotype in a major American motion picture, but for the San Juan–born entertainer Ricky Martin, starring in the infamous musical means contributing to the stereotypes that make him a cultural oxymoron as a middle-class “white” man. Martin has in fact repeatedly rejected the possibility of a starring role in the remake because “It’s kicking my culture. And I’m not gonna feed that.”

The journalist Blanca Vázquez, whose editorial work in the Center for Puerto Rican Studies publication Centro was crucial in fostering critical discourse on Latinos in the media, has also underscored the importance of West Side Story in her own identity formation: “And what did the ‘real’ Puerto Rican, Anita do in the film? She not only was another Latina ‘spitfire,’ she also sang a song denigrating Puerto Rico and by implication, being Puerto Rican. I remember seeing it and being ashamed.” The Island-born cultural critic Alberto Sandoval shares in the shame as the film came to define him after he migrated to the United States: “And how can I forget those who upon my arrival would start tapping flamenco steps and squealing: ‘I like to be in America’? As the years passed by I grew accustomed to their actions and reactions to my presence. I would smile and ignore the stereotype of Puerto Ricans that Hollywood promotes.”

 In contrast to the purported materiality—however discursively produced—of the Spanish-American War and its aftermath, the nearly universal consensus by spectators, critics, and creators of West Side Story is that the film is not in any way “about” Puerto Rican culture, migration, or community life, that ultimately, it refers to “nothing.” Even West Side Story’s creative collaborators have been consistent in representing the work as non-mimetic. The lyricist Stephen Sondheim, for instance, initially rejected the project on the grounds of his ignorance of Puerto Rican culture and lack of experience with poverty: “I can’t do this show I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even met a Puerto Rican.”

West Side Story is then nothing short of a Puerto Rican Birth of a Nation (1915): a blatant, seminal (pun intended), valorized, aestheticized eruption into the (American) national ‘consciousness.'”

Without a touch of irony, Leonard Bernstein also noted the extent to which he researched Puerto Rican culture before writing the score: “We went to a gym in Brooklyn where there were different gangs that a social organization was trying to bring together. I don’t know if too much eventually got into West Side Story, but everything does help.” The “superficial” way that Puerto Ricans were represented made one of the original West Side Story producers, Cheryl Crawford, insist that “the show explains why the poor in New York, who had once been Jewish, were now Puerto Rican and black. When someone said the piece was a poetic fantasy, not a sociological document, she replied, ‘You have to rewrite the whole thing or I won’t do it.’” Yet if West Side Story was not intended to be “real,” and many boricua spectators insist that it does not accurately represent us as a “people,” what accounts for its reality effects? Why is West Side Story a founding site for Puerto Rican–American ethno-national identifications?

The film’s durable canonization, I would argue, is not arbitrary on several counts. West Side Story is the earliest—and arguably the only—widely disseminated American mass culture product to construe Puerto Ricans as a specific, and hence different, U.S. ethnic group, ranked in a particular social order, living in a distinct location, yet informed by a uniquely American racialization process. While it is not the only media intervention to represent Puerto Ricans within a legal or sociological discourse (12 Angry Men and The Young Savages, for instance, preceded it), West Side Story remains the most cohesive cultural text to “hail”—and perhaps even more important for a discussion on ethno-national shame, to see—Puerto Ricans as a distinctly American ethnic group.

West Side Story is then nothing short of a Puerto Rican Birth of a Nation (1915): a blatant, seminal (pun intended), valorized, aestheticized eruption into the (American) national “consciousness.” Irresistibly, Variety offers a typical West Side Story review: “Technically it is superb; use of color is dazzling, camera work often is thrilling, editing fast with dramatic punch, production design catches mood as well as action itself.” Or as Stanley Kaufman insists in the New Republic, West Side Story has been overburdened with discussion about its comment on our society. It offers no such comment. As a sociological study, it is of no use: in fact, it is somewhat facile. What it does is to utilize certain conditions artistically—a vastly different process.”

Indeed, West Side Story—unlike the crime-saturated evening news—incorporates Puerto Ricans into the United States through a media product valued for its Shakespearean inspiration, aesthetic quality, financial success, and popularity with audiences, a timeless American “classic.” This coupling recalls the historian Francisco A. Scarano’s observation that “domination is an ambiguous process, a form of creating distance, of othering, and at the same time creating intimacy or bonding.” The unanimous regard for the film’s quality, which simultaneously shames Puerto Ricans through its racist emplotment and valorizes us by the attachment to an appreciated commodity, continues to seduce audiences into multiple fantasies of incorporation—sexual, social, and (variously) ethno-national.

West Side Story is also not a product of Island high culture but of American popular entertainment, which does not depend on literacy or education to be consumed. If the cinema “homologizes . . . the symbolic gathering of the nation,” the film further demarcates the United States, not Puerto Rico, as the “national” space. In this sense, even if West Side Story represents AmeRícans as a subaltern group, the subjects so lowered have more in common with Nuyoricans than the heroic boricuas from the Island’s nationalist fiction, since they are working-class, not blanquitos; English (not Spanish) speaking; urban, not mountain dwelling; racialized, not European; and fully engaged in modernity, even if at a disadvantage.

Equally relevant is the fact that West Side Story constitutes Puerto Ricans as criminal (men), and victimized (women)—two gendered sites of shameful identification that nevertheless socially constitutes many boricuas in excess of ethno-nationality. Educated AmeRícan spectators, who tend to be the most stung by the shame of West Side Story, have attempted to offset it by offering a “positive” counterdiscourse, on the “good” side of the law. In doing so they have, however, resorted to the same definitions of justice that criminalize Puerto Ricans and ignore the degree to which boricua popular culture reveres outlaws and identifies with alternative codes of honor. Boricua popular culture, in fact, often embraces violence by individuals as a means of addressing asymmetrical power relationships. “The right to individually enact coercive reprisals directly, without official institutional mediation,” writes Kelvin Santiago-Valles, was “recognized and affirmed among the ‘native’ laboring classes” during the first five decades of American rule. Similarly, I witnessed in screening West Side Story to young Puerto Ricans in the Philadelphia barrio during the mid-1990s, that teenagers repeatedly affirmed that the film was not racist, for “that’s [gangs, violence, death] how it is.”

West Side Story is hence compelling as a founding narrative because it raises both the disgrace-shame of the privileged and the discretion-shame of the majority (see chapter 1). As Blanca Vázquez has observed, what may be the most shameful aspect of West Side Story to educated U.S. boricuas is not only its racism, but its insinuation that many Puerto Ricans—specifically gendered as women—want a part of the American Dream, and that this identification can often be painfully pleasurable. Ultimately, the film’s main and long-lasting effect is not that it divides “the Puerto Ricans from the Anglo-Americans, Puerto Rico from the U.S., the West Side from the East Side, the Latino race from the Anglo-Saxon race, the Puerto Rican cultural reality from the Anglo-American one, the poor from the rich,” as some critics have claimed. In a queer way, the film incorporates the specter of Puerto Ricans into American culture and provides what no boricua-made film has delivered to date: a deceptively simple, widely seen text that dwells on the still constitutive axes of migration, class, gender, race, and sexuality. West Side Story has in fact offered U.S. Puerto Ricans a world stage on which to negotiate their ethno-national identity, prophesying the replacement of boricua high culture by the mass media as a site of cultural reproduction.

The Puerto Rican “Thing” and the Makeup of Identity

If West Side Story has constituted Puerto Rican ethno-nationality as shameful, yet some spectators enjoy it and others decry it, how is the film playing (with) “us,” Puerto Ricans and/as “Americans”? From the many ways that spectators complicate and enjoy the subjection of cinema, I will begin by highlighting the “make up” of West Side Story—how it visualizes boricuaness—by using the queer vernacular methodology of “reading” its performances as do the judges and onlookers at a drag ball. Arguably, one of the pleasures that the film offers boricua spectators is how it fails to “get” them as Puerto Ricans.

While little known, the film’s origin story provides a valuable entry point. West Side Story is based on a 1949 play called East Side Story, a love story between a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy frustrated by both families. “As early as January 1949 Robbins had come to Bernstein with a proposal that they make a modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet,” wrote Meryle Secrest, “using the conflict between Jews and Catholics during the Easter-Passover celebrations as a contemporary equivalent.” After some thought, however, the collaborators Jerome Robbins (choreographer), Leonard Bernstein (composer), and Arthur Laurents (writer) put the project on hold partly because the proposed story line was too similar to Anne Nichols’s Abie’s Irish Rose, the longest-running show on Broadway during the 1920s.  “I said it was Abie’s Irish Rose to music,” Laurents commented, “and [Robbins] wouldn’t have any part of it.”

Read as a national allegory, Abie’s Irish Rose is about how American “whites” were invented out of a broad spectrum of European ethnicities, immigration histories, and classes. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, the final resolution is staged as an integration of Jews and Catholics through marriage and upperclass mobility—a triumph of “whiteness” as a new identity for the children of European immigrants, regardless of their religion. By the end of the play, Abie and Rose, for instance, celebrate a hybrid Christmas with their children, who are fraternal twins. The twins, named Rebecca and Patrick in honor of Abie’s mother and Rose’s father, respectively, will clearly grow up to be neither Jewish nor Catholic, neither Irish nor European, but “all-American.”

“The Puerto Rican ‘thing’ was nothing but the recasting of a colonial migrant community into a distinct and ‘nationally; recognized ethnic group, now also seemingly available for queer erotic fantasies.”

At the height of the late 1940s, Bernstein felt that Abie’s conflict was outdated. World War II had created a new context for Jews in the United States; anti-Semitism was at an all-time low and many first-generation Jews and Irish were integrated as Americans, despite a lingering discomfort. However, the basic premise of “impossible love” based on a socially imposed norm continued to be compelling to Robbins, Bernstein, and Laurents. “We’re fired again,” wrote Bernstein, “by the Romeo notion; only now we have abandoned the Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh, and have come up with what I think is going to be it: two teenage gangs, one the warring Puerto Ricans, the other ‘self-styled’ Americans.”

According to Bernstein, the new idea emerged spontaneously—and far from the action:

I was at a Beverly Hills pool with Arthur Laurents. I think I was in California scoring On the Waterfront. And we were talking ruefully about what a shame that the original East Side Story didn’t work out. Then, lying next to us on somebody’s abandoned chair was a newspaper headline, “GANG FIGHTS.” We stared at it and then at each other and realized that this— in New York—was it. The Puerto Rican thing had just begun to explode, and we called Jerry, and that’s the way West Side Story—as opposed to East Side Story—was born. 

The Puerto Rican “thing” was nothing but the recasting of a colonial migrant community into a distinct and “nationally” recognized ethnic group, now also seemingly available for queer erotic fantasies.

In adapting the play, the film’s creators maintained Catholicism as a plot continuity (although the East Side’s Italian boy became Polish), but Jewish identity disappeared, a critical displacement since the creators of the film were all Jews. The erasure of Jewish characters, however, did not mean that the questions that have affected Jewish integration into the United States vanished. As Michael Rogin and others have commented, Jews in New York have been productive appropriators of subaltern culture—particularly African American—in an effort to address their own complex process of sometimes shameful transculturation. This process recalls Toni Morrison’s comments regarding American literature, “The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity.”

While blackface was only partially used in the staging of West Side Story, the play’s music is heavily indebted to jazz and Latin American rhythms, and the casting in both the play and the film could be broadly understood as a minstrel act. In addition, for gay Jewish artists who were working in highly visible venues and in some cases living complex lives as heterosexuals, telling stories close to home through other means was not uncommon throughout their careers. Despite the fact that some have pointed to the surprising ease with which the producers changed one ethnicity for another as a symptom of racism, “passing” and hence substituting ethnicities was part of Jewish (ambivalent) survival strategies in the United States, which, of course, have much in common with (white) queer practices of integration into heterosexist spaces.

The casting of white actors presents a second opportunity to approach West Side Story as a transethnic masquerade. Mason Wiley and Damien Bona wrote that the Mirisch brothers, executive producers of West Side Story, had “toyed with the idea of casting Elvis Presley as the leader of the American street gang, with his followers played by Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Paul Anka.” No major male stars, however, were actually cast as any of the “white” Jets, although Natalie Wood and George Chakiris were hired to play the two Puerto Rican leads. Predictably, only secondary Shark roles went to Latino actors.

JB NICHOLAS / SplashNews.com

Since Puerto Ricans are a differently racialized people and some are indistinguishable from whites or African Americans (as coded in Hollywood cinema), boricua ethnic specificity had to be easily seen and heard. Otherwise, the visual economy separating the Jets from the Sharks—and Maria from Tony—would be lost. To stress the difference between ethnic groups, Puerto Rican characters spoke in a shifting, asinine accent, and the hair of the Jets was dyed unnaturally blond. Not surprisingly, George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, was “brownfaced.” Given the history of Hollywood representation of Latino working-class men and Chakiris’s own record in the production (he had played the leader of the Jets in the theater) brownface underscored Bernardo’s ethnicity; makeup was a clamp used to avoid any ethnic misreading of his “realness.”

Ironically, even if designed to make him more authentically boricua, Bernardo’s brownface and eccentric Spanish pronunciation had the opposite effect and were responsible for what many observers found to be an unconvincing performance (which nevertheless landed him an Oscar). Simultaneously, although Natalie Wood’s brunette type was less contested on the basis of appearance, the authenticity of her voice was questioned and even mocked. Not only was Wood’s singing voice dubbed, but her “speaking accent helped her earn the Hasty Pudding Club’s award for worst actress of the year.”

Jerome Robbins had requested Rita Moreno to audition to play Maria in the Broadway show, but once the play was transformed into a Hollywood production, the likelihood that a Puerto Rican actress would be granted the lead role considerably diminished, given the collusion of racism and commerce in film history, and the prevalent taboos on interracial romance. Although Rita Moreno is light-skinned, the union of Tony and Maria could have created anxiety in 1961 (although not in 1941, during the heyday of the “South of the Border” films of the Good Neighbor Policy era). One way to alleviate this anxiety was to allow white audiences to enjoy the interracial seduction by casting actors as Maria and Bernardo whom everyone knew to be white, and making sure that Moreno wore heavier makeup to avoid any confusion with the virginal Wood.

Even though it does not “see” Puerto Ricans, West Side Story visualizes a provocative proposition partly informed by the American Jewish experience: that for many immigrants, identity in the United States is, so to speak, a matter of makeup. Due to the instability of the category of “race,” ethnics must then be made up with dark powder, bright colored ruffled costumes (women), dark colors (men), accents, and incessant movement. By default, “white” men must be made up of yellows, browns, and light blue, the women, orange. The conspicuous absence of blacks—even Puerto Rican blacks—makes the “epidermal” differences secondary, even an aesthetic affectation.

This “made-up” representation contrasts with the processes of transculturation taking place in New York between Puerto Ricans and their neighbors, and underscores not only why artifice was required to uphold fading differences but also why this could even be a source of enjoyment for boricua spectators who wished to retain a distinct cultural identity. As the writer Esmeralda Santiago recalls, New York Puerto Ricans during the 1960s “walked the halls between the Italians and the morenos, neither one nor the other, but looking and acting like a combination of both, depending on the texture of their hair, the shade of their skin, their makeup, and the way they walked down the hall.” West Side Story’s overkill in representing race reveals not the power of racism as an epistemology or the impenetrability of Puerto Rican culture, but how the only way left to disavow transculturation is through color-coding, lest you eat the wrong M & M.

Expectedly—and despite the heavy makeup—the film never entirely succeeds in maintaining the illusion of difference. The dance scene in the gymnasium, for instance, succinctly taps into the transculturated core of “American” identifications. The Puerto Ricans “look alike,” as do the Anglos; but at the same time, many Puerto Ricans are indistinguishable from Anglos. The single exception is Maria, whose name and white costume connote her as a “virgin,” untouched by American culture and uncontaminated by racism. That the film’s arguably “perfect” character is also the most patently “fake” suggests that the narrative cannot resolve its rips at the seams.

While thematically the film insists that ethnic groups should stick to their own kind, the gym stages the swan song of anti-miscegenation as white bodies cannot help but perform to Latin-inflected music, even when the dances are not identically choreographed. As Stuart Hall observes, despite the “inauthentic” way that blacks are often consumed by the mass media, their incorporation has effected certain shifts that may be lost in a purely thematic analysis of a cultural text: “Style becomes the subject of discourse, the mastery of writing is displaced by music, and the body itself becomes the canvas for representation.” If not in plot, West Side Story is stylishly transcultural and transethnic.

Ridiculously, as West Side Story is staged and restaged, it will become “more” Puerto Rican, black, queer, and “Latino” at the same time that the play will continue to raise prickly issues. In the 1980 Broadway revival, a black actress, Debbie Allen, played Anita and Josie de Guzmán, a light-skinned Puerto Rican from the Island, was Maria. To her surprise, de Guzmán was “made up” (as Rita Moreno before her) to look Puerto Rican: “When they darkened her long silken hair for the part of Maria she revolted at first. ‘Oh my God, I am Puerto Rican—why did they have to darken my hair?’ she thought. They darkened her pale skin too, and after a bit she liked that, wanting to get literally in the skin of Maria.”

Yet it is in seducing the audience to look at Maria where West Side Story forces both ethno-national makeups to blush. In the character’s most famous number, “I Feel Pretty,” Maria reveals that she feels pretty (visible) only when Tony, a white man, sees her. In Maria’s quest to be seen by only one man, however, West Side Story allows other subjects to watch, enjoy, and unsettle his allegedly single authority.

Frances Negron-Muntaner is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, journalist, and cultural critic. She is the co-editor of Puerto Rican Jam and author of Anatomy of a Smile. She currently teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

Website | + posts