Warning: Some spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen either film
Roughly the first 10 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a scene with no music or dialogue that features the Jets, the gang of white boys, defiling a mural with the Puerto Rican flag. This moment is meant to highlight the animosity between the Jets and Puerto Ricans in their neighborhood but what combats this hate in that moment and throughout the film is Puerto Rican pride. The classic film about the rivalry between the Sharks, the Puerto Rican crew, and the Jets originally came out in 1961 and featured only one Latina actress, Puerto Rican icon Rita Moreno (Anita). This time around the Sharks are all Latinx actors and Maria, the lead female character, is played by Colombian-American actress Rachel Zegler while Anita is played by Afro-Puerto Rican dancer Ariana DeBose. That pride we see in the two+ hours of the film stems from a real place and it shows.
Debose and Zegler tell HipLatina this film was “made for the Latinx community” and during filming they felt that intention shine through. Zegler shares that the breakfast scene with DeBose and Maria’s brother Bernardo (Afro-Cuban David Alvarez) felt authentic as they alternated between Spanish and English while Anita reminds them to “speak English.” The scene transitions into the song “America” where Anita praises the U.S. while Bernardo praises Puerto Rico with one of the most famous lines being, “Life is alright in America/If you’re all White in America”. The song features Latinx dancers from the community and the Puerto Rican flag is present in nearly every frame of the song.
“I really feel like not only did you get to know the community at the time, but you get to feel our joy, so you get to experience the family and then you get to experience the community. And I just think it’s beautiful to me. That whole section is very powerful,” DeBose says.
The film has several moments where Spanish is exclusively spoken and yet there are no captions. From the start Spielberg said the Spanish-language scenes would not be captioned “out of respect for the inclusivity of our intentions to hire a totally Latinx cast to play the Sharks’ boys and girls,” he told IGN.
The intentional use of Spanish was also an important factor for DeBose who says that she was adamant that Anita use “prieta” when Bernardo talks about familia with Maria. In the breakfast scene he tells Anita that while he’s chiding Maria that it’s a discussion between family members and she confronts him asking if it’s because she’s dark-skinned. Though the film centers the racial conflict between the Sharks and the Jets, DeBose and Zegler agree that it’s as important for it to examine issues within our community specifically colorism. Zegler points out during the interview that as a white Latina she’s aware she navigates the world differently as opposed to dark-skinned Latinas like DeBose who has been vocal about the importance of talking about this topic.
“Why does Bernardo say this conversation is about family? And is it racially driven? Is it microaggressive in that way, the way that Lieutenant Schrank talks to Anita? There’s a lot these days where I look at the way that certain prominent figures in the Latin community speak about race and decide to other each other or discount one’s Latin identity due to the color of their skin,” Zegler says. “That’s a huge conversation that I think the representation that Ariana brings to the table is going to spark, and I hope that it’s a conversation that is ongoing and that it’s open and that we don’t immediately shut it down the second it begins, because that’s really a huge step forward. And a conversation that isn’t being had publicly enough.”
Zegler and DeBose share that they both insisted on the use of “prieta” as Spanish speakers would get the context and even non-Spanish speakers would understand what was being implied. DeBose says the moment highlights how “flippantly” we use that term with each other despite how “hurtful” it is.
“There is historical context for othering each other. Being a Black Latino not being considered truly Latino for many years after Latinos have been looked down upon. And I was like, I think this is an opportunity to include this in a scene, and it be warranted,” DeBose shares.
“It’s not an afterthought. It’s something that should be really considered. And also as a Black Latina, it’s like, you should not wield this character in this body as a stunt, right? If you’re not going to actually talk about it, then we should have gone a different direction with this character. And I think we take it on — it’s direct.”
This level of attention to a detail seemingly so small as a Spanish term is only possible because of the effort that was put into casting Latinxs. Spielberg told IGN that they made sure to look for talent in Puerto Rico and that they have 20 performers who are either from the island or Nuyorican.
“We just wanted for this movie to get it right in the way that we wanted every single person who plays a Puerto Rican to be from the Latinx community, and that was a mandate from the get-go,” Spielberg said. Part of what ensured another layer of authenticity behind the scenes was Moreno’s involvement not just as Valentina, a new character written for the remake, but as executive producer. She won an Academy Award for the role becoming the first Latina to win a best supporting actress Oscar. This time, she collaborated with Spielberg to ensure there was real Puerto Rican representation in the film. She praised him for doing the work telling USA Today, “He really went to such lengths to make sure he got that right,” and said she loved DeBose’s representation of Anita. “She’s a ferocious dancer. She’s fabulous. And what I love about Steven choosing her is that she’s Afro-Puerto Rican.”
During a screening of the film for the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), DeBose mentioned that watching Moreno in the film was a huge moment for her. Now the 30-year-old actress, who first stepped on the scene competing in So You Think You Can Dance?, is rightfully getting critical acclaim for her portrayal of Anita. DeBose shines on screen as the girlfriend to Bernardo and an older, wiser sister to Maria who is often tasked with bringing both of them back to reality. And though Anita emanates joy in some scenes, it was her heartbreak, especially that of an Afro-Latina, that DeBose said was a powerful moment to bring to the big screen. From Bernardo’s death to the Jets sexually harassing her, Anita endures real heartbreak and pain and DeBose’s performance is raw and real.
“You don’t get to see how hurt this lived experience can feel. And I made a specific decision to not hide it.”
For Zegler, who was 18 when they started filming, it was an opportunity to introduce viewers to a new iteration of Maria, who loves with her whole heart but carries the arrogance typical of a teenager. This film was her first professional acting role, she previously posted videos of herself singing on Youtube and worked as a wedding singer, so the magnitude of the opportunity was not lost on her. “I love Maria’s heart because it’s always well intentioned, even if it’s not executed in the best way. But that’s the reality of being a human being and making choices and choices that may hurt others,” she say, crediting script writer Tony Kushner with giving Maria more dimension.
She’s most excited about her abuela watching that previously mentioned breakfast scene because of how realistic it is and ultimately it’s that representation they hope resonates with Latinx viewers as well. “It is so Latin that when we were making it, I was like, ‘this is the one that my abuelita is going to watch and cackle while throwing popcorn,'” she says. “I think that was for her. So that’s the thing that I felt like it was for us.”