Let’s play a game.
It’s called “which singer does not belong.” I’m going to give you four names and you have to tell me which one does not belong. And yes, you have to choose one.
Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez, and Brittney Spears.
5 seconds left…
Okay, time’s up. What’s your answer?
Did you choose Jennifer Lopez?
If you did choose JLO, ask yourself why. Was it because she is the oldest one out of the group? Maybe because she hasn’t made any hit songs lately? Maybe you’re a World of Dance fan? Despite these justifications, the reason may be deeper than any of those: she is the only American singer on the list who isn’t white. Although you may think that you were not considering ethnicity when choosing your answer, the world that you live in inherently sees race before anything else, and in America especially, there are racist stereotypes that feed into our first perceptions of others. And while we can all try our hardest to suppress these implicit biases, they are impossible to escape.
The classic film musical West Side Story is an iconic example of these stereotypes. Either knowingly or unknowingly, we tend to exclude immigrant groups out of the American identity because the term “American” has now become synonymous with “white.” This white American identity is incredibly ironic because America is a country of immigrants that derives its uniqueness and its greatness from its diversity.
West Side Story, one of America’s beloved musical performances, directed in 1961 by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and packed with exuberant jazz and Hispanic style dances, lively music and singing, and climatic moments. It highlights the rift between two gangs: the Jets, composed of white members, and the Sharks, composed of Puerto Ricans. These two groups constantly battle over who owns “the turf,” which is contested land in the West Side of New York. The musical is a modern adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”, and it uses the tensions between white Americans and Latinx Americans as a method of showing how arbitrary racial identity can be. The play grievously ends in the death of the two Jet members and one Shark member, including the play’s Romeo. When the movie musical was first released, it was appreciated by many Latinx community members, as it brought representation onto the stage. It was one of the first times that a movie had incorporated the experiences of the Latinx community, along with their cultures such as costumes, music, and dance, onto the big screen. While these aspects were adored by many, we as an audience must realize that the writers purposefully created racial tension between the two ethnic groups, as a way to show the disparity between American identity and cultural identity of Puerto Ricans and immigrant groups in general. They portray the Puerto Ricans’ lack of belonging within the musical through the dialogue and dancing, and in the real world through the casting.
The main characters are Tony, Bernando, Riff, Anita, and Maria. Tony and Riff are the white Jets in the musical, whereas Bernanado, Anita, and Maria are Puerto Rican Sharks. Anita, played by Rita Moreno, was the only Puerto Rican actress. Bernando and Maria, played by George Chakaris and Natalie Wood respectively, were white American actors performing in brown face. Although Anita is the only character portrayed by a Puerto Rican, the Juliet of the adaptation, Maria, was played by a white actress. Although Latinx audiences may originally have been excited to see representation, the casting choices by the producers clearly indicate that their interest in portraying the Puerto Rican-American identity was more of a way to make money than actually caring about substantive and accurate representation. This implies that Puerto Ricans do not belong on the American Hollywood sets. Without discussing the elements of the musical, this is a perfect example of how Puerto Ricans are being excluded from the American identity. In a movie about the Puerto Rican-American identity, there is still a refusal to acknowledge what that identity looks like because they refuse to hire actors with that background and life experience, even if it could enhance the role.
Throughout the musical, the racial tension between the white and Puerto Rican gang members was used to highlight the fact that Puerto Ricans do not belong within their community. For instance, when the two groups met at the drugstore to discuss the terms of the rumble, both sides began arguing over who started the fight. Riff, the leader of the Jets, states “who jumped Baby John this afternoon?” to which Bernando, leader of the Sharks, responds with “who jumped me the first day I moved here.” Then another Jet says “who asked you to move here…go back to Puerto Rico” These are very important lines that not only explain the origin of the tensions between them, but also reveals the internalized racism within the white boys. In the Jets’ eyes, the streets are rightfully their turf because they have internalized that only they (aka white people) belong in America and therefore, the Puerto Ricans don’t. While this portrayal of white privilege is a dangerous concept, it is an accurate representation of what occurs in the real world not only to Puerto Ricans, but to every non-white immigrant group. This argument is not something that has been lost over the last 60 years; rather, in some ways, we’ve seen these anti-immigrant sentiments rise in support, seen in videos of “Karens” claiming that “Mexicans should go back to their country because they bring drugs, black people should go to Africa because they are thugs, and Asian people should go back to China because they bring Coronavirus, or in President Trump’s words, ‘Chinese Flu’.” While such radical statements are not exactly stated in the musical, it is insinuated through the comments made by the Jets. In both the real world and the movie, ethnic groups are constantly considered the outsiders of America, just like in my “who does not belong” game. All the singers I listed are American, but the reason Jennifer Lopez unconsciously stuck out of the group is that she is the only one that is not white, and although race is always something that we see, it’s identification as a lack of belonging connects to our country’s inclination to see non-white people as outsiders.
The Jet’s opinions on the Sharks are not insular. The constant bombardment of immigrants and people of color with these messages becomes internalized; the Puerto Ricans themselves feel like they do not belong either. In the musical number “America,” the Shark boys and girls are divided on the greatness of America. The women praise America and claim that their identity is American, while the men denounce America and claim their identity will always be with their home country, Puerto Rico. Although Anita and the girls support America, their dresses and dancing say otherwise. They wear traditional Hispanic dresses that have numerous ruffles on the bottom so that while they are dancing, they can flail it around and expose their legs. They also rhythmically tap their feet, shake their hips, spin in place, and perform high kicks. This confident and exuberant way of dancing was portrayed to parallel their pride in having an American identity, while still exuding the cultural traits of their Puerto Rican heritage. The boys on the other hand, in one specific part of the number, dance more elegantly in partners, somewhat like a ballroom and ballet type of dance, by going in releve and spinning in place. Then all of sudden, they fake slap each other across the face and scream “America.” They go back to dancing elegantly, and suddenly kick each other in the butts and scream “America” again. This contrasting and peculiar way of dancing shows how the boys think they do not belong in America because in America everything seems elegant, classy, and like a dream, but in reality America “kicks you in the ass,” especially when you’re an immigrant or a person of color, or both. This is exemplified by their reasons for why they don’t like America; the girls say there is “credit here” (elegant ballroom), but the boys respond with “they will charge twice for people who are not white” (followed by a slap in the face or a kick in the butt). At the end of the number, the two groups come together, partner up with one boy and girl, and they happily and lively dance the same upbeat Hispanic dance by clapping their hands, jumping around wildly, and skipping in place, to show that although the two groups have opposing views on America, they are all happy to share the same ethnic identity of being Puerto Rican. These two separate perspectives that they have on America is partially related to the American Dream and the violence that men of color face in America, while women of color, although they also face violence, are often also commodified, shown by how the love interest in the movie is the Puerto Rican girl.
The movie ends in the death of Tony, a white jet who falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl named Maria. Even though Maria screams at both groups for letting their hatred for each other result in multiple deaths, the creators of the musical do not end it with both sides coming together, apologizing, and coming up with a resolution for the future. Instead, each group walks away to their respective side. This silent scene speaks the loudest in that it shows how the white people still do not see the Puerto Ricans as one of them. It portrays the real-world actions of how immigrants groups never belong in America. Despite the logic, the facts, the historical context of America, and the power of diversity in creating the America we live in today, the Jets and the Sharks represent the ongoing tension between an American identity, and a white one. It shows how Puerto Ricans have not been and currently are not, a part of the American community. In our world today, JLO is in fact the odd one out.