None too soon as filmmaker reprises classic movie on Puerto Rican diaspora in America

By Howard Hills

  • Legendary movie director’s pandering to Puerto Rico’s political and cultural elites backfires
  • Hollywood Reporter casts doubt on promised “authenticity” of “West Side Story” re-make
  • Spielberg misses irony of NYC Puerto Ricans romanticizing independent nationhood for island homeland where majority votes for statehood.
  • For culturally hyper-sensitive, 1961 movie was “hurtful,” portraying Puerto Ricans in states disparaging island
  • New version should clarify U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico came for equal rights and opportunities of citizens in states

Movie mogul misreads Puerto Rico audience

In 2007 the internationally respected Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a book on Puerto Rico’s political status by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. I was Thornburgh’s legal historian and got credits from the author as lead researcher on that book, working also with former President George H.W. Bush who wrote the the book’s foreword.

Somewhat to my surprise, from the first to final draft of the foreword it was Mr. Bush’s idea to include a quote from the “West Side Story” song “America” as featured in the 1961 movie musical:

“Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America.”

Of course, Mr. Bush knew exactly where to find Puerto Rico, having campaigned in Puerto Rico’s 1980 Republican presidential primary. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in that primary, convincing Reagan to pick Bush as his running mate. As Vice President and later President, Bush never forgot Puerto Rico is in America, and supported its admission as a state.

Spielberg learned about Puerto Rico the hard way, when the filmmaker visited Puerto Rico to promote a re-make of “West Side Story.” Meeting with university students and leaders in academics, arts and theater, Spielberg faced unexpectedly skeptical questions on whether the West Side Story narrative about Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1950s deserved to be resurrected.

Spielberg did not adapt well to defense of the project he came to tout, sowing little understanding of issues raised about political status of the island and social history of its people. Lamentably, the renowned motion picture director overcompensated ineptly for his lack of background and insight.

In over his head, the best Spielberg could come up with was a clumsy attempt to co-opt the assembled elites, by pandering to what he presumed to be their ideological and ethnic biases. He badly misread his audience by grandiosely assuring them his re-make of West Side Story would –

“…also speak a lot to what’s happening today at the borders. It’s very relevant today to essentially the rejection of anyone who isn’t white. And that’s a big part of our story.”

What? Did he just say illegal immigration and white privilege are central to Puerto Rican reality in the America of 2019?

Does he really think 3 million U.S citizens in a century old U.S. territory have the same status in the USA as non-citizen aliens unlawfully crossing U.S. borders, strangers from foreign lands?

Worse yet, is he profiling Puerto Ricans of all ancestries as perpetual victims of racism toward “non-white” peoples?

Although most may have been aligned with Spielberg ideologically and politically, defining his hosts by race rather than culture was politically tone deaf. Comparing the political imperatives of Puerto Ricans to alien border violators was proof enough the 1957 lyric “Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America” in a sense is still true of Spielberg in 2019.

Who are these Puerto Ricans anyway?

Puerto Ricans perceive themselves culturally as differentiated from every other culture in America and the world. The includes the Iberian culture of the island’s former colonial masters in Spain, and all other Spanish-speaking peoples of the Americas.

Like the Spanish-speaking majority of Americans in Louisiana, California and New Mexico at the time of admission to statehood, Spanish- and English-speaking Americans in Puerto Rico have an ethnic identity distinct from their fellow Americans who are not Puerto Rican.

At the same time, Puerto Ricans identify politically first and foremost as U.S. citizens. For 70 years false promises by their own leaders promoted an unrealistic mythical status with the good but not bad features of both statehood and independence.

Puerto Ricans have learned the hard way there is no substitute set of special rights or local “ autonomy” that make permanent less than equal citizenship in America tolerable. Yet, despite majority support for statehood denial of equal citizenship rights attainable only through statehood or independence persists.

In that context, Spielberg’s unawareness about cultural and political realities of Puerto Rico increased anxiety about his re-make of W-S-S. Will the new W-S-S II be captive to the same ethnic cliches in the 1957 and 1961 productions, made even more pronounced by plot and script anachronisms overtaken by a half century of political social and cultural change?

What’s not to like about West Side Story?

It is an understatement that the 1961 movie adaptation of the 1957 Broadway play became an obsession for all Puerto Ricans. It was – after all – about them.

Fifty-seven years later, Spielberg obviously did not understand the extent to which “West Side Story” has become the movie everyone in Puerto Rico loves to hate. As described by Hollywood Reporter, guests at the gathering in Puerto Rico were surprised he didn’t address that truism.

The once trailblazing Broadway musical challenging racial bias for national audiences is known in Puerto Rico as much for its ethnic cliches and slurs. Not only has social history not treated the “West Side Story” legacy well, for teachers and students in island schools acquiring an ideologically discerning disdain for “West Side Story” is a venerable scholastic tradition, if not a requirement for graduation.

The Hollywood maestro encountered courteous but persistent audience resistance to his exuberant appeal to enlist the island’s cultural avant-garde in shared enthusiasm for his anticipated artistic triumph. No one present, however, had the nerve to tell him outright what he most needed to know.

The unspoken truth is a Puerto Rican’s achievement as creator of the theatrical success story that became the “Hamilton” phenomenon is a source of great cultural pride in Puerto Rico. “Hamilton” also highlights in a dramatic rendition the historical realities that must be addressed to resolve the political status of Puerto Rico and its people.

Hamilton underscored the reality that equal rights of citizens are the currency of liberty in America. For Puerto Rico equality can be attained only through statehood that would make Puerto Ricans full Americans, or sovereign nationhood that would end the American era.

It certainly crossed the mind of many in the room that a Spielberg reproduction of W-S-S may be as culturally alienating and politically demoralizing in Puerto Rico as the original West Side Story production in 1957. It remained unspoken that a botched W-S-S singularly might be the only thing that could distract America from the meaning and triumph of “Hamilton.”

Re-make or sequel?

In fairness to Spielberg, Puerto Ricans are hypersensitive about even the most nuanced failure by non-Puerto Ricans to recognize how wonderful Puerto Ricans and their culture are in every way. Puerto Rican cultural pride is irrepressible and ubiquitous.

Only Puerto Ricans are allowed to be derogatory toward other Puerto Ricans, or worse yet make fun of their cultural idiosyncrasies. This is no surprise after 500 years of colonial rule, even after a century under a political status and governance policy as enlightened if misguided as the current U.S. installed territorial regime has been.

If Spielberg really wanted to recruit influencers and re-brand the West Side Story legacy for popular consumption, he would have promised political relevance and social realism. Just as the 1957 version had aspired to deliver in its time, he would have committed to a revival of West Side Story that expresses what it means to be Puerto Rican in 2019.

But he did not do that for a very good reason. He is focused on retelling an already familiar Romeo and Juliet story, set in an ethnic enclave with five or ten thousand Puerto Ricans concentrated in the inner city back in the late 1950’s.

Spielberg is not interested in updating the story in a sequel about the realities of the 6 million strong Puerto Rican diaspora in the 50 states. He is not willing or able to make the movie about 3.2 million Americans in Puerto Rico seeking full democracy back home.

The conditions that compelled so many to come to New York City in the 1950’s and still exist today are a necessary context for the story he wants to tell again. But a sequel plot would be about fiscal collapse of the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government, and human suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The searing idiomatic devices employed by “Hamilton” make constitutional history audience friendly and accessible. Spielberg is not about to add dialogue deciphering recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings confirming that Puerto Rico’s only future political status choices are continued undemocratic territorial status quo, statehood or separate independent nationhood.

Spielberg was too smart to do that. That is not what his re-make of West Side Story is about. That would be a sequel and he was not about to do one of those.

More fundamentally, he is not an artist who wants to define the future of Puerto Rico. His artistic vision is to revive a classic, redo a masterpiece out of reverence for its theatrical and musical greatness.

Spielberg was totally unprepared for critical thinking that would take him deeper into the Puerto Rico paradigm. He and his screenwriter Tony Kushner went to Puerto Rico to market a product brand, not do market research for product development.

The Hollywood titan simply did not understand that West Side Story contains too many mixed positive and negative messages about the people of the island, and for that reason has never been fully accepted.

Schooled on Puerto Rico identity politics

In 1957 when the stage production created a national sensation, America was still a racially segregated nation in which race-based discrimination was legal and institutionalized. The story of a white Romeo and his “non-white” Puerto Rican girlfriend was politically and morally powerful. However, the Juliet character, Maria, was in fact played by a white actress, Natalie Wood.

Puerto Ricans had to manage ambivalence if not cognitive dissonance about seeing a white women on the big screen play a “non-white” Puerto Rican. What was Hollywood and America saying about the racial identity of Puerto Rico women?

The light shade of brown face makeup applied to Natalie Wood made her character’s romance with a white boy fall far short of art taking on the real issue of interracial love. Because of white Puerto Rican racism toward darker skinned and black people, having a white Puerto Rican portrayed as the victim of race discrimination also created a confused sense of social discomfort.

That was because it reinforced prejudicial stereotypes in Puerto Rico that lighter skin is more desirable than darker skin. At the same time, however, the movie’s message was that even white European looking Puerto Ricans were perceived in Hollywood and nationally as a racial minority.

That was used by the pro-independence and pro-autonomy political factions to sustain anti-statehood propaganda campaigns. The ideological premise of the anti-statehood movement in Puerto Rico was that America was too racist to give equal citizenship that comes only with statehood.

The anti-statehood rallying cry was “They don’t want us.” The movie West Side Story was cited as proof statehood was unattainable due to America’s pathological racism toward brown people, incoming Puerto Ricans, no matter what shade of brown.

Political status politics trump racial politics

Some of the people in Spielberg’s de facto focus group audience at the university during his visit to the island were anti-statehood autonomists, along with statehood and separate nationhood supporters. Each would have been glad to explain why the new movie should be a sequel that advanced their political status preference.

But even though most in the room may have shared Spielberg’s political views on immigration policy and racism in America, few if any believed those issues are relevant to the question of whether West Side story can be the right message about Puerto Ricans in 2019.

Again, Spielberg seems to have thought evoking the power of the West Side Story brand, while also promising street smart authenticity for today’s audience, would resonate with 60 invited guests, some with theatrical, arts and academic credentials. However, those gathered in a local university conference room waited patiently until he was done extolling the sublime elegance of his creative vision before telling him what was on their minds.

Instead of the affirmation he sought from an audience he presumed sympathetic, Spielberg faced questions about the allegedly biased “representation of Puerto Ricans” at the core of the “West Side Story” plot. Most pointedly, how could he be faithful to the original story without repeating its “artistic imperialism?”

Spielberg and his screenwriter from Hollywood were at a loss to respond. They even tried to blame the disparagement of the Puerto Rico homeland by new arrivals from the island as depicted in the movie on Jewish members of the artistic team who created the 1957 Broadway play and its music.

Spielberg and screenwriter Kushner actually articulated the idea that after having left Europe and found a better life in America before and after WWII, Jews tended to disparage the places they came from as part of their celebration of escape to America.

But nothing he said could reverse the direction of the questioning about why and how a movie about a time and place that no longer exist will be good for Puerto Rico in 2019. The territory is now home to 3.2 million people without equal rights in a state or a nation, and without a defined future.

Race card losing hand for Spielberg

That was when Spielberg reverted to type and assumed he could find common ground with any American ethnic minority by blaming racism and anti-immigrant prejudice for whatever narrative of victimology might be relevant. In that vein then, Spielberg uttered a condescending excuse to cover up his inability to comprehend the audience response he was getting.

Assuring those gathered that in addition to its other themes and content the new more “authentic” production will address race and immigration was a miscalculation of significant magnitude. Combining twin fallacies alleging Puerto Ricans have a status akin to that of unlawfully present non-citizens in America, and also alleging never ending victimization as a non-white people, Spielberg amply demonstrated his incompetent understanding of the Puerto Rico dilemma.

Race and immigration status sloganeering is no substitute for understanding the complex history of slavery, race and social institutions in Puerto Rico under Spanish colonial rule, which ended by Spanish assent to U.S. annexation of Puerto Rico at the dawn of the 20th century in 1900.

Apparently, Spielberg does not know that the European aristocracy of Spain’s monarchy and Iberian Peninsula cultural society ruled Puerto Rico for 400 years. Under the colonial regime Madrid imposed, Eurocentric Puerto Ricans of Euro-Iberian descent owned African and indigenous Caribbean island slaves in the colony, even after slavery had been abolished in the North American continent by the United States.

No doubt there were people in Spielberg’s audience whose ancestors were slaveowners. Were there more than a few descendants of indigenous Puerto Ricans or slaves?

As the Hollywood Reporter article describes, Spielberg failed to win over the skeptics in the audience. If anything, he expanded their numbers.

Political status stakes are high

Similarly, some of those present probably were in the anti-statehood movement that clings to ideological myth that Puerto Rico can attain a new status with features of statehood and independent nationhood. That “best of both worlds” status option has been discredited legally and politically under scrutiny by all three branches of the U.S. federal government.

Puerto Ricans who Spielberg met with included some who once longed for an “autonomous” nation/state status called ”free association.” Claiming that Spain had promised autonomy to Puerto Rico before its annexation to the U.S. in 1899, the anti-statehood movement convinced its followers that “autonomous nation-state” status was a realistic alternative to statehood, based on the so-called “autonomous and independent” status of the state of Catalonia under Spanish law.

Ironically, after all three branches of the U.S. government repeatedly rejected all proposals for “autonomous free association” in the period 1991-2016, in 2017 the Spanish government in Madrid rejected Catalonia assertions that its autonomous status could culminate in independence. It was not lost on Puerto Rican autonomists when Catalonian leaders declared independence and Madrid charged them with treason, sending the elected president and his cohorts into exile in Belgium.

Still time to make West Side Story a masterpiece for Puerto Rico too

It is understandable that Spielberg would like to work with the material created by his own heroes, including Gershwin, Sondheim, Laurents and Robbins. But he ran into some serious minded political pushback in San Juan. Nothing is likely to stop Spielberg from do West Side Story re-make, but it could be done better.

For example, soon after his visit it was announced that he had chosen an American of Columbian decent to play the Puerto Rican heroine in his re-make of West Side Story.

Really, there is NO Puerto Rican actress who could play the part?

Without wishing the New Jersey teenager who was picked for the role anything but success, we wonder why Spielberg’s promise of “authenticity” was not redeemed by finding a Puerto Rican actress to play the Puerto Rican heroine in the movie.

Mr. Spielberg needs to take a page from the playbook of former President George H.W. Bush. In his forward to the CSIS book on Puerto Rico published in 2007, the former President admitted he knew little about Puerto Rico until 1980, when he ran against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination to be President.

That was the year Puerto Rico had its first presidential primary election, and sent a pledged delegation to the national nominating convention larger than the delegations of 19 states. Bush was hustling every vote he could and made a fateful decision to accept invitations from his political and business friends in Puerto Rico to come spend time on the ground doing some serious retail politics.

Reagan expected to do well in Puerto Rico, based on his success with Latinos in California. Surprising everyone, Bush beat Reagan in the primary. That was a major factor in Reagan’s decision to pick Bush as his running mate.

Bush had to spend time in Puerto Rico to get past the ethnic stereotypes and profiling that detracted from the triumph of West Side Story in 1961, which he recalled in his foreword to the 2007 CSIS book. If Mr. Spielberg wants to achieve something great he would honor the creators of that classic film by taking the narrative to its next level of difficulty.

Spielberg should show the genius he has on so many of the greatest stories ever told in American movies, and he still has time to get West Side Story right. Despite the narcissistic whining of cultural cry babies in Puerto Rico described in the Hollywood Reporter article, he can stand his ground and defend the 1961 movie version of West Side Story as artistically courageous and socially enlightening in its time.

Indeed, it was a brilliant, honest and morally didactic artistic triumph. The fact that almost no Puerto Rican was able to critique it impartially or without obsessing over its flaws and failure to feed Puerto Rican ethnic appetites for vindication and redemption should not surprise anyone. Again, after 500 years of economic, political and cultural exploitation and suppression, who can blame them?

At the same time Spielberg can surgically update the story and add realism with historic vignettes before during and after the times in which the 1961 movie was produced. For example, the new West Side Story II could tell the story of Jose Celso Barbosa, the son of black slaves, whose gifts were discerned by Jesuits who enrolled him as the first black student integrated into a parochial school.

Barbosa went to the U.S. while the islands were still under Spanish rule and became a medical doctor, after finishing top of his class at a major university medical school. He returned to win the hearts of his people by braving the battlefield in the Spanish American War to treat the combatants of both armies.

Barbosa went on to found and lead the early statehood movement in Puerto Rico. Now THAT might be a story worth telling in a Speliberg movie!

Howard Hills is a former legal counsel on territorial affairs in the Executive Office of the President, National Security Council and U.S. State Department. He is author of the book Citizens Without A State.



7 Responses

  1. Not exactly….Mr Hills leaves out many important key details of the history he describes, crediting it all to himself.
    It will be necessary to write a book telling the history as it ocurred, with all the evidence to prove it! Soon!
    “Howard Hills is a former legal counsel on territorial affairs in the Executive Office of the President, National Security Council ”

    • Ronald Reagan had a statement displayed on his desk in the Oval Office that read: “There is no limit to the good we can accomplish if we don’t worry about who gets the credit.” Many more have done far more than I, and I am just honored to have been given the opportunity to support the cause. I have never taken the time to deny the contributions of others; life is too short. All we can do is move forward. If others spend time worried about whether they got as much credit as they deserved, well, Reagan’s point was that they are less able to contribute to the good that gets done. That is sad, especially when so much good has been accomplished by so many and so much progress has been made. The facts are the facts. I was not involved in Puerto Rico issues directly in 1989 when Bush (41) gave his state of the union and supported statehood. In 1992, I was not involved in drafting the Bush memo calling for periodic self-determination and state-like treatment of the territory. I have heard those who were involved argue about who gets the credit, and each claims they did it alone. No one gets anything done in the White House alone. Anyone who has worked there knows that is rarely if ever the case. But I was there in 1994 when the game changing Four Chairman’s letter was written, and I was there in the Bush 41 transition when Thornburgh’s memo to Vice-President Elect Cheney led to a policy shift, and I give credit to Ruben Barales who brilliantly managed and coordinated the endeavor that culminated in the 2005 White House Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. I give them all credit for the sustained team effort that produced not just pronouncements but concrete legal outcomes and political results. If there is something someone wants credit for they should just say so, and not engage in the kind of destructive self promotion signaling a need for recognition that Reagan disdained. I was there when CSIS opened the door to our project and published the Thornburgh book, and Bush (41) agreed to write the foreword as a volunteer without anything to gain but satisfaction in speaking the truth. I tell that story not to get credit, but to give credibility to the ideas that are moving us beyond rhetoric to real progress. It has been an amazing last 25 years and there is no going back, to change the direction history is taking us, much less to get credit for the very important contributions so many have made along the way. All of us are passengers on the train that is leaving the station, and we should honor one another not squabble about who gets credit. That is not what Reagan or Bush (41) would have wanted or expected of us. This is the last time I will participate in any discussion about who gets friends for what those we served did for the cause.

  2. Great article. One comment however. My Mother was from Puerto Rico, born (1934) and raised, both of her parents and 1 of her grandparents were born in Puerto Rico. I also find it funny that a “white” woman played Maria, but I’m a bit confused about Puerto Rican’s bing non white. My Mother had very white skin as did my Abuela and her Sister!!! I know Puerto Rican’s are very racially diverse but it seems the article refers to all Puerto Rican’s as “non white”
    I’m I seeing something incorrectly or is that the correct way to look at Puerto Rican’s? I’m extremely proud of my Puerto Rican roots, even with my very German name I completely identify as Puerto Rican. I too am for statehood. Anyway loved the article.

    • On the census, more than 75% of Puerto Ricans identified themselves as “white.” I think the author is making the point that people on the mainland, at least in the mid 20th century, thought of Puerto Ricans as non-white — enough for that to be part of the story in “West Side Story.”

    • It was Stephen Spielberg who introduced the issue of race into the Hollywood Reporter publication’s coverage of his awkward moments trying to justify his project in Puerto Rico. If you read the article it explains that he thought it would co-opt his audience ideologically if he told them the movie would address the way the U.S. treats “non-whites” who come to America from foreign nations. My analysis is that he doesn’t have a clue about how Puerto Ricans see themselves, because the idea that all or most Puerto Ricans are -non-whites who came here from foreign lands like Guatemalans or Salvadorans strikes me as ignorant, arrogant and insulting. That is why his audience reportedly grew increasingly concerned about whether he was going to be able to fulfill his artistic ambition to honor the original West Side Story narrative without undoing the progress that has been made educating the American public to all that Puerto Rico has in common with their fellow citizens in the 50 states. In that context, choosing a Columbian-American to play the heroine, no matter how talented she may be and wonderfully she may play the part, reinforces the doubts of many that he understands Puerto Rico is in America, and Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens for a century, before Spielberg’s parents were born.

    • You are correct; we are a mixed race so we can’t be categorized in a “white or non-white” race because it doesn’t matter how light or dark you are. If you are Puerto Rican you will have a mix off taino, black and white, and that is a beautiful thing. Sure our history has its tragedy like any where else in the world, but we as Puerto Ricans are very diverse and you can see it clearly in our families. The Puerto Rican that is racist against the color of another person’s skin hate themselves and have a serious identity issue.

  3. Excellent and thought provoking discussion that highlights the complexity of Puerto Rican identity and its historically and politically influenced dynamics.

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