Puerto Rican and New York Aspects Depicted in West Side Story

The popular American musical inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, is a film by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, written by Ernest Lehman, and produced by Wise. The film first came out in 1961 as an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical and was popularized most recently with its newest rendition in 2021. West Side Story depicts the Puerto Rican experience in their country of origin in comparison to living in America. From the Spanglish and the Puerto Rican dialect portrayed in the film to the Spanish instruments and rhythm used in the songs and style of dance, it distinguishes the barriers between the Puerto Rican immigrants families and the “white folk” from New York/ America. 1
Some of the main themes represented in the film include:

  • the fear of immigrants
  • disputes with the police
  • the toxicity of racism/ racial unrest
  • urban gang violence
  • interracial relationships

These themes are only a start to the voice of Latinx rising above about day to day issues. The theme of love trumps any barriers that may stand in the way of it and ultimately bring two opposing sides together. It is an urgent matter with social concerns that can be seen today.2

The music conveyed especially in the lyrics illustrates the immigrant experience of moving to America for a better life to live the American dream. In this post we center on the song from West Side Story, “America,” where it begins hopeful with the expectations of:


“Skyscrapers bloom in AmericaCadillacs zoom in AmericaIndustry boom in America”

It then transitions to the reality that most immigrant families face when coming to America:

“Here you are free and you have prideLong as you stay on your own sideFree to do anything you chooseFree to wait tables and shine shoes:

This is similar to a story my Grandmother told me about how she came to America thinking that she would have so many opportunities in the land of freedom and she found herself cleaning offices at a university. When my Grandmother’s sister would talk to her about wanting to come to America, she would tell her all the opportunities that arose for her and that she is even going to university, hiding the fact that she was working as a custodian at a university in truth. There are a lot of misconceptions that arise and as is seen in the film, it can take a lot of hard work, dedication, and time to survive in the environment that is America.

West Side Story also incorporates other well known American songs such as “Somewhere” a popular songs sung by Barbara Streisand. There are correlations with the lyrics and the intent of bridging the two sides, immigrant versus American. The styles of dress and the accents allude to the time period norms and styles of the Puerto Rican culture.

1.) Lincoln Mayorga and Distinguished Colleagues. Sheffield Lab, 2008. Alexander Street. Web. 20 Sep. 2023.1

2.) Plays the shows 2. Fabulous, 2006. Alexander Street. Web. 20 Sep. 2023. 2
3.) “West Side Story.” YouTube, YouTube, 15 May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_e2igZexpMs. Accessed 20 Sept. 2023.3

Latino Experience as depicted through “West Side Story”

Above features the video “America” from West Side Story. Behind the distinctive Spanish rhythm and instrumentation Leonard Bernstein used,  there are depictions of the Puerto Ricans’ experiences in their home country versus America. When the musical debuted on Broadway in 1957, it highlighted tensions between the Puerto Rican migrants and “whites” of New York. The song, “America” serves as a testament of an interpretation and stereotypes of the Latino migrant experience.

Puerto Rican migrants arrive in New York, 1954. Library of Congress.

Migrants from Puerto Rico to New York exploded during the nineteenth century. In 1945, there were about 13,000 living in New York. That number reached a million by the 1960’s.1 One reason many migrated to New York was because they could make double the pay for the same work than what they were making in Puerto Rico, which was grappling with a depression.2 Meanwhile, New York Newspapers in the 1940’s and 50’s flashed daily headlines that emphasized the “whiteness” and good backgrounds of the victims, while painting the Hispanic assailants as unprovoked in their  horrible actions. This tension between the Puerto Rican migrants that were seen as taking over the city and their conflict and strain with other minorities in the city became the perfect canvas for the musical.

The lyrics in “America” contrast between the Hispanic girls and guys (in the 1961 version and video above). The females are optimistic, hopeful in there lyrics “I’ll get a terrace apartment”, “Industry boom in America” and “free to be anything you choose.” On the male side, their response is less bright with responses like “Better get rid of your accent,” “12 in a room in America,” and “Free to wait tables and shine shoes.”3 The contrasting feelings about being in America represent disunity in their experience, just as the musical overall represents disunity and plots the Italians against the Puerto Ricans.

While the musical may be artificial in representing the Puerto Rican experience in New York in some ways, the violence between gangs and different ethic groups is accurate. In the musical, a fight ensues between the two gangs, mostly over pride that ends deadly for both sides. One New York Times article published in 1955 has a headline “Hoodlum, 17, seized as Slayer of Boy, 15.”4 As one can imagine, the article depicts the victim as “well mannered” and a “good student.” The “hoodlum” on the other hand, Frank Santana, shot him “seemingly unprovoked.” The gang violence in this article is similar to the musical, but the “culprit” does not get to just walk away and evade the police.

If Bernstein’s main goal was to create an authentic example of the Puerto Rican experience in “West Side Story,” there are certainly better ways it could have been achieved. He does however underline the optimism some migrants had for the new country and leaving their past behind. The reckless and problematic violence in the musical between gangs is also emulated, but is lacking in the targeted blaming migrants had to face that is evident in the plethora of articles published at the time. Overall, while  West Side Story borders artificial is representing the Puerto Ricans, it is worth a watch and underlines issues faced by the Latino migrant.

1 “Immigration, Puerto Rican/Cuban” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/cuban3.html

2 Wells, Elizabeth A. West Side Story Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical. S.l.], 2010. http://portal.igpublish.com/iglibrary/search/ROWMANB0001881.html.

3 Sondheim, Stephen. © 1956, 1957 Amberson Holdings LLC and Stephen Sondheim. Copyright renewed. Leonard Bernstein Music Publishing Company LLC, Publisher. https://www.westsidestory.com/lyrics

4 Hoodlum, 17, seized as slayer of boy, 15: HOODLUM, 17, HELD IN SLAYING OF BOY. (1955, May 02). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/113364015?accountid=351