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As one of my all time favorite musicals, West Side Story has always been a movie that gets better every time that it is viewed no matter the occasion. From the musical hits to the plot, West Side Story gives us a true essence of urban love within a theatrical perspective. While this particular movie takes place within the 1960s, it sheds light on some important issues regarding race and diversity that is even affecting today’s society. The fact that it highlights both a White and a Puerto Rican gang within the concrete jungle that is New York City provides us with an insight on the adjustment process for Puerto Rican immigrants migrating to the United States during the 1960s. I can honestly consider West Side Story to be a modern day Shakespeare-influenced love story with an urban New York flavor.
In order to better understand the significance of this movie, it would be ideal to provide a brief synopsis of West Side Story. The movie takes place in New York City during the 1960s, which is around the time that racial oppression against people of color was still on the rise. The plot revolves around two street gangs, The Jets and the Sharks, who are fighting for control of “turf”. While these two gangs were “rumbling” to see who would control the neighborhood, we see our main protagonists, Tony and Maria, falling madly in love for one another. The movie revolves mainly around their love story along with the racial conflicts between the Jets (whites) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) who get in between their love. Despite the racial divide between the two gangs, this did not stop our protagonists from loving each other but the ending left Maria in shock as Tony was killed by a Shark member.
If I had one character that I felt best related to me, it would definitely be Tony without a doubt. While he may be a Caucasian male, his idea of beauty is not defined by ethnicity. It would have been refreshing for more white males during that timeframe of the 1960s to not project hatred onto people of color. When Tony first saw Maria at the community dance, it felt as if they were the only ones within the room with fireworks going off in the background. Tony really stood out to me out of all the Jets because while he is a Jets member, he doesn’t seem to share the ideals of his fellow peers. Along with not sharing the Jets ideals, he is also modest and doesn’t show signs of colorblind whenever she was with Maria.
Since I highlighted a character that I mostly related to, it would be fitting to discuss a character of which I felt I least related to throughout the movie. For this, I choose to discuss about Action, who is a long time member of the Jets. Action is a very unique character who is, as his nickname suggests, ready to tackle things head on and never looking back without thinking about the consequences. However, the issue with Action is that he’s so much of a loose cannon that he would cause chaos on his own unless he is surrounded around his fellow Caucasian gang members. Along with being a loose cannon, he is not afraid of expressing himself especially when it came to Puerto Ricans aka the Sharks.
Within the West Side Story film, there were many social issues that arose from both the Jets and the Sharks, which is why it would deem more appropriate to further explore their issues from within each gang separately. The Jets had an array of social issues that can be labeled as troublesome but was properly aligned with the corrupted racial ideologies of the 1960s. Some of these social issues included the usage of white privilege, expressing micro aggressions to the Puerto Ricans living in the neighborhoods and their worldview on gender roles. The Jets symbolize the white males that lived in the urban neighborhoods of New York City during the 1960s, which was a time where racial inequalities were still on the rise in the United States. The Jets also portrayed the so called “Juvenile Delinquents” stigma originating from broken households. The Jets demonstrated many social issues throughout West Side Story that would be unethical for today’s worldview but this was the reality of how life was within the concrete jungle of New York during the 1960s.
The Jets was a group of urban white kids who “lived” in the streets due to corrupted households but were still shielded with white privilege. In the “Gee, Officer Krupke” scene, we see the Jets waiting on the Sharks to meet them so they can iron out details about the rumble. As they are waiting, the Jets break into song in which helps to describe the process of the criminal justice system for Juvenile Delinquents in the 1960s. If you pay close attention to the lyrics, you will notice how the Jets highlight the way urban white teenagers use the excuse of their abusing parents to get through the system with empathy from police officials. When they take this story to the judge, they will automatically go through a series of psychological tests and therapy sessions to come up with the conclusion that these urban white kids are “sociologically sick”. Through this classical song from West Side story, we can clearly see the advantage that urban white kids had with the justice system back then with the shield of white privilege providing its protection.
Another example of white privilege demonstrated in West Side Story was in the night scene involving Officer Krupke, the Jets and the Sharks. As the Jets and the Sharks were discussing the details of the rumble inside Doc’s shop, Officer Krupke walks in and crashes the party with authority. After commenting on the way that both the Jets and the Sharks were “getting along”, Krupke to take it upon himself to pick a little “fun” on the Puerto Ricans, which felt like he was intimidating them. He then decided to kick out the Sharks from Doc’s shop utilizing his police authority. The fact that Officer Krupke asked only the Sharks to leave the shop while the Jets were allowed to stay is another indication of white privilege. It would almost seem like Officer Krupke has his own personal hidden agenda to clear the streets of the Puerto Ricans and uses his white privilege to do so.
To further illustrate the point of white privilege and the treatment of Latinos with law enforcement, a study was conducted by John D. McCluskey, Cynthia Perez McCluskey, Roger Enriquez to explore the comparison between Latinos and White citizens and their satisfaction with police. The study consisted of 592 citizens from the Bexar County metropolitan area of San Antonio, Texas. The results of the study display that “the relationship between the police and Latinos is an area where there is a dearth of research findings” (McCluskey, Perez & Enriquez, 2008, p.476). This means that the level of satisfaction of Latinos to police varies by case and depends on the area that one is surveying. However, it is to be noted that Latinos who have lower acculturation with American culture will more than likely express lower levels of satisfaction with the police since they are not familiar with the customs.
Another social issue that took place in West Side Story with the Jets was a series of Micro aggressions that were made against the sharks. One micro aggression in particular involved the entire Jets gang and Rita, who is the girlfriend of the Shark’s leader. Anita went to Doc’s shop on behalf of Maria in search of Tony to relay a message and was ridiculed by the Jets by pushing her around and calling her out of her name. This form of behavior displayed by the Jets helps to paint a picture on how the whites felt towards the Puerto Ricans when they first moved into the neighborhood. The word “spick” is used within dialogue throughout the film by the Jets to describe their disguise they have towards the Sharks, which is also used today to describe disguise towards other Latinos. These micro aggressions made towards Puerto Ricans back then can also be seen with Latinos overall in today’s society.
Just like the Jets, the Sharks also demonstrated some social issues that can be seen as problematic back in the 1960s even though they were being marginalized themselves by “white America”. However, the difference is that the Sharks’ social issues aligned more with the traditional ideologies of gender roles and their worldview of whites in America. The gender roles that were portrayed in West Side Story for Puerto Ricans can be best described as “gang members (men)…sassy and virginal (women)” (Negrón-Muntaner, 2000, p.83). Being a Latina within the 1960s meant that the women stood home and cook as well as maintained the household while the man went to work and brought home the “bacon” for the family. This is equivalent to the gender roles for men/women in the U.S., which shows us that both white and Latina women are not so different as they encounter the same level of treatment from their significant others. Gender roles help to define how men and women should act among society and during the 1960s, it was masculinity that dominated over feminism, which is totally not the case for today’s generation of women.
The other social issue with the Sharks was their worldview of whites in America even though they came to the U.S. hoping to better their family situation. Aside from New York, Chicago was also a major hub for Puerto Rican immigrants and it was a cause of celebration for the arrival of the city’s “newest migrants as hard-working role models in search of the American Dream” (Perez, 2001, p.48). The “America” scene in West Side Story featuring the Sharks provides the audience with a better understanding of how the Puerto Rican immigrants must have feel during the transition from their native land to the United States. Ranging from language barriers to adapting to American culture, the Puerto Ricans felt the challenges that this country had to offer but knew that in America, it was the land of opportunity where their families would be better off. Even though they were grateful for the opportunity to live in America, they didn’t see themselves benefitting from the country’s wealth due to the “whites” controlling the wealth and utilizing their privilege to stay on top in the United States.
At the time, those who migrated to the United States felt that it would help find better opportunities for the family to grow since Puerto Rico had low employment rates especially for the men. A study conducted by Maria Enchautegui and Richard B. Freeman in 2005 explores the reason behind the lack of employment for young adult males in Puerto Rico. Enchanutegui and Freeman (2005) suggests that the connection between the “relatively poor economy of Puerto Rico to the advanced and rich economy of the United States have created conditions that generate low employment” (p.4). The results from the research revealed that the close tie between Puerto Rico and the U.S. has always been a doubled relation. This meant that while Puerto Rican was being offered “many of the benefits of living in a highly advanced economy but also contributing to the employment problem” (Enchautegui & Freeman, 2005, p.32). This research gives us a better understanding as to why many Puerto Ricans like the Sharks in West Side Story migrate to the United States with their native land losing jobs and resources.
After viewing this film from a certain viewpoint, there would seem to be only two implications for counseling within West Side Story. The first would be for Maria for attend counseling to explore her attitudes regarding interracial dating as well as finding a way to cope with the loss of Tony. It is necessary that we explore these feelings with Maria regarding her stand on interracial dating because it could be possible that she is now against it due to what happened between the Jets and the Sharks. She could use this new found hatred to create negative associations for white people unless she seeks professional help that can guide her back into the right direction. Talking about the death of Tony and how the fighting between the Jets and the Sharks could help her on the journey to recovery.
In a study conducted by Shane Levin, Pamela Taylor and Elena Caudle, it looks to examine the world of interracial dating in college and its long term outcomes. The hypothesis being formed for this study is that “college students are more likely to date members of their own group than members of other groups” (Levin, Taylor & Caudle, 2007, p.326). College provides the opportunity to experiment and interact with new people that is different from your own and with this study, we will be able to indicate if interracial dating is a popular option amongst college students. Based on the findings of the research, it turns that students do prefer to date in group rather than intergroup, which shows that this same level of thinking, in terms of dating, relates back to the 1960s since it wasn’t a trend back then. While Maria would be continuing her counseling sessions in order to find the problem, it would be evident to share with Maria that it is ok to date outside your race despite what the research suggests. Hopefully within due time, Maria will be able to find love again whether the person is Latino or not.
Maria is not the only character that would need counseling for it would advise for Action from the Jets to pursue counseling as well. Action exhibits a dangerous persona that may become a harm to self and potentially others surrounding him. As mentioned earlier in this critique, Action is a loose cannon when it comes to his physical actions as well as his reckless mouth even if the language is offensive to other groups. As a part of his counseling sessions, it would be evident to examine the origins of his behavior and the relationship with his parents to see if there is a link between the two. Once we have identified the problem with Action, it would be essential to set goals with him in order to create his own journey to a clearer mind, body and soul. Action is a unique character in West Side Story even though it could present itself as problematic but with the right counseling techniques, he can learn to be calmer and take control of his own actions.
West Side Story is a brilliant musical turn film that illustrates the urban lifestyles of both Whites and Puerto Ricans during the 1960s. From start to finish, it never ceases to amaze me how many different examples of racism I exhibited as well as the interesting interpretation of the 1960s urban version of Romeo and Juliet through both Tony and Maria. Now that I viewed this movie from a future’s counselor’s perspective, I will view more critically the next time to see if I notice the behaviors of other characters. If there is one main thing I took away from West Side Story, it is that interracial dating should always be a trend because it teaches us to be open to other traditional customs of another race/ethnicity.
As a Latino watching this film again from a different perspective, it was really an eye opener for me personally. The fact that there were so many micro aggressions made against Puerto Ricans literally made me feel uncomfortable because it could have happened to me if I lived during that time frame. I feel that by watching West Side Story a second time due to this assignment, it helped me to see some of the hidden messages on racism and oppression that took place within the musical. The 1960s was a time where migration rates spiked up with immigrants coming from places like Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic with a desire to chase the American dream. In a nut shell, West Side Story is a 1960s version of Romeo and Juliet with a hint of New York flavor. I would definitely recommend watching West Side Story, an urban love story for the ages.
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