forget that boy

West Side Story Can’t Be Saved

Photo: 20th Century Studios

My first exposure to West Side Story left the taste of ashes in my mouth. I was 22 and had recently become one of the thousands of young people leaving Puerto Rico as part of the island’s “brain drain” before its debt crisis became fully known. My Australian grad-school adviser casually mentioned that my reporting about home had made her think of the song “America.” After our meeting, I dutifully looked up a clip from the 1961 film (adapted from the 1957 stage musical), curious about what she meant. That afternoon in the school newsroom, where I was the only Puerto Rican, I encountered Rita Moreno — the only Boricua in the film, drenched in paint to make her skin look browner. “Puerto Rico / My heart’s devotion,” she spits out with a fake smile before revealing her scorn: “Let it sink back in the ocean.”

The phrase — the very first line in this version of the song — cut deep. Ever since leaving seven years ago, I’ve longed for home. It wasn’t until much later that I’d learn the line replaced the original, and completely ahistorical, “Puerto Rico / You ugly island / Island of tropic diseases.” As if wishing your motherland got swallowed by Earth were an improvement.

West Side Story wasn’t made for Puerto Ricans like me. Walking out of the movie theater in the cold December breeze this week, I didn’t feel the new remake by Steven Spielberg was for us, either.

Boricuasresistance to West Side Story, and the love-hate relationship many have with it, is well documented. The musical and film were the very first times many Puerto Ricans saw themselves onstage and onscreen. Moreno’s earth-shattering interpretation of Anita earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first (and for decades, only) Latina to win such an accolade. But the cost of representation was steep with the stereotypes baked into the DNA of West Side Story causing deep, long-lasting harm. When the musical premiered in 1957, the newspaper La Prensa called for a boycott over its depiction of the community as violent, hypersexual colonial migrants who came from an island full of “diseases.”

West Side Story’s four creators — Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins — had little to no experience with the Boricua community in their New York. Sondheim nearly declined to work on the project, saying, “I’ve never been that poor, and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican.” Bernstein’s research consisted in going to a gym in Brooklyn to observe gangs. In fact, the only reason the Sharks were Boricua was because, in Bernstein’s words, “the Puerto Rican thing had just begun to explode.” What he meant was West Side Story was first supposed to be East Side Story, a love story between a Jewish girl and an Italian Catholic boy. When that wasn’t possible, the creators set the story between a white Polish boy and a Puerto Rican girl after seeing a front page about gang violence involving the latter’s community. It was the time of Operation Bootstrap and la gran migración, of Nationalists fighting for Puerto Rico’s independence. The public discourse around Boricuas who arrived in New York en masse was that they were poor, violent, reproducing at higher rates than — and therefore could dangerously replace — the rest of the population. In many ways, West Side Story cemented that narrative as the official one on stage. The Sharks were not authentic or three-dimensional; in fact, their generality underscores how much the gang is a caricature of what Latinidad was seen as at the time. The 1961 film adaptation — full of brownface, inaccurate accents, and offensive remarks — exported these stereotypes beyond New York. For Americans and the rest of the world, West Side Story was, and 60 years later remains, the dominant image of what Puerto Ricans are.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner were aware of these deep flaws as they went into creating the 2021 remake. At a technical level, it’s easy to see why critics have lauded the film. It’s gorgeous to look at, from its cinematography to its costumes. The updated choreography is electrifying, as is the decision to set the story with slum-clearance as the backdrop. The characters feel more fully developed, and most of the actors shine in their roles. (Like Moreno, Ariana DeBose carries the film in her powerful, heartbreaking turn as Anita.)

The portrayal of the Sharks received a major update thanks to a small army of Puerto Rican consultants, historians, and cast members who provided their expertise to the filmmakers. All 30 of the Sharks are Latinx with 20 being Boricua. And a ton of work went into details to make the community feel more historically accurate and real. The Puerto Rican flag is prominently displayed as the film is set around the time of la Ley Mordaza, which criminalized any symbols that were pro-independence. In her new role as Doc’s widow, Valentina, Moreno drinks Puerto Rican rum. After her attempted rape, Anita’s fury is palpable as she hisses, “Yo no soy americana; yo soy puertorriqueña in a way that resonates with anyone who has experienced racism and discrimination stateside. Boricuas’ Spanish is prominently used — zángano, prieta, nos van a botar como bolsa — and there are no English subtitles, a gesture that was important to Spielberg.

Yet to me, most of these details felt like cosmetic changes to right the previous versions’ sins and, in many ways, the bare minimum the filmmakers could do. Almost nothing in the film is sonically Puerto Rican — there’s no plena, bomba, salsa, aguinaldos. The opening beats of “America” are la clave, the main salsa beat, and the subtle sounds of a guiro before it reverts to being a Spanish paso doble. There’s a lack of imagination in what the score could be even though artists such as award-winning percussionist Bobby Sanabria have shown us what West Side Story can sound like. 

The Boricua accents are uneven at best and cringeworthy at worst, even though Spielberg said he hired dialect coaches to “help Puerto Ricans who have lived in New York too long to remember where they came from.” (Would he use that phrasing to describe an actor with, say, Southern roots? I digress.) Much has been made about Rachel Zegler and David Alvarez not being Puerto Rican themselves even if they still shine as the siblings Maria and Bernardo.

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. At the beginning, the Sharks sing “La Borinqueña,” but not the highly sanitized post-U.S. invasion version that is currently our national anthem. Instead, they sing the revolutionary version — the one Lola Rodríguez de Tió wrote as Puerto Ricans sought to become independent from Spain in the mid-1800s. “Nosotros queremos la libertad / Nuestros machetes nos la dará,” the teens sing with their fists raised before the Jets and the cops. What should have felt like a powerful moment — that song in a massive Hollywood production? — felt like pandering. Equally awkward is hearing the Jets — with a stronger tinge of white supremacy than before, by the way — recognize Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory. Are we supposed to believe these poor teens in the late 1950s, who insist the Sharks “go back to where they came from,” knew of that political relationship (kind of “a state,” one of them says) when in 2017, half of Americans didn’t even know we have U.S. citizenship?

Spielberg and Kushner have insisted this remake was necessary because its themes of racism, xenophobia, poverty, and violence remain as urgent as they were before if not more. What they seem to miss is that, as critic Carina del Valle Schorske wrote, “These continuous revivals reinforce America’s colonizing power to determine who Puerto Ricans get to be.” That’s mostly because, no matter how much authenticity you try to bring to West Side Story, the story requires that Puerto Ricans ultimately be the antagonists. The Sharks never have a chance to be somewhat humanized in the way “Gee, Officer Krupke” does for the Jets. It is Bernardo who opposes Maria and Tony’s relationship and who first becomes a killer. It is Anita who lies after the Jets try to rape her, leading to Tony’s death. It is Chino who pulls the trigger and kills Tony in revenge.

And in this version, the white-triumphs-over-brown coding remains, prioritizing fidelity to the story over nuance. Maria stays desperately in love with Tony and quickly forgives him after he confesses to killing her brother; her grief pours through the screen when she’s hugging his body in a way we never see her mourn Bernardo. Valentina hides Tony in her drugstore and is willing to give him money so he can escape with Maria. The final scene sees her walking Chino toward the police cars, presumably to be arrested for Tony’s murder. Even unintentionally, the contrast is jarring: The white teen convict would have received a second chance from Valentina, but there’s no effort to protect the Puerto Rican kid — who until then didn’t belong to the gang, studying and working multiple jobs instead — in the same way.

Historically, our complaints about West Side Story have often been shot down by people who argue that stereotypes are inevitable in musicals and that we shouldn’t be so upset over a work of fiction. I’d be more receptive to this thinking had its creators and their contemporaries not heavily insisted the piece was very much rooted in real life and widely praised it as such. “West Side Story becomes a sociological document turned into art,” the novelist Martha Gellhorn said of the 1957 musical in a letter to Bernstein. Sondheim shared a similar sentiment. “We want you to take this as if it were a serious story that can actually be happening on the streets of New York right now,” he told NPR in 2010. “Two gangs are at war, and murders and deaths occur as a result … whereas Sweeney Todd is strictly about, in a sense, cartoon figures.”

This presumed realism is West Side Story’s fatal flaw when it comes to Puerto Ricans. The good intentions of the revival can’t save it. For all the filmmakers’ insistence that they want to champion diversity and honor Boricuas, I’ve thought a lot about how much art the island and the diaspora could have made with the $100 million the musical cost this time around. There is so much talento boricua and yet so little opportunities in front of or behind the camera both stateside and at home. The stats about Latino representation in media and film are staggering: Between 2007 and 2019, only 3.5 percent of movie leads were Latinx, 40 percent of Latinx actors played characters with connections to organized crime, and only 4.2 percent of Latinx directors worked on the 1,300 top-grossing movies. The price tag and the widespread adoration West Side Story is receiving works “to reinscribe its symbolic importance, affirm white cultural authority, and prevent other narratives from coming into being,” according to filmmaker and scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner.

As I walked out of the theater, I found myself aching for these other narratives. I want dramas about Hurricane Maria, Vieques, and the 2019 ousting of Governor Ricardo Rosselló just as much as I want buddy comedies set in las Calles de San Sebastián, sci-fi movies that start in El Yunque, and romances where UPR is the backdrop. I want biopics about Pedro Albizu Campos, Dr. José Celso Barbosa, the Borinqueneers, Mariana Bracetti, Roberto Clemente, Julia de Burgos, and the Young Lords. I want many more movies like Broche de Oro, La Capa Azul, América, Lo Que le Pasó a Santiago, Maldeamores, and Nuevo Rico. I want to see Boricuas on the small and big screens experience joy, la brega, political awakenings, magical journeys, and family love.

Ultimately, I want more than the broken English, hypersexualized, otherized crumbs we’ve been given for decades. Anita wanted Maria to “forget that boy and find another.” I just want us to move on, leaving West Side Story in the past, where it belongs.

West Side Story Can’t Be Saved