Terrible Time in America: West Side Story and the Immigrant Experience
Lavish images of Fifth Avenue and the Upper East Side claim the title of ‘New York City’, filling the mind with descriptions of great wealth and well-dressed gentiles strolling the crowded streets filled with a vast diversity of people. Like everything, however, there is more than what meets the eye. In the underbelly of the city, wrapped in neon-splattered subway trains coiling like snakes around clusters of Project Housing and a bubbling, rich cultural contrast. Although its story plays out on sound stages and artificial sets, West Side Story manages to capture the experience of the neighborhood and city, especially for immigrants – particularly Puerto-Rican immigrants. Before the Upper West Side – where West Side Story takes place – was stripped of its original character at the hands of gentrification, it was a diverse melting-pot of ethnicities and cultures, deemed by the general public as a ‘blue-collar’ neighborhood. Although the movie features some minute historical errors (the primary Puerto-Rican enclave was the Bronx, not the Upper West Side) and a dramatic, musical retelling that clouds much of the depth of the story beneath, West Side Story provides a legitimate glimpse at the lifestyles Puerto-Rican Immigrants encountered, including the descrimination and racism they faced, as well as the general struggles they encountered. A more modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is unavoidably chock-full of dramatic flair, as well as additional dance and musical numbers.
The story takes place in the Upper West Side, a former blue-collar, ethnic neighborhood prior to its gentrification. West Side Story’s plot is central to a conflict between two gangs, the Jets and Sharks – representative of the House of Montague and House of Capulet respectively (the two conflicting families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). As Julia M. Klein of The Philadelphia Inquirer expresses, “The edgy antagonisms of the two gangs are, of course, juxtaposed against the unworldly, fairy-tale love of Tony and Maria,” (Klein, Par. 6). Although the story is centered around these conflicts, representative of the same warring dispute in the timeless play, a deeper meaning resides beneath the more shallow tale of romance that West Side Story presents itself as, (Callelo, Par. 4). The conflict between the Jets, a gang of white, American hoodlums and the Sharks, a gang of Puerto-Rican immigrants is only further highlighted by the movie’s musical numbers; songs such as “America” sardonically discuss the opportunities that the fateful land is prophecies to have, also mocking inconveniences and difficulties they faced (West Side Story). As identified prior, West Side Story manages to both entertain audiences with spectacular acting and performance while also informing of the dramatic and morose struggles of immigrants, particularly Puerto-Rican immigrants in the blue-collar neighborhoods of New York.
As Pia Calton describes, “[The musical, West Side Story] was ahead of its time, and the movie was in the crosshairs of the zeitgeist,” (Calton Par. 23). Although the History.com article mainly refers to themes represented in the musical production, the storyline – with themes considered to be the defining mood of the time – remains across mediums (Calton Par. 23). Even the opening scene of the movie discusses such issues; in further detail, a clear prevalence of racism and stereotyping is introduced; The Jets, clad in cuffed jeans, ratty sneakers, and white undershirts are presented as a harsh contrast to the tan-skinned, dark-haired Sharks, dressed in dark tones of black and red (West Side Story). Beyond the appearances of both the protagonists and antagonists, the characters demonstrate clear racial biases – “Now which one of those Puerto-Ricans bloodied you?” exclaims a cop following a skirmish between the two gangs, further complaining about the influx of Puerto-Rican immigrants, stressing the decreasing quality of the neighborhood because of it (West Side Story). Even nearly six decades later, the social issues and racial conflict presented in West Side Story are still relevant – primarily descrimination based on race, and the struggles of immigration (Kellenberger, Ashley).
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