The West Side Story and Us

by Donald Fitzgerald, Devin Boddie, Nate Cliffton, Will Shepard.

As four Black Student-Athletes, we examine in an Interview style how this musical “The west side story” affects us in our society today. In terms of what we see and feel.

  • Will’s Question: What are some of the cultural differences between the Sharks and Jets, and what were some of the issues between the two gangs. 
    • Nate’s Answer: The Sharks consist of Puerto Ricans that immigrated from their home country. Seeking a better life for themselves and their people, the Sharks’ families transferred over to America. However, they still hold on to their cultural values. For example, simply by seeing the Sharks attire a person can tell they are foreigners. In our introduction to Maria, she is very fond of a dress that Anita created for her. The colors alone almost resemble the Puerto Rican flag. Furthermore, you can see that the Sharks hold on to their cultural values through their dances. In the musical number “America”, both the ladies and gentlemen present choreographed movements that resemble their home country. On the other hand, the Jets showcase a culture of a regular, caucasion American. Growing up in the west side of New York their entire lives, they only know the American way and values. Throughout the song “Dance at the Gym”, viewers could see the Jets performance that any typical American would recognize. Now speaking on the issues between the two groups, I believe it resembles the struggle we see today. It seems to me that the Jets have a problem with another group of people moving into their territory”. Because they are foreigners, they must be removed from the premises. Across social media, I see all the time that Americans have problems with immigrants moving into this country because they do not know the American values. “The West Side Story ” did an excellent job representing real life problems into their musical. 
    • Donald’s Answer: The jets view themselves as the true citizens of this country and any other immigrants don’t have any power in their country. They view them as different and because of that they cant co-exist, if they were  white i am pretty sure this wouldn’t have escalated to where it involved killing members of each gangs.Also the song “America” where the guys and ladies of the sharks compare the difference between Puerto Rico and American, they pointed out what makes America different from their home country. Their issue was about territory as the jets want nothing to do with the sharks and doesn’t want them around their territory. Overall their main difference is the color of their skin, race is a big divider and has been for years past and will continue to be the same.
    • Devin’s Answer:  In Westside Story the two rival gangs were the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets were an American teenage gang that originated in the streets of New York City. Their rivals were the Sharks, a Puerto Rican teenage gang full of teenagers who moved to the United States. The origin for the two gangs automatically creates major cultural differences and ways of life. Being that the Sharks and Jets were from two different cultures in the Westside Story we can notice different traditions, music, clothing, etc. I also believe that the gangs had a different amount of power and privilege in America due to the race of the gangs. The Sharks were more prone to racism in America and would receive the worst treatment from the police department in New York before the Jets.The main issue between the gang was that the Jets did not like the Sharks moving into “their streets” and wanted to put them away.  
  • Devin’s Question: How does the gang culture portrayed in the movie relate to present day gang culture in the United States? 
    • Nate’s Answer: Luckily for me, I did not grow up in an environment that gang culture affected my upbringing. Though I was born in Chicago, a place that is notorious for its violence, my mother decided it was best for our family to move when I was at a young age. Even though I haven’t had a direct relationship with gang culture, I’ve still had a family member that was raised in such conditions. I had a half brother named Willie Curtis Clifton. We called him Curtis because my father’s name was Willie. In December of 2015, he was shot and killed during a drive-by shooting. I do not know exactly if Curtis was involved in gang activity. However, I do know that it was a gang member that shot and killed my brother. Gang culture does not come without violence. For many in today’s gangs, the initiation is to get jumped by the other gang members. If you endure this beating, you are strong enough to join the group. This introduction into a gang is very similar to the introduction of “The West Side Story”. Viewers’ first impression of the musical is two gangs fighting over territory. One member of the Jets is hit hard enough to cause bleeding. The violence does not stop the entire movie. At the end of the film, the body count totals up to three people. The reason for the final murder of Tony was because he killed Bernardo in a fit of age. A core of gang culture, in both present day America and in the film, is to get revenge. If a member of the gang is killed by another rival gang, someone on the other side must die as well. You hear this mentality all the time in today’s rap music. I’ve heard countless songs state lyrics along the lines of, “If they kill one of us, we kill two of them.” Gangs going back and forth with this mindset create non-stop violence. Lastly, another core principle of gangs in today’s culture and in the film is toughness. Riff was the gang leader of the Jets. In the rumble, he was killed by the rival gang leader, Bernardo. In the scenes after the fight, viewers see Baby John trying his best not to cry. He had to completely remove himself from the rest of the Jets to let his tears flow. Even though one of his closest friends was murdered, it is shunned upon to show emotion in gang culture. The same virtues hold true today. Emotions are considered a weakness in present gang culture. You never hear about the feelings of the friends of a murdered individual. Instead, you hear the acts of violence done in retaliation.
    • Donald’s Answer: Gangs still exist and even though this movie was made a long time ago, we still see the very same thing happening today on an everyday basis. Everyday we turn on the news it’s another senseless killing of people by their rival gangs or turfs. The only difference between the gangs in the movie and the gangs now is the readily and easily accessible guns of different kinds.its also creates this mind set that being in a gang is about violence and fighting and that its only for males as we saw when a girl wanted to join but she was pushed away and told to go do some girly stuff like her sister. The race factor is always constant as back then it was mostly race gangs but in our present society we see gangs of the same race attacking each other and fighting over grounds. Now gang have a negative connotation to its name as everyone thinks you are a reckless person if you say you’re in a gang as the word has been associated with bad things.
    • Will’s Answer: In today’s world, we still can see the Gang culture has changed a lot, but there are still similarities between the movie’s gang culture and present day culture. Starting out, I think there are slightly more differences than there are similarities. To start, I think that gangs today are extremely less organized. Today we have teenagers and such that are going out and fake joining gangs and doing their own things. I’ve seen in documentaries and interviews of former current day gang members that back in the day they used to be organized and smart about what they do, and they were together like a family. You can see these same principles in the musical in that each gang bands together to form a mini family and they protect each other, and plan things out together. We can see in numerous different acts the groups travelling together, meeting together, and even when they are travelling somewhere, they all appear out of nowhere and band together. The gangs back in the musical were not associated necessarily with bad things. They were more of hoodlums and just groups of friends. In today’s gang culture, when you hear the word gang, it automatically gets a negative connotation. Gangs today are defined as thugs and bad people. 
  • Donald’s Question: As the shark ladies sang the song “America” and sang about all the good things in America, is that what we see today as minorities? 
    • Nate’s Answer: By living in the United States of America my entire life, I have come to know that this country prides itself on being the “freest country in the world”. America’s government and loyal citizens tell themselves that this is the best country to be in. According to them, living here gives you the chance to reach dreams you may have never gotten the chance to see anywhere else. As a matter of fact, a nickname for this country is “the land of opportunity”. In the “West Side Story” the group of Puerto Ricans living in New York immigrated there believing that this will lead to having a better life for themselves. In the song “America”, Anita and her friends express to Bernado and the boys that moving to America was better than staying in Puerto Rico. The entire musical number is a back and forth exchange between Anita and Bernado communicating the pros and cons of each country. Now answering the question, I believe what the shark ladies stated is correct. However, I also believe what Bernardo said is right as well. First off, to Anita’s point, America can offer a mass variety of opportunities for its citizens. The U.S. has been the reason many have risen to their highest desires. One of the words spoken by Anita is, “Everything free in America”. This is more or less true. Any person no matter the race, ethnicity, or sex can all acquire the same goods. However, the difficulty to access such goods do differ upon a variety of factors. Being a white male in America is the easiest position to be in this country. Bernardo understands this dynamic. In the banter between the couple, Anita states, “Lots of new housing with more space,”. Bernardo’s response: “Lots of doors slamming in our face”. The word “our” symbolizes his fellow Puerto Ricans in America. Because this country was not built to benefit them, minorities have additional factors to face on a daily basis than Caucasion Americans. For example, one of those is the police force. In the opening scene of the musical, Lieutenant Schrank forced the Sharks, consisting of Puerto Ricans, to go home instead of the Jets. The same thing happened after the war counsel in later scenes. Even though it looked like the two gangs were being friendly, the officer forced the Sharks to go home instead of the Jets. In conclusion, I believe both what Anita and Bernardo stated were right in their own ways. America does offer great chances for success, but it is more difficult based on your race and ethnicity. 
    • Wills Answer: The song “America”, which is sung by the Shark men and women, is a back and forth sound about the pros and cons of life in America vs life in Puerto Rico. The musical number is led by Bernando and Anita. Anita and her girls express that moving to America was a good idea and that life will be better for them there, while Bernando and his boys are arguing the opposite, and saying that life back in Puerto Rico is better and life in America will only be harder. I do believe that some of the things that the women were singing about are true, but I also agree with Bernando in a lot of the things he mentioned. The big one was when Anita said, “Lots of new housing with more space”, and Bernando retaliated with, “Lots of doors slamming in our face.” I think Bernandos claim strongly relates with what minorities deal with today. I think the slamming of doors in our face can be interpreted literally and figuratively. I think that minorities today don’t receive the same chances and opportunities as non minorities, such as the Jets do in the film. The color of your skin, or your ethnicity strongly holds you back a lot of times in today’s America. This brings me to the next point about how America can be unfair towards minorities. When the two gangs were wrestling and fighting, the police officers came and they forced the Sharks to leave instead of the Jets. Throughout the whole film the detective refers to the Sharks as all kinds of different bad things. On the other hand, Anita was right about some things, in that the United States can opper great amounts of opportunities for immigrants and minorities. Life can be easier in America for minorities in the film and in the present day, but it also comes with its cons. 
    • Devin’s Answer: The “American” song in Westside Story was performed by the Sharks from Puerto Rico. By the title of the song it is easy to expect the foreigners to talk about their experiences in America. Anita expresses her love for America along with women while the Puerto Rican men spoke about the bad things that America offered towards their race. I found that to be relatable in a sense with me being a part of a minority race as a male. I don’t think that minority women don’t have struggles in America but I think that men in minority groups go through worse circumstances depending on the matter. The overall point that Anita was making was about all of the great opportunities that America has to offer while the men expressed how hard it is to achieve those goals being a minority in America. I believe this to be true wil this day in America as it is not easy for minority races to achieve success while it is a great opportunity in America for wealth. 
  • Nate’s Question: Why was Tony’s death the peacemaker? Before the shooting, both sides had one man who passed away, but Tony’s was the final straw. Why was his passing the reason the White Americans and the Puerto Ricans made peace?
    • Donald’s Answer: Tony death was the peacemaker in the sense that someone white has to die in order to bring peace. It reminds me of the white savior mentality that has been around for years, that in order for peace to occur someone must save them, a savior preferably white a perfect example is Jesus Christ and how he was said to be white yet history has proven this isn’t the case. I believe that now the Puerto Ricans will see the white guys as saviors because one more of their people died. Now the Puerto Ricans will feel indebted to the jets.
    • Will’s Answer: The death of Tony ended up being the peacekeeper because it made them realize that all of this was not necessary. It took a non gang member dying for them to realize that. Tony was only trying to make things better and stop the feud between the two gangs. Both sides had a member of their gang end up dead in the rumble, but because it was members of their own the tension grew worse. Because Tony wasn’t technically in a gang, him getting shot made the gangs look at themselves and think about what they’ve done and all that has happened. Nobody was meant to get hurt in the first place. Once police arrive, the Jets and Sharks both help each other carry Tony’s body away, symbolizing that the feud was over. 
    • Devin’s Answer:  Tony’s death in Westside Story was the sad ending that viewers and the actors showed sympathy for. The deaths of Riff and Bernado were not peacemakers, instead they created more tension between the gangs. The Jets and Sharks looked back on their actions and saw that Tony died because of gang retaliation even though he was not a gang member. You can see both the Jets and Shark help carry Tony’s body after he was shot by Chino. This was the first scene that you would see the gangs help eachother out in the movie. I believe seeing the two gangs help carry Tony’s body was the peacemaker scene and they all came together to understand that their issues were not worth Tony’s death. 

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