“Once an immigrant, always an immigrant,” says West Side Story’s Anita, played by Rita Moreno, sassily as she pulls away from Bernardo right before the ‘America’ number. The song, which is a back and forth amongst the “Puerto Rican” men and women in the movie, struck a chord with me and as I watched this with my dad at 10-years-old. I knew he connected with it as well — that sacrificial feeling most immigrants have when abandoning their homelands in search of opportunity as well as a feeling of vulnerability to new levels of discrimination. The women expressed their joy for being in New York City, not having to struggle like they did in Puerto Rico, while the men sang of pure Puerto Rican nationalism. This is only where the complex implications of the story of West Side Story begin.
The Romeo and Juliet–inspired movie was a musical, based on the 1957 Broadway version, centered in Manhattan. Maria and Tony are the two lovebirds in the film and their destiny turns into tragedy due to their association with rival gangs — the white Americans, Jets, and the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks.
The film was a favorite of mine, but my appreciation for it took a hit as I got older and realized how forced the accents were. Worse, all of the actors playing Puerto Ricans were in brownface — including Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the production.
On an episode of journalist Maria Hinojosa’s podcast In The Thick, Moreno shared how frustrated she was when playing Anita and seeing all the actors, including herself, in extremely dark makeup. “I said to the makeup man one day…‘My God! Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish…’ And it’s true, we are very many different colors, we’re Taino Indian, we are black some of us.” It didn’t make sense to the 86-year-old, who now recognizes that times were different. She also mentioned that ideally Anita should have had an accent like Rosie Perez, who’s accent is a mixture of Spanish and Brooklyn dialects.
My appreciation might just come back, however, as last spring it was announced that Steven Spielberg was going to produce and direct the remake of the 1961 film, which won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Spielberg’s repertoire not only includes epic blockbusters like Jaws, the Indiana Jones series and Jurassic Park but social-historical powerhouses such as Amistad, The Color Purple and Schindler’s List. Even better, the casting call specifically asked for Spanish-speaking actors, implying an ethnically authentic approach. Of course, it’s worth noting that the two of the most powerful people involved are non-Latino men, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (stage and screen’s Angels in America). And with the West Side Story story of whitewashing, Spielberg knew the topic would be controversial.
He and Kushner paid a visit to the University of Puerto Rico a month ago and spoke a group of faculty members and students. The goal? To have an open conversation of the problematic tones the original movie had.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, a theater faculty member caught Spielberg and Kushner off-guard when she asked how they were dealing with the hurtful lyrics at the beginning of “America,” when Anita sings, “Puerto Rico, My heart’s devotion, Let it sink back in the ocean.” Indeed, Puerto Ricans have a much more complex relationship to the original material. It has never been revived on the island.
The hunt for roles went on for months, but ended Tuesday. It was announced that 17-year-old Rachel Zegler, a Columbian-American, will be starring as Maria in the much-anticipated remake. Tony-nominated Afro-Latina Ariana DeBose, as seen in Hamilton and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, will play Anita. David Alvarez, of Billy Elliot and On the Town, will play Bernardo, and Hamilton’s Josh Andres Rivera will play Chino. Opposite Zegler will be Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort as Tony. West Side Story led Moreno to become one of the few actresses to earn “EGOT” status — winning an Emmy, Grammy Oscar and Tony. She will be back, playing the role Valentina, a new version of Doc. Spielberg made sure to hire Puerto Rican singers, dancers, and actors.
The production is set to start filming in the summer of 2019. We are looking forward to it and the lessons to be learned from the conversation around it.