“America is a melting pot”.
We’ve heard this all our lives; America is a country that melts together immigrants of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds into one emergent American culture. But this vibrant nation isn’t a monotonous, homogenous soup. No, America should actually be a multicultural salad. A beautiful conglomerate of different cultures and peoples that remain distinct and separate to each other. A harmonious medley of individual ethnic communities that live peacefully among each other. But this salad metaphor isn’t completely accurate either. So then, what is America?
In Jerome Robbins’ musical West Side Story, the Sharks are a group of brown-skinned, Puerto Rican immigrants who are forced to confront the ugly realities of their inferior rank in American society. The musical features a constant racial tension that taints the relationship between the Sharks and the Jets, a gang of white teenagers who are mostly second generation European immigrants. Although both groups strive towards achieving a common American Dream, the Puerto Rican ethnic identity of the Sharks precludes them from claiming equal space in the American public sphere. The Sharks’ interactions with the Jets, Lieutenant Schrank, and other Puerto Ricans reveal that an idealistic multicultural society is far from reality. Watching West Side Story in 2020 invites us to consider if the experiences of immigrant people of color have truly changed since the 1950s.
The song “America” is a reflection of the conflicting realities of immigrant inclusion and exclusion in this country. This musical number features an ensemble performance from the Sharks that unapologetically defines their vibrant Puerto Rican ethnic identity. Notably, this distinct immigrant identity is established as the Sharks highlight the glories and downfalls of the American Dream.
Firstly, “America” makes a statement on the unique flair, drama, and energy that exudes from Puerto Rican immigrants.The song takes place on a barren rooftop of New York City. Looming metal beams make criss-crossing structures over a backdrop of dimmed city lights and nearby brick buildings. The costuming of the Sharks shines in stark contrast to this dark and muted set design. Shimmering shades of lavender, bright red roses, and pink ruffles adorn the hips of the Puerto Rican women. Their hair is permed to perfection, eyeliner accentuates their expressive eyes, and golden hoops dangle from their ears. The men have their hair slicked back and they are dressed in prim dress shirts and pants of burgundy, purple, and grey tones. Before “America” starts, Bernado, the leader of the Sharks, is holding his girlfriend Anita in his arms. He kisses her head playfully in the midst of other affectionate couples. The atmosphere is flirty and fun and soon after the guys and gals split up to begin a dance battle of sorts.
When the Sharks begin dancing, their bodies fill the screen. Their movements take space. Anita’s movements are especially bewitching. When she moves her arms, they reach far above her head. When she bends her back, her head reaches for the ground. She is sassy with her expressions, turning at angles to face the camera, chin down and eyes looking up. The women’s dance movements are accompanied by claps, whistles, and cheers from the men. Even though both groups are on opposing sides, there is still exchange happening. Each side takes turns to let the other express themselves. The men tap across the rooftop diagonally, meeting the women in a corner of the stage. Then, the men dance backwards, eyes facing the women, and hands leading them to the front. In this way, the expression of their Puerto Rican ethnic identity is defined as welcoming, energetic, and rooted in love. Despite the arguments, the men and women still laugh, smile and flirt with each other. They invite each other to dance, enjoying each other’s company. Thus, “America” allows the Sharks to affirm their Puerto Rican identity through music and dance.
“America” additionally makes a statement on the fraught nature of assimilation and integration for immigrants. While the women envision a rose-tinted American Dream, the men sulk on the harsh realities of racism and poverty instead. The song’s lyrics play off this tension and they follow a feisty back and forth between the men and women. Colliding lyrics include “Free to be anything you choose/Free to wait tables and shine shoes” and “Life is all right in America/If you’re all-white in America.” Thus, the women’s naive optimism regarding the American Dream is sharply cut short by the men’s cynical realism.
Ultimately, “America” shows how inclusion and acceptance is conditional. Equality is contingent on the color of your skin, the language that you speak, the accent of your voice, and the land from which your ancestors came. These ideas go against the concept of meritocracy that America prides itself in. If you just work hard enough, all your dreams will come true. If you still don’t achieve them, you probably didn’t deserve it in the first place. Despite their perseverance, the Sharks can never raise their heads with pride and dignity in West Side Story. Their place among the lower rungs of the racial hierarchy are a significant deterrent to their acceptance as equals.
West Side Story also depicts the overwhelming presence of law enforcement in the lives of immigrants. Police largely dictate the movement of the Sharks, deciding the spaces they can and cannot occupy. Their freedom is much more limited than the Jets’ because of racial and cultural bias from the police. Characters like Officer Krupke and Lt. Schrank have unbridled authority to determine who is a threat and who is not. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks are more frequently targeted. In particular, the character of Lt. Schrank regularly spews racial hatred towards the Sharks.This behavior is an extension of the racist American judicial system at large. The fact that this “racist cop” phenomenon has continued to seep its way into contemporary American life is what I find most disturbing.
Lt. Schrank is a megalomaniac of a cop. He revels in his power to suppress and provoke the Puerto Ricans. He looks at the Sharks with disgust as he claims, “As if this neighborhood wasn’t crummy enough”. He seeks to incite hatred when he advises the Jets to leave before the Sharks “turn this whole town into a stinkin’ pig sty.” Thus, Lt. Schrank is an additional deterrent to immigrant integration. If the Sharks’ existence is governed at the hands of such corrupt agents of the state, their failure to be accepted as equal citizens comes as no surprise.
One of the most poignant scenes of the film is when Lt. Schrank encroaches on a meeting between the Sharks and the Jets at Doc’s local drugstore. Lt. Schrank screams “Clear out!” to Bernado’s face. He mocks Bernado, claiming “It’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What do you got?” Bernado’s expression quickly changes to resolute defeat. He musters whatever dignity he has left and snaps abruptly, indicating to his members to leave with him. One by one, each Shark walks with stoic acceptance to the door. Ironically, they exit the scene while whistling to the tune of “My Country ’tis of Thee”. Bernado’s shoots one last glance towards Lt. Schrank before he shuts the door. This scene highlights, again, the futility of the Sharks’ efforts to gain an equal footing in society.
Doc’s local drugstore is also the setting for another gross abuse of power. Near the end of West Side Story, Anita goes to meet the Jets so she can relay a message from Maria to Tony. Anita’s character is quite different to the innocent, virginal female character like Maria’s, which is often idealized in media. Anita is a Puerto Rican woman who openly expresses her sexuality and enjoys her social freedoms. When Anita finds herself alone among the gang of Jets, her freedom is immediately threatened. These white males mock and intimidate her. They charge at her, lift up her skirt, and touch her without consent. As a woman of color, Anita already bears the brunt of patriarchal abuse. But her immigrant, Latina “exoticism” further objectifies her, making her even more vulnerable to abhorrent sexual violence. Anita escapes the Jets after being stripped of her dignity, her voice, and her respect as an autonomous woman.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of West Side Story is its utmost relevance to today’s world. This musical reveals current themes of the immigrant experience which center around denial, permission, and expulsion. The bitter truth is that a story from 60 years ago continues to expose the conditional realities of belonging and exclusion for people of color in America. Why is it that the Sharks need to erase every distinguishable part of their ethnic identity in order to be seen as American? In a modern, globalized world, multiculturalism is a natural byproduct. Yet, systemic exclusion seems to be a part of the fabric of this nation. It is important to untangle these repressive knots of society in order to truly ‘let freedom ring’.