How Puerto Rican Characters Are Stereotyped in The Film West Side Story

Categories: West Side Story

Imagine you are from Alabama. You go on vacation to New York City. Because of your thick southern accent, you notice people start to call you a “redneck” and “hillbilly” under their breath. They stereotype you and in return assume that you lack common sense and work on a farm for your living. Contrary to their stereotype, you own your own business and possess a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Master’s degree in Business Administration from two well-respected universities.

You employ fifty people and are an asset to your local economy. But doesn’t it astonish you that some people can be so quick to judge, and automatically assume that you are a “dumb redneck”? Situations similar to these can happen anywhere, including the movies. In the Romeo and Juliet type film, West Side Story, Puerto Rican’s identities are greatly misrepresented and viewed negatively, contrary to many film critics’ beliefs. Even though West Side story was a widely praised film among critics, it greatly misrepresents Puerto Ricans identities, by disregarding U.

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S. colonialism and government migration programs, and using ethnicity, race, class, gender, and language to stereotype Puerto Rican characters.

To begin, it is vital to understand the reasoning behind the influx of Puerto Rican migration to the U.S., especially New York. Not only did West Side Story exclude the history of U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico, but it also failed to mention U.S. government actions that helped thousands of Puerto Ricans islanders migrate to the mainland.

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During the film there are multiple comments made by the “Jets” (the gang made up of predominantly white eastern Europeans) that make it appear as if the “Sharks” (the gang composing of Puerto Ricans) were infecting the United States and overrunning their neighborhood. For example, after the opening scene brawl is broken up by the police, one of the Jets says, “These ‘PRs’ are different…they keep coming…like they’re cockroaches…they are breathing all the air,” such comments make it clear “the Jets judge the Puerto Rican migration to the urban center as an invasion of cockroaches that reproduces without control and infects the territory” (Sandoval-Sánchez 1994, 69). However, contrary to the Jets belief, that Puerto Ricans were “taking over”, it was actually the United States government that was promoting migration from the island to the mainland, thus, creating “Nuyoricans” in New York. Originally, Puerto Rico was a Spanish territory until it was obtained by the United States after Spain’s swift surrender of the Spanish-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The U.S. implemented policies on Puerto Rico, such as the Language Act of 1902, to help “Americanize” the islanders (Noel 2/10/15). As a result to the United States “failure of its Americanization polices in Puerto Rico…the U.S. government decided to promote migration of Puerto Ricans to mainland U.S.A” (Hernández Vázquez 2009, 366) in the mid 1940’s. This came at a time when Puerto Rico’s economy was in decline, due to “Operation Bootstrap”, and labor demands were increasing on the mainland as a result of the U.S. involvement in WWII (Noel 2/10/15). The “Jets” made it seem that Puerto Ricans were an invasive species, but in reality, the U.S. was in dire need of labor to support war efforts and they were, in essence, coming to our aid. On that note, March 17th, 1917 marks the date President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act of 1917 into law (Hernández Vázquez 2009, 372), granting Puerto Ricans statutory citizenship. Puerto Ricans not only became statutory citizens after the Jones Act was confirmed; however, but also served their country when “twenty thousand islanders (were) drafted into World War I” (Hernández Vázquez 2009, 372) just several weeks later when the U.S. declared war with Germany. They served their new country and fulfilled their duty as a citizen to help protect what is now their home too. The problem is West Side Story does not address U.S. colonialism and its unsuccessful policies in Puerto Rico. Instead, the film labels Puerto Ricans as barbaric animals that are here to take from the white, trustworthy American Dream seekers.

In the next place, West Side Story Puerto Rican characters are stereotypical in nature. During the first scene of the movie, “the two gangs have contrasting physical and racial appearances. Most of the Anglo-Americans are blond, strong, dynamic, and healthy and so embody the ideologeme of the all-American boy. On the other hand, the Puerto Ricans are black-haired and skinny with "greasy tanned faces” (Sandoval-Sánchez 1994, 68). Since this is the first time the viewer is seeing the “Sharks”, it instills a picture that Puerto Ricans are dirty and inferior to the Anglo-American. As the movie continues on, tension between the two gangs rise, and they decide have a “brawl”. While the “Jets” are strategizing for the fight, they begin to theorize about how they assume the “Sharks” are going to want to “fight dirty”, and that “they might ask for blades and zip guns” (West Side Story). Then ultimately during the final scene after Chino kills Tony, “the audience identifies with Maria, whose role is that of a mediator. The spectator dis-identifies with Chino and, although viewers may feel some compassion, clearly only Chino bears the blame for the tragedy; it does not cross the viewer's mind that Tony is also a criminal. His crime is obscured by Maria's love when she sings the song "I Have a Love"” (Sandoval-Sánchez 1994, 71). Chino killed Tony and Tony killed Bernardo, Maria’s brother, and even still, her character is enamored with Tony. This is poor representation of Puerto Ricans in the sense that, her love for Tony is so over powering that she does not care that he killed her brother. The movie portrays it as if Tony was the innocent victim and Chino is the evil murderer. After an audience sees this, it becomes an easy assumption to believe that Puerto Ricans have a criminality association and are seemingly not as intelligent as the Anglo-Americans. As if Puerto Ricans were not already poorly represented in the movie, those responsible for the production of the movie were ignorant of Puerto Rican culture and way of life. Initially, Lyricist Stephen Sondheim “rejected the project on the grounds of his ignorance of Puerto Rican culture and experience with poverty: “I can’t do this show…I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even met a Puerto Rican” (Negron-Muntaner 2000, 84). If people like Mr. Sondheim were in charge of creating this motion picture, it is safe to assume that stereotypes of Puerto Ricans were being used based on ignorance and poor research. Lastly, Charles Ramírez Berg has come up with six different types of Latina/o stereotypes in film. In West Side Story, Bernardo clearly is what Ramírez Berg would refer to as, El Bandido. El Bandido is “dirty and unkempt, usually displaying an unshaven face…oily hair…behaves vicious, cruel, treacherous, shifty, and dishonest. Psychologically he is irrational and quick to resort to violence” (Ramírez Berg 2002, 68). According to Ramírez Berg’s definition, Bernardo is your stereotypical El Bandido. Bernardo’s character appears dirty and unshaven, while usually appearing to be up to something shady and always up for a fight.

To conclude, despite West Side Story’s widely known apprise and catchy songs, Puerto Ricans were greatly misrepresented. The film silenced the history of U.S. colonialism and government programs designed to migrate Puerto Ricans to mainland U.S.A. It failed to inform viewers how thousands of Puerto Ricans helped boost our economy and serve our country. Stereotype after stereotype is used on all of the Puerto Rican characters throughout the film, seemingly with no guilt for the way Puerto Ricans were portrayed. Media is a major contributor to determining our perception of others, and unfortunately, some of those in charge of this production lacked the knowledge to accurately represent Puerto Ricans.

Updated: Feb 13, 2024
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How Puerto Rican Characters Are Stereotyped in The Film West Side Story. (2024, Feb 13). Retrieved from

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