In 1957, composer Leonard Bernstein’s musical, West Side Story premiered on Broadway. The story followed two rival gangs, the Anglo-American “Jets” and the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and a romance that develops between a Jet member and the sister of a Shark. The film version of the musical premiered in 1961 and is the poster child for Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of Latinos, considering only one of the leads was Hispanic, actress Rita Moreno. When director Steven Spielberg announced plans to remake the musical, with an eye towards casting actual Latinos in the production, audiences quickly latched on to it, but Puerto Rican actress Suni Reyes says we shouldn’t be too excited.
Directed, written, and choreographed by Reyes, as well as director Ana Breton, this interpretation of the song – performed by Moreno in the ’61 feature – follows Reyes as her white friends attempt to convince her to audition for Spielberg’s new remake. You know? Because Reyes is Puerto Rican. Reyes’ friend launches into a performance of the song, complete with exaggerated “Hispanic” accent, leaving Reyes to remind them the country is suffering from government corruption and people are dying. Left “cold on the island Manhattan,” a group of fellow Puerto Ricans – “real-life Sharks” – arrive to tell everyone “nothing is free in America” and “racism lives in America.” Reyes eventually interrupts the singing to discuss how the play wasn’t created by Puerto Ricans and every Shark wore brownface, “including Rita.” Reyes and crew dive into a fantastic authentic depiction of Puerto Ricans dancing before an ICE officer arrives to force “all the Latinos” into a van for deportation, regardless of their protests, “We’re Puerto Rican!” (read American citizens). The three-minute video concludes with Reyes, again, stuck singing “America” before mentioning how the film (and play’s) choreography isn’t Puerto Rican either – “it’s flamenco, that’s from Spain” – before declaring “we don’t need a remake of this.”
West Side Story is every theater nerd’s favorite – I’m guilty of this myself – but it remains a racist and short-sighted depiction of Latinos, then and now. Regardless of Spielberg’s intentions, it’ll be hard to remove all the stereotyping. And considering how the United States government still can’t bother to aid Puerto Rico post-hurricane, do we really want to be reminded of a candy-coated musical time where Latinos danced and had no worries?