The West Side Story Appropriation We Never Really Talk About
While in graduate school this past spring, I engaged in a research paper project on people of color in the 1950s New York City theatre scene. One of my case studies truly stuck with me personally as an underreported historical happening I felt I needed to share. Months later, as this essay makes its way to HowlRound in this time of visibly heightened white supremacy and based on a topic during a time period that occurred more than half a century ago, its message is still extremely relevant in thinking about how we can counter white supremacy in our arts, on our stages, and in our legacies.
In 1950s New York City, the Puerto Rican community experienced an arts and culture appropriation that has continued to shape the way many people view Puerto Rican migrants and descendants in the United States. The culprit: the popular Shakespearean inspired musical, West Side Story. White male creators Jerome Robbins (conceived idea/Broadway director and choreographer), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) were, unsurprisingly, unable to truly represent the Puerto Rican US American story that is the migration to New York City from rural areas in Puerto Rico. Instead, the Puerto Rican story these creators presented was that of gang violence and whitewashed casting.
Additionally, this cultural appropriation, or inaccurate and superficial use of a marginalized culture for the artistic benefit of white artists and audiences, reveals the fiscal inequity that occurs for artists who create work that does accurately represent their own culture. This is seen in comparing West Side Story to La Carreta (The Oxcart) by René Marqués. La Carreta was produced in 1953, starring the late Míriam Colón and directed by Roberto Rodríguez. Marqués, Colón, and Rodríguez were three working Puerto Rican theatre artists in 1950s New York City. In this essay, I seek to compare these two plays and look at the history of Puerto Ricans migrating to New York in order to better understand an example of cultural appropriation in the arts, its effects, its telltale signs, and some lessons for the future.
Out of the Sugarcane Fields to El Barrio
In 1950s New York City, Puerto Rican migrants were a significant minority; a marginalized group of people of color. The United States Census of 1950 lacks data on tracking Puerto Rican migrants or Latin Americans on the whole and would actually categorize them as “white.” In actuality, Latin Americans—specifically Puerto Ricans—are not necessarily white, with most having African and Indigenous ancestry in addition to, or completely without, European ancestry. Furthermore, taking a closer look at this important migration moment in the history of the United States reveals an overlooked story of Puerto Ricans from the mid-twentieth century that also resonates with many immigrants or migrants of today.
The New York City Puerto Rican community grew and flourished through a mass migration often associated as the result of “Operation Bootstrap,” a strategy intended to industrialize Puerto Rico in order to improve its economy. The project was carried out by the Puerto Rican government, mainly Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, but was made possible with funding from US corporations who found tax-exemption by setting up production in Puerto Rico. By fast-tracking the decline of agriculture—mostly sugar cane production—and igniting the rise of industrialization, the Puerto Rican government gave the United States free rein to open hundreds of factories in Puerto Rico for the manufacturing and exporting of goods, textiles, plastics, and metal items for sale in the United States. As a result, Puerto Rican factory jobs increased, but they did not make up for the totality in loss of agriculture jobs. Thus, an expulsion of those living in the countryside began.
Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory of the United States also aided in the encouragement to migrate. It is important to make the distinction between “migrants” and “immigrants” because Puerto Rico was, and still is, an unincorporated territory of the United States. Puerto Ricans are US citizens with US passports, but at the same time, lack certain rights of US citizenship (like voting for President). Thus, over the course of the 1950s, a total of 450,000 Puerto Rican people migrated from the warm, tropical island to the crowded slums of East Harlem, soon to be known as “El Barrio.”
Like within any newfound community of like-minded people, the New York diaspora of Puerto Rican people created a new “Nuyorican” tradition of arts and culture. El Nuevo Círculo Dramatico, founded in 1953, staged La Carreta as their first play. The story of La Carreta, or The Oxcart when translated into English, tells of a family of rural peasants from Puerto Rico who migrate to the US to find better employment opportunities. Sound familiar? This story calls to the life stories of many Puerto Rican migrants living in New York City at the time and many Latinx immigrants or migrants in the US today. Puerto Rican artists Marqués, Colón, and Rodríguez are responsible for a moment in which a marginalized group of people took to the stage with their own voice and platform. Their impact was huge—Colón and Rodríguez went on to encourage more Puerto Rican theatre produced by El Nuevo Círculo Dramatico. Eventually, Colón founded The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in 1967, which is still around today. Perhaps, Broadway producers of the 1950s also felt the impact of the opportunity to tell the Puerto Rican migrant story or perhaps the inspiration came from a different place. Let’s look at some of the facts.
The Puerto Rican voice of the 1950s was stolen and rewritten for appropriated consumption. Meanwhile, the real issues the community faced as people looking for another shot at life as US citizens coming from a territory were ignored and essentially erased in the eyes of US American mass culture.
West Side Story: The Puerto Rican Story Rewritten
In 1957, West Side Story opened on Broadway. Jerome Robbins, who choreographed and directed the Broadway opening, was part of conceiving the story, originally considered to be titled East Side Story. It was to be drawing off Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet about star-crossed lovers, a Jewish boy and an Irish or Italian Catholic girl in the Lower East Side of New York City. Robert Emmet Long, in “West Side Story,” Broadway, The Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and The Great Choreographer-Directors: 1940 to the present reports on a conversation at the Beverly Hills Hotel between creators Laurents and Robbins. Laurents recalls saying, “I suggested the blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York, because this was the time of the appearance of teenage gangs and the problem of juvenile delinquency was very much in the news.” Casting for the play included Carol Lawrence, who was of Italian heritage, as the star “Maria,” or the Puerto Rican Juliet in this modern Romeo and Juliet. Not only was this mainstream story that depicted Puerto Rican migrants created and written by four white men, the story they chose to tell linked the Puerto Rican plight in New York in the 1950s to issues of gangs, not of migration, and the lead Puerto Rican character was played by a white Italian American actor. The Puerto Rican voice of the 1950s was stolen and rewritten for appropriated consumption. Meanwhile, the real issues the community faced as people looking for another shot at life as US citizens coming from a territory were ignored and essentially erased in the eyes of US American mass culture.
The Implications Beyond Casting
So why don’t we talk about this more? Why don’t we get offended when artists and theatre companies produce West Side Story? Albeit, we do care when there is whitewashing in casting, but why has that been our only criticism? I believe it’s because West Side Story offers Latinx people, and all woke theatre people, a superficial and false narrative of representation. West Side Story may seem, on the surface, like inclusivity in storytelling and characters, which was great and relatively true for the 1950s. Maria is Puerto Rican and shares a romance story with Tony, a member of the “Jets” gang that is as described in the libretto, “an anthology of what is called ‘American.’”
Let’s actually get into that first. The gangs are divided initially and ultimately by their race. But what that then looks like in the details is quite alarming. Look at the names: Puerto Rican “Sharks” vs. All-American “Jets.” The “Sharks” indicate a dangerous connotation, a feeling that they are out to get you. Meanwhile, the “Jets”—am I missing something here? All I think of are aircraft jets or water jets, all much less threatening or frightening for a white audience, a white America.
West Side Story offers Latinx people, and all woke theatre people, a superficial and false narrative of representation.
The racist practices continue with casting Carol Lawrence as Maria in the Broadway production. The exciting and perhaps most inclusive, anti-racist message of the show, an interracial relationship, is not truly shown onstage to a white audience, to white America, because she was cast with a non-Puerto Rican and non-Latinx actor. But here’s why we don’t talk about this: Chita Rivera. Chita Rivera, a Puerto Rican actor, originated the role of Anita, Maria’s best friend on Broadway. Finally, a POC co-star character with significant stage time and solo pieces, a revolutionary occurrence in the 1950s Broadway scene. Later Rita Moreno, also Puerto Rican, played the same role in the film adaptation of West Side Story. The Latinx community is very proud, as we should be, of these two amazing women who paved the way for many more Latinx actors in the future. However, this small success has skewed our vision of the larger picture. It helps us gloss over the rest of the whitewashed cast on Broadway and in the film. The film has done even more damage in spreading a false and negative narrative about Puerto Ricans and specifically Nuyoricans because of its global reach. This is often the first time people saw Puerto Rican characters on screen and perhaps in any setting. For Puerto Ricans in the United States, it was the first time seeing someone like themselves onscreen. Although, this was also not fully realized as in the film, once again, the Puerto Rican star character, Maria, was played by a white actor, Natalie Wood.
Who Tells Our Stories
Speaking for myself, I know I was fed a superficial and skewed narrative with this musical that let me believe it was part of my lineage and something I should be proud of, as opposed to something that encouraged the narrative that Latinx people are gang members, criminals even. One solution here for myself and for many of us, especially the younger Latinx theatre artists, is to demand more. Demand to know more about your lineage and find plays like La Carreta in order to not let yourself be brainwashed by the West Side Storys in the world.
We’ve seen too many instances of marginalized cultures being exploited by white, inherently privileged audiences (e.g., Emmet Till at the Whitney, The Met Harlem On My Mind Exhibit, Kylie Jenner’s numerous accounts of appropriation of black culture, and music festival attire’s appropriation of South Asian and Native cultures.) It is culturally damaging, and often financially damaging, for the individuals who receive no credit for their influenced, appropriated, or stolen work. Overall, there is a lack of opportunity to accurately represent marginalized cultures onstage, on walls, or online, resulting in a skewed, inaccurate popular image and reputation of the culture. We don’t get to hear about La Carreta because it wasn’t produced as largely as West Side Story, but it also wasn’t going to get there in the first place because of the sheer lack of opportunity held back by the white male creators. Lessons for future productions involving a culture’s story: include someone from the culture on your top creative team.
I also would like to end in acknowledging a huge step for the Latinx and specifically Puerto Rican community in rewriting the damaging West Side Story lineage with the musical theatre work and presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda. We were able to reclaim a truer story of being Latinx in New York City through his creation of In The Heights and further see we have a place in this country with Hamilton. In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda also leaves us with the important and uncannily related lesson in thinking about who lives, who dies, and who tells our stories.