Steven Spielberg’s new rendition of the musical West Side Story is now in United States movie theaters. Long anticipated, and delayed by the pandemic, attendance will be bolstered by rave reviews from eminent critics like A.O. Scott of the New York Times. Already, during previews, the film boasts $800,000 in box office receipts: current post-release estimates for the first week are $17 million.
Yet, as with the original movie directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1961, a cloud of suspicion about the film’s depiction of Puerto Rican youth rises. And as with this earlier film version, and the original Broadway hit, the true sources of inspiration for this retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story in Cold War New York—Puerto Rican youth themselves—seem to have been silenced and erased.
But they don’t have to be. Hollywood could tell the story of Chicago’s Young Lords Organization (YLO).
In college, circa 1990, a stage production of West Side Story turned me from a cautious fan into a picketer. I was lured by the possibility of seeing my Puerto Rican, inner-city life portrayed at the Ivy league institution that I had infiltrated, but the decision to cast yet another white woman in the lead, and no Latinos, let alone Puerto Ricans, led some of us to protest the production. Not coincidentally, at that time, similar issues were being raised about another musical, David Henry Huang’s Miss Saigon, an adaptation of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly set in post-World War II French-occupied Vietnam.
For many, West Side Story is simply an iconic musical with catchy tunes. For me, however, it became a critical entryway into political consciousness about when and how Puerto Ricans matter in United States history, and why popular representations are instrumental to that. The lack of historical and cultural attention to Puerto Rico and its citizens is notable—or rather, it should be. The island has endured over 120 years of colonization, occupation, neglect, and mass migrations, as well as social, political and economic exchanges.
Yet, West Side Story is still Hollywood’s only major response to this history.
Those stories exist. It was a Puerto Rican gang influenced by the 1961 film that presented me with my first major historical counter-narrative about Puerto Rican street youth. In 2001, I was a bright-eyed new professor in Chicago unknowingly standing at the bluntly inconspicuous birthplace of the Young Lords Organization, the former gang turned political organization that marked the entryway for Puerto Ricans into the civil rights movement. As a Puerto Rican historian and cultural critic, I was invited to join a project being planned by members of the Young Lords and university partners to shed light on the origins of the movement in Lincoln Park. To my surprise, I was sitting at a table with the founders of a movement that I thought I knew about, and had been profoundly inspired by, but that I had always associated with New York, and never associated with Chicago gang culture.
That first meeting opened a portal to history, and I committed to never again allowing it to close.