Movies

What’s Really Going on With West Side Story’s Unsubtitled Spanish—and What It Misses

Spielberg’s new version addresses some of the show’s shortcomings, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Ilda Mason, Ariana DeBose, and Ana Isabelle in West Side Story.
Ilda Mason, Ariana DeBose, and Ana Isabelle in West Side Story. Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

West Side Story was never meant to represent Puerto Rican communities. Its original creators Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Laurents admitted as much when they set out to tell a Romeo and Juliet story based in New York City. It was only too convenient that “the Puerto Rican thing,” as Bernstein put it, “had just begun to explode,” and thus provided a community on which the creators could prop their 1957 Broadway musical. In fact, Sondheim even declined to work on the show at first, saying, “I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even met a Puerto Rican.” In the 1961 film version, white actors were cast in two of the main Puerto Rican roles: George Chakiris as Bernardo and Natalie Wood as Maria. Both were in brownface. It wasn’t until the 1980 Broadway revival that audiences got to see Latinx performers in those roles expressly made for Puerto Rican individuals. Even then, according to Puerto Rican writer and filmmaker Frances Negron-Mutaner, the Puerto Rican actress chosen to play Maria had her skin and her hair darkened for the part.

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The musical and its seemingly endless masquerades of Latinidad are steeped in controversy, and rightfully so. It’s not least because both Hollywood and Broadway continue to uplift it as a dominant depiction of Puerto Rican communities specifically and Latinx communities in general, despite decades of criticism from Puerto Rican writers. In an essay on the 2020 revival of the Broadway musical, critic Carina del Valle Schorske wrote, “The U.S. has a compulsion when it comes to West Side Story, restaging, again and again, the primal scene of the colony’s incursion into American consciousness, the midcentury’s ‘gran migración’ of Puerto Ricans to New York City.”

Before the 2020 Broadway version by Belgian director Ivo van Hove there was another revival of the musical in 2009, directed by the musical’s original book writer, Arthur Laurents, to which Puerto Rican In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed some Spanish dialogue. Now, Steven Spielberg is the latest white creator compelled to restage the show yet again. “It has never left my life,” he said earlier this month, mentioning how he spent his childhood playing as both Officer Krupke and “all the Jets.”

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In his attempt to fix the glaring problems of the original, Spielberg started by hiring an all-Latinx cast to play the Sharks. (Though it’s a step, it’s important to note that two of the three main Puerto Rican characters, Maria and Bernardo, are not played by Puerto Rican actors.) He and screenwriter Tony Kushner also devote more time to exploring the Sharks and the Puerto Rican community. Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita, for example, are for the first time given career ambitions beyond the barrio, and many of the musical numbers now take place amid a vibrant Puerto Rican neighborhood. Notably, the original film’s Anita, Rita Moreno, joined the project as an executive producer in order to push for better representation.

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Perhaps most striking of all the new film’s changes, however, is that it features a substantial amount of unsubtitled Spanish dialogue. Audiences first hear Spanish around 10 minutes into the film, after following the all-white Jets as they dance and terrorize the Puerto Rican enclaves of a rapidly gentrifying West Side. When they successfully push the Puerto Rican Sharks to brawl with them in an abandoned lot, both gangs are met by the police. Bernardo (the leader of the Sharks, played by Broadway’s David Alvarez) calls the cops “hijos de putas,” to which a Shark replies, “I don’t speak [Spanish].” (The word actually used is a slur used prominently throughout the film.) Immediately, the film sets up a central conflict in its quest for “representation” that will follow throughout. It toes the line between telling its non-Spanish speaking audience that not everything in the film will be presented for their consumption and, on another level, pushing that audience to associate with the similarly non-Spanish speaking Jets who, up until this point in the film, have dictated the way audiences are shown the world of 1957 New York City.

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The lack of subtitles does begin to accomplish a lot of what Spielberg hoped to do, in that it leaves the Spanish dialogue unadulterated and unmediated through a gringo lens. It doesn’t “[give] English the power over the Spanish.” But it obscures the fact that the entire film and its depiction of Puerto Rican communities are still inherently mediated through the story’s original white male creators, and now, through the film’s white director, white screenwriter, white cinematographer, and mostly white producers.

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Despite the remake’s claims to represent the experience of Puerto Ricans in New York more authentically, the choice to leave the Spanish dialogue unsubtitled makes the few specificities of the immigrant experience that the film engages with inaccessible to non-Spanish speaking audiences. When Bernardo (David Alvarez) excludes Anita (the phenomenal Ariana DeBose) from his definition of “family,” she asks him if it’s because she’s “una prieta”—dark-skinned. With this scene, the film makes a passing comment on the very real problem of colorism in Latinx communities in the U.S. and beyond, but that brief engagement with anti-Blackness is not available to non-Spanish speaking audiences, and the topic is not brought up again. In this way, the unsubtitled Spanish feels more like an opportunity for Spielberg and his collaborators to check a box for representation while absolving themselves from meaningfully engaging with the ways in which the film, for its white audiences, continues to uphold the very stereotypes about the Puerto Rican community that it’s supposed to be rectifying.

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A constant refrain in the new version is white authorities—the Jets, the police officers, the host of the high school dance—telling the Puerto Rican characters to speak English. The Sharks push back. When the police first tell Bernardo to stop talking at the beginning of the film, for example, he wastes no time in leading the rest of the gang in a rendition of the Puerto Rican anthem, “La Borinqueña,” using the original revolutionary lyrics from before the U.S. made Puerto Rico its colony and censored it.

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Ethnic studies scholar Lorgia García-Peña says that “everyday acts performed by immigrants, such as speaking a foreign language in the public arena, often seek to gain a space within the host nation that attempts to relegate them to the periphery.” That is the work that the Sharks’ defiant Spanish in the face of authority is doing throughout much of the film.

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But it’s worth noting, too, that Anita is one of the most prominent voices asking everyone around her to “speak English” for much of the film. “We have to practice,” she tells Bernardo and Maria at the kitchen table, suggesting that if it weren’t for her, none of the Puerto Rican characters would ever speak English at home. Because Spielberg’s decision to leave these moments unsubtitled makes it impossible to have all-Spanish conversations on screen, Anita’s character is instead forced to mediate them and thus pushed further into her complex relationship with assimilation and citizenship—most spectacularly dramatized in “America.” But while the film had an opportunity to engage more deeply with the conflict between Anita’s hope for the U.S. and her eventual desire to go back to Puerto Rico, it instead is bogged down by the superficial formal constraints of claiming to represent Latinidad in a movie evidently positioned toward white and largely non-Spanish-speaking audiences. Anita’s relationship with class and New York is left relatively unexplored.

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By making gentrification the true enemy at the heart of the remake—the opening shots inform us that the territory the gangs are fighting over is being cleared to make room for Lincoln Center—Kushner suggests the need for interracial, class-based solidarity. The Spanish dialogue and the constant requests to speak English position the language difference as the main gap the Sharks and the Jets must overcome in order to stand in solidarity against the state’s ongoing attack on the poor. But that is only because the film chooses to ignore the role played by the blatant racism and white supremacist thinking that characterizes the Jets from the first time the film shows them interacting with the city. Rather than problematize this racism, the film excuses it. In one newly added scene, reformed Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) tells Maria (Rachel Zegler) that Riff, the leader of the Jets, considers himself an enemy to the Puerto Rican community because the “whole world has been against [him] since he was born.” Though Maria is quick to counter that life hasn’t been much easier for her community, the film repeatedly backs up Tony’s original explanation. In a speech added to the new version, Corey Stoll’s Lieutenant Schrank lays out for the Jets the future of their post-gentrification neighborhood, where white “trash” like them will be shooed away by the rich new residents’ “Puerto Rican doormen.”

Though the steps taken by Spielberg, Kushner, and the rest of the West Side Story team are commendable, and indeed a step forward from the musical’s superficial, racist, and exploitative history, they don’t ultimately provide enough justification for reviving it in the first place—much less by another white creator. The changes in the new version act as defenses against necessary criticism of the musical and its shortcomings, rather than avenues to meaningfully question the legacy of West Side Story and the ethics of reproducing that legacy yet again.

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