West Side Story: Resurrecting a Place for Us
Reprinted from NYU’s Latinx Project Intervexions
As the family translator, I was surprised when Ma, who didn’t go anywhere without me as a go-between, tore into the living room demanding I stop playing that record. Then, pushing past my deer-in-the-headlights stare, she jumped to the high-fi with the deft and speed of a ninja, yanked the needle from America with a loud scratch against the groove announcing West Side Story was forbidden in her home.
But at twelve years old, who doesn’t love forbidden? We were already rehearsing “I Feel Pretty,” in Chorus Class. While we anticipated with excitement our roles in our junior high school production of West Side Story, Ma scanned the newspapers, hoping she wouldn’t see another article describing “the Puerto Rican problem.” Whenever the news came on, she’d echo her fear out loud, praying, “Que no sea un Puertorriqueño.”
Written by four white, Jewish, gay guys, West Side Story’s Shakespearean premise was initially wrapped around a love story between a Catholic and a Jew. Suddenly in 1957, with Steven Sondheim admitting he didn’t even know any Puerto Ricans let alone think like one, the lovers became Polish and Boricua. Did they not notice the many negative news stories about Puerto Ricans then? Did they realize freedom fighter Lolita Lebron was arrested a mere three years earlier in 1954 for shooting inside the U.S. Capitol to call attention to the Island’s Colonial Status? Or was this narrative switch simply an interchangeable puzzle piece of their creative process? Whatever the reason, they didn’t seem to have a clue as to the stereotyped branding they marked on a displaced, marginalized community already here, on the mainland, 30 years yet entirely unknown for these creators. These were not immigrants crossing borders; they were colonialized American citizens. And no one, even us, knew what that meant.
When the producers naively chose Puerto Ricans, they unwittingly strayed from the feel-good musical they boasted blazed new ground into racism, gang violence, and star-crossed love. Instead, when they tagged Boricuas, they danced straight into the complicated politics of American Colonialism, a topic more taboo than immigration.