Puerto Ricans in the national imaginary

Among Puerto Ricans, the Academy Award winning film West Side Story is controversial. Like any mass media product the film presents contradictory images of Puerto Ricans. Discuss whether the image presented of Puerto Ricans in the film is a positive one, negative one, or a mixed one. You must at least provide 5 examples from the film to substantiate your position. Your answer should be no less than 750-words. In your discussion be sure to include what you’ve read in this section plus any other readings that you’ve done. It is important that your short essay includes citations.

Assignment #1 is due by 11:59 PM Monday September 9.

If you were to look at a list of the top 100 films in the history of cinema West Side Story will be included. Released in 1961, it was nominated for Academy Awards (Oscars) in 11 categories and won in 10—including for Best Picture and for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rita Moreno). The film is an adaptation of a 1957 Broadway hit by the same name. The story is a replay of the classic Shakespeare play of Romeo and Juliet, set to contemporary times. It takes place in the West Side of Manhattan —around where today’s Lincoln Center complex is— as it was being torn-down in the name of urban development. The residents of the neighborhood, a mix of white ethnics (Poles, Italians and Irish) and Puerto Ricans, were all being relocated from their homes as the neighborhood was being demolished in the name of progress.

Originally the story, titled East Side Story and set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, involved the doom loved between a Jewish girl and an Italian boy. Like in Shakespeare play the hatred among the groups (Jews and Italians) ushered the lovers into disaster. But Broadway producers, looking for a more contemporary theme, focused on the rivalries between New York’s newer migrants (Puerto Ricans) and the old established groups (in this case a mixed white gang comprised of Poles, Irish, Italians and Jews). Famous and talented individuals were brought in to direct and choreograph (Jerome Robbins), write the story-book (Arthur Laurents), write the songs (Steven Sondheim) and compose music (Leonard Bernstein) for the play. The success of the play made it easy for the movie to be produced.

Among many Puerto Ricans the movie generates strong negative reactions to their portrayal. While it is true that the film follows the usual trope of 1950 through 1970s gang films about Puerto Ricans in many ways a careful look at West Side Story may paint a different picture. Take for example the often overlooked examples:

While organized into a gang (the Sharks) it is clear from the plot that Puerto Ricans did so in self-defense—to protect themselves from the violent physical attacks of the long-time residents from the neighborhood.
All of the Puerto Rican presented in the story (men and women) work. Except for Tony who abandoned the whte ethnic gang (the Jets) none of them do.
It also seems that it is the Puerto Ricans who have stable family lives. The white gang members don’t—see the song “Officer Krupke” as a window into the pathologies in the family life of the members of the Jets.
Over and over in the film, as in the song “America,” the Puerto Ricans want to integrate themselves into American life but are prevented to do so by the discrimination they encounter.
In the film it s clear that the Puerto Ricans face constant discrimination from the authorities. For example, while in the film the police is not totally enamored of either gang, they seem to hold a special hatred of and prejudice against the Sharks.
Because of length, and thus the size of the file, I’ve been forced to divide the movie into three segments. Approximate running time for WSS Part 1: 46 minutes.