Image Credit: Warner Bros.
As well as its iconic dance numbers, unforgettable flamboyant outfits, and the entertaining hot-headedness of its characters, West Side Story was perhaps more clearly remembered by the Latin American community as a playground for commodifying their heritage. An incredibly successful performance orchestrated by people masquerading in brown-face, because the real Latin Americans would never be able to make it. In the film, white actors and dancers shower themselves in layers of makeup, taking on different skin tones, various faces, foreign accents, so that we would never be able to tell the difference.
While West Side Story's brown-face characters have long been lauded for lifting musical theatre to the lyrical heights of Shakespearean tragedy, the show has also been criticised for promoting stereotypes of Puerto Ricans as eroticised street hoodlums and frivolous women. Those stereotypes were popularised by the 1961 film, in which the only Puerto Rican star in the cast, Rita Moreno, was forced to darken her skin with dark makeup: a caricatured, cosmetic distortion of Puerto Rican identity.
Moreno herself has not had the rosy experience of aspiring Hollywood starlets of her time, and this is purely down to her being who she was — a Latin American. Most of her early parts are "embarrassing", she told Variety. “I call that my dusky maiden period. Any character who had dark skin, I got all those parts. I could play a Polynesian, East Indian princess, whatever.” Moreno also played Native Americans, Southeast Asians, and of course the Latin spitfire.
“I always had to have an accent, even though I spoke better English than many of the people (who hired me). The characters all sounded the same because I had no idea how these nationalities sounded, but nobody else did either. It dismayed me; I began to feel demeaned, that my dignity was on the line. But I had to make a living and I had to be an actress. I was determined that, with perseverance and faith, at some point, someone would say ‘This girl has talent’ and would cast me in something meaningful.”
Even after Moreno won ‘Best Supporting Actress' at the Oscars for her role, she continued to have trouble finding substantial lead roles in Hollywood films. While this led to a diverse career working in theater, television, and music, her career underlines the persistence and perniciousness of ethnic typecasting. To this day, this is still a devastatingly real and unfair journey to fame for many Latin Americans struggling to be deemed as anything but 'other' or undeserving.
Although her view of the recent trend toward greater ethnic inclusiveness in Hollywood is 'cautiously optimistic,' Beltrán emphasizes that the construction of stars such as Jessica Alba, who is of part Mexican heritage, continues to feature a persistent tendency to privilege the ability to perform whiteness. At best, recent trends in casting for film, television, and advertising have favoured an ambiguously 'ethnic' or multiracial look, though typically centering on recognizably European features as part of the mix. The creative Western industry seems to be content, in turn, through this surge of narratives that rest on an acceptance of racial subordination and domination, and override the voices that have not yet had enough chances to be heard.
However, when there is finally an undistilled, uncatered space made for Latin Americans to voice our experiences, there is a sudden surge of people itching to challenge that space for its potentially flawed nuances. A viral The Roots interview brought to light a criticism that revealed the directing and casting team behind In The Heights had chosen their actors on the premise of being able to 'whitewash' the Washington Heights Latin American experience for the screen. Hence, the slightly polemical interview revealed that, while there's a degree of impact stemming from their oversight, it seems the intent is lacking. Did they make a mistake, or was there an active effort to cast people who were specifically not of darker colour?
Instead of praising a production that unashamedly celebrates an already under-represented heritage, members of our own community have attached harmful connotations to its seemingly sincere intentions. Social media accounts have relentlessly slammed the casting choices to the point where they have been accused of stealing culture, and, evidently, their arguments and frustrations coincide with what has been a reality for dark-skinned individuals who have resided in America for centuries.
Race in America, as many have either observed or physically lived, 'is not experienced the same way by all [seemingly] "non-white" respondents,' write Waters and Kasinitz. By consequence, 'African-Americans and those who "look like" or could be confused with African Americans, [...] face more systematic and "brighter" racial boundaries than do Asians and light-skinned Latinos.' Hence, it is no surprise that the outrage provoked in the musical's audience also stemmed from the collective distress experienced with the ingrained injustices of this particular ethnic group that has accumulated in American society.
Perhaps the most heart-breaking facet of this argument is that the mind behind the most inclusive theatrical productions of our time is being ruthlessly reprimanded for falling slightly short on his artistic impetus. Lin-Manuel Miranda reportedly listened to the complaints about the film and gave a reasoned apology, stating that "I started writing In The Heights because I didn't feel seen. And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen." Miranda continues, "In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I'm truly sorry. [...] I promise to do better in my future projects, and I'm dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honouring our diverse and vibrant community. Siempre, LMM." Moreno herself recently came out in defense of Miranda amidst the relentless criticism. A trailblazer when it comes to Hispanic actors in major roles, Moreno stated that Miranda isn't being given enough credit for telling the stories of Latino culture.
"In a very real sense, Puerto Ricans have not yet become a subject for media presentation on any discernibly measurable scale," writes Cordasco. "Clearly, the Puerto Rican mainland community faces formidable challenges in seeking an image in the visual media. How does one challenge neglect, anonymity, and furtive stereotype defamation?" This, I feel, expresses the prolonged obstructions for creative freedom and representation that Miranda sought to challenge through his work. In The Heights has started to pave the way for inclusion without the distortion of ethnic appropriation. For a fleeting moment, on the screen, there’s “a place for us”—a place, in the late Seamus Heaney’s phrasing, where hope and history rhyme.