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  • Carly Tagen-Dye

2021 Was the Year of the Latin Movie Musical, For Better or Worse

Stephen Speilberg’s self-described translation of West Side Story hit theaters on December 10, more than six decades after the original musical first premiered on Broadway. The film, which stars former teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort as Tony and breakthrough talent Rachel Zegler as Maria, brought many back to the movies this past holiday season before the Omicron outbreak. The age-old Romeo and Juliet retelling was intended to create its own legacy, and bring the memorable show tunes to a new generation. Despite positive reviews, Speilberg had another goal, aside from box office success, for the film about teenage gangs in 1950’s New York City: an accurate and respectful portrayal of Puerto Ricans and the Latin community at large. Throughout the casting process, Speilberg mandated that only Latin actors would play the Puerto Rican parts, moving away from the long-held tradition of Anglo actors in these roles. Though Zegler is of Colombian descent and David Alvarez, who plays Bernardo, is Cuban-Canadian, much of the cast is Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent, including Ariana DeBose as Anita, to attempt an authenticity that extended beyond the screen. The crew was also reported to have worked closely with the actors to ensure that each character and scene portrayal was true to their experiences. The 1961 West Side Story film is infamous for its offensive representation of Hispanics. Most glaring is the film’s use of white actors in brownface. It’s painfully ironic to watch George Chakiris and his Caucasian co-stars sing about the racism their characters endure while wearing what looks like motor oil on their faces. Rita Moreno, who played Anita, also recalls having her skin darkened for the film, despite actually being Puerto Rican and one of the only Hispanic actors on set. When she brought up this concern to her makeup artist, stating that Puerto Ricans came in a variety of skin colors, she was called a racist. 2021’s West Side is supposed to be the more "bearable" watch for the modern age. The characters speak Spanish beyond the sole “vamanos” and “muchacho,” and have full conversations without subtitles or English reiterations. Another addition is the Shark's version of “La Borinqueña,” the Puerto Rican official anthem, which follows the 2009 Broadway revival’s direction of including songs completely in Spanish. The racism and bigotry the Sharks face is meant to hit even closer to home in the 21st century.

The question, though, is whether or not this film, and others, truly met the mark. The conversation of Latin visibility, onstage and onscreen, is not new. 2021, however, made the movie musical "hip" again, particularly the movie musical centering Hispanic stories. Animated movies such as Disney’s Encanto and Netflix’s Vivo brought Colombian and Cuban culture to family-friendly movie nights. In The Heights, released June 4 and based on the 2008 musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been considered West Side Story’s cinematic companion. Both are stage plays brought to the screen, and both have been criticized, at some point, for their portrayal of Latinos. Miranda came under fire for the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latin representation in his film, despite the large population, particularly of Afro-Dominicans, living in Washington Heights. Fuel was only added to the blaze when director Jon M. Chu and actress Melissa Barerra, who plays Vanessa, cited the film’s extras, who were not given lines and were seldom seen outside of large group numbers, as prime examples of Afro-Latin people in the film. Visibility was reduced to the background.

In The Heights brings up a necessary discussion of colorism in film, as well as what it means to be seen and represented by your own community. Some critics say that the film is a complete erasure of the Afro-Latin community in Washington Heights, while others point out that Leslie Grace, who played one of the lead roles, Nina, identifies as Afro-Latina, and sets a sole example. In the end, the film still largely depicts a light-skinned Latin population in the upper Manhattan neighborhood that, for most, is not true to life. Both West Side Story and In The Heights center paramount Hispanic presences in New York City, as well as what it means to belong, both in America and one’s home country. What really links both films together, though, is the unfortunate fact that they are two of such few examples of Latin stories in theater and film. The large success of West Side Story, and the criticism of In The Heights, show just how much is at stake when Latin communities are finally thrown in the spotlight.

As cultural critic Soraya McDonald states in an interview with Vox, “If there were multiple tentpoles starring and directed by people of color, and it didn’t feel like such a big deal and such an event, then it wouldn’t matter as much.” When there is so little representation to begin with, it can feel wrong to complain, to not just take what Hollywood gives us. But when these blockbusters make it big, they showcase rich, and deeply personal, histories and cultures to outside audiences with their own assumptions. How is one supposed to find belonging if they can’t see themselves in the first place?

West Side Story and In The Heights, while distinct in their own ways, are simply new adaptations of old material. They lead us to question what would happen if we scrapped these remakes altogether and created something completely new. Writer Carina del Valle Schorske questions what might become of musical theater if future generations of Hispanics refuse to partake in West Side Story, explaining that “we want…independence, to shine within a tradition we’ve authored ourselves.” I’m know I'm always scrambling to find any film, musical or not, with Guatemalan or Central American representation, to see and share what makes my culture unique. Writing new, broader stories centering one’s community might be the only way forward.

One of the most emotional parts of 2021’s West Side Story is a song sung by Rita Moreno, who plays the newly added of role Valentina, the owner of the soda shop that the Jets and Sharks frequent. Towards the end of the movie, when the racial tension between the gangs is at its climax, Moreno croons a raspy, near acapella version of “Somewhere,” originally sung by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in 1961. This beloved figure in the Hispanic community represents old and new hope as she sings of a future that Valentina, and all of us Latin people watching, imagine. There’s a place for us, too; it’s just waiting for us to make it for ourselves. - Art by Dizzy Starfie


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