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Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and Puerto Rican Identity Discourses
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Social Text 18.2 (2000) 83-106

For never was a story of more woe
than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

--William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

If a time-capsule is about to be buried
anywhere, this film ought to be included
so that possible future generations can
know how an artist of ours made our
most congenial theatrical form respond
to the beauty in our time and to the
humanity in some of its ugliness.

--Stanley Kauffmann, "The Asphalt Romeo and Juliet"

The ideas of the past weigh like a
nightmare on the brains of the living.

--Stuart Hall, "Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Poststructuralist Debates"

There is no single American cultural product that haunts Puerto Rican identity discourses in the United States more intensely than the 1961 film, West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Although neither the first nor last American movie to portray Puerto Ricans as gang members (men) or as sassy and virginal (women), hardly any Puerto Rican cultural critic or screen actor can refrain from stating their very special relationship to West Side Story. Jennifer López, the highest paid Latina actress in Hollywood today, recalls that her favorite movie was West Side Story. "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." Journalist Blanca Vázquez, whose editorial work in the publication Centro was crucial in creating a space for critical discourse on Latinos in media, comments: "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." For Island-born cultural critic Alberto Sandoval, the film became pivotal in his own identity formation: "'Alberto, I've just met a guy named Alberto.' 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."

One of the ironies of the film's centrality in Puerto Rican identity discourses, however, is the universal consensus by both critics and creators of West Side Story that the film is not in any way "about" Puerto Rican culture, migration, or community life. The creators of West Side Story, for instance, have been consistent in representing the work as nonmimetic. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim initially rejected the project on the grounds of his ignorance of Puerto Rican culture and experience with poverty: "I can't do this show. . . . I've never been that poor and I've never even met a Puerto Rican." Without a touch of irony, Leonard Bernstein has written about the extent to which he researched Puerto Rican culture in New York 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 "superficiality" of the way that Puerto Ricans were represented in the book 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." Hence, if West Side Story was never intended to be "real" and doesn't feel real to Puerto Rican spectators, what accounts for its reality effects?

For those who have critiqued West Side Story oppositionally, the film opened a discursive space from which to speak for the "real" Puerto Rican community; a subjectivity allegedly not represented or misrepresented in the film. For...

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