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"What about doing it about the Chicanos?"1

  1. The anecdote is almost too good to be true: three young collaborators, struggling to find the perfect style, the right sound for a Broadway musical version of Romeo and Juliet, have become discouraged and shelved their project. The initial premise, warring families of Catholics against Jews, has yielded few dramatic ideas, fewer musical ones. By coincidence, playwright Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein meet up at a Beverly Hills poolside after some months and share their disappointment over the flagging project. Then they notice a Los Angeles Times headline about gang warfare between Mexicans and whites. As Bernstein would later recall:
  2. In New York we had the Puerto Ricans, and at that time the papers were full of stories about juvenile delinquents and gangs. Arthur and I looked at one another and all I can say is that there are moments which are right for certain things and that moment seemed to have come.2

  3. In that moment, years of stalled progress turn into renewed dedication. Bernstein puts continuing work on his troubled Candide on hold, director Jerome Robbins is "ecstatic" over the new concept. The composer confides excitedly to his diary, "Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses and—most of all—I can sort of feel the form."3 The "form"—the shape and texture of the work—emerges from many styles and influences, but one element that pulls them together—and provides much of the flair that has made West Side Story (Plot Summary) so popular—is the Hispanic.4 It is neither integral to the underlying musical structure (which is widely recognized as hinging on the tritone motive that is the basis for most of the musical numbers) nor a purely exotic surface "gloss." Instead, the Hispanic element inhabits an area somewhere in between, suggesting both a familiarity with and an absorption of a specific and by then highly stylized culture. It appears, in fact, that the "rhythms and pulses" were, both for Bernstein and his audience, part of a lingua franca that already engaged in a convivial dialogue with concert and popular music styles. Although certainly one of West Side Story’s ultimate achievements lies in its successful synthesis of these two larger traditions, the adoption of a specific ethnic style in a serious and self-consciously "American" work has ultimately, and perhaps unexpectedly, earned for the musical Hispanic a level of legitimacy it had never before achieved.


  5. The connection between Mexican unrest on the West Coast and Puerto Rican gang warfare on the East was not a difficult one to make in the mid 1950s. Juvenile delinquency, especially among minority groups, was a hot topic amongst both sociologists and the popular press. Almost daily, New York newspaper headlines reported dire warnings such as "Hoodlum, 17, Seized as Slayer of Boy, 15" and "57.2% rise in delinquency rate for youths over 16," echoing a growing alarm about what appeared to be the largest and increasingly most problematic of New York’s minority populations. Although the articles rarely blamed Puerto Ricans outright, newspaper accounts tended to emphasize the whiteness and good breeding of the victims and the seemingly unprovoked and cold-blooded behavior of their clearly Hispanic assailants.5 Studies of the impact of Puerto Rican migration to the city surged during these years, raising concerns as to how this historically insular ethnic group was assimilating, in ever increasing numbers, into the American melting pot.6 The consensus seemed to be that they were not. Immigration, which had been steadily flowing since the 1830s became migration after Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession in 1898.7 The subsequent devaluation of the Puerto Rican peso, along with the Jones Act of 1917 (which gave Puerto Ricans American citizenship) made the United States an increasingly attractive destination for underemployed Puerto Ricans. The Johnson Act of 1921 restricting European immigration to the U.S. made migration even easier and more lucrative. In many ways, the United States had brought on the exodus: blaming overpopulation for Puerto Rico’s woes, the U.S. government had recommended—as far back as 1917—bringing 50,000—100,000 Puerto Ricans to work in the American agricultural industry. The move was intended to relieve the strains that overpopulation had imposed on the island’s resources, but the fairly constant flow of migration over the following decades also fed into a steady demand for a cheap and productive labor force in the United States. In the 1920s, starting wages in America had already been attractively higher than ending wages on the island; by the 1940s Puerto Ricans could earn double what they had in their homeland for the same work.8

  6. Inevitably, almost all migration to the United States was to New York City, where Puerto Ricans settled in "colonias" or communities. "El Barrio" (translating roughly as "the district") in East Harlem, also known as "Spanish Harlem," was by far the largest: the first and often last destination for hopeful newcomers. However, the same burdens of poverty, illness, and overpopulation that plagued migrants followed them to their new home, and New York was starting to take notice. Lawrence Chenault’s The Puerto Rican Migrant in New York City addressed the problem as early as 1938, some eight years after social workers had expressed grave concerns over tensions within Puerto Rican family life.9 Subsequent studies such as Island in the City: Puerto Ricans in New York and The Puerto Rican Journey: New York’s Newest Migrants, drew wider attention to the issues.10 In 1948 the Migration Division of Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor in New York City designed programs to educate Puerto Rican migrants about conditions in the metropolis, one of several attempts to quell the growing problem.11 In the summer of 1955, the City hired a panel of Spanish-speaking legal-aid lawyers, and 50 school principals were sent to Puerto Rico to study the population and its culture. But no system could keep up with the growing number of migrants. With 27 different airlines servicing the San Juan to New York route, and airfares between $30 and $50, there was no sense of a long, arduous trek to a new world.

  7. It would take until the 1960s for sociologists to fully grasp the implications of this mass migration.12 Clarence Senior’s The Puerto-Ricans: Strangers—Then Neighbors (published in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith), Oscar Lewis’s La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York,13 and memoirs by Bernardo Vega and later, Piri Thomas of growing up in New York heightened awareness of the problems. But in the 1950s it just seemed to Americans that there were too many migrants and they were not assimilating; as Benjamin Nuñez, Costa Rican delegate to the United Nations put it, "New Yorkers don’t love Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans don’t love New Yorkers."15 Part of the problem was that the migrant population was not only growing, but changing. Many Puerto Ricans already had college degrees by the time they reached New York and were moving into white-collar jobs and upper education. This increased population and earning power resulted in increased animosity from other minority neighbors, especially Italians on the East Side. Overpopulation was forcing Puerto Ricans out of El Barrio, first to Washington Heights and the West Side, and eventually to all other areas of the city. Newspaper reports during mid 1955 vacillated wildly as to the number of Puerto Ricans flowing into the city. Some claimed migration was down 50%, others that numbers were up several hundred thousand, including a large and invisible invasion that was eluding researchers. Clearly, New Yorkers were worried, suddenly feeling that there was an entire "new" community taking over their world.16 Elena Padilla’s ethnographic study, Up from Puerto Rico17 sensitively described the trials and tribulations of impoverished Puerto Ricans in a typical East Side neighborhood. In a similar attempt to replace fear with understanding, New York’s Secretary of State, Carmine De Sapio, publicly denounced talk of the "Puerto Rican problem" as prejudiced, malicious, and untruthful generalizations.18 The problem, however, could not be ignored, especially when Puerto Rican gangs were continually implicated in youth crime.

  8. In fact, juvenile delinquency in general was on the rise. A Senate Subcommittee was set up in 1957 to investigate juvenile delinquency in New York and studies of gang violence such as Marjorie Rittwagen’s Sins of Their Fathers, soon followed.19 Although delinquency rates were statistically no higher among Puerto Ricans than in juveniles of other ethnic groups, they were seen as part of an ever-increasing threat to the safety of white Americans. All fears were manifested in the "Capeman" case of 1959, in which Salvador Agron, a 16-year-old member of the Vampires gang, stabbed two white teenagers in Hell’s Kitchen. Earning his nickname for the black cape he sported, Agron was arrested and eventually became the youngest criminal in New York state history to be given the death penalty (later commuted).20 This same year, West Side Story was in its first revival. Nothing could have been more topical.21

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1. Leonard Bernstein to Arthur Laurents, quoted in Otis L. Guernsey, Broadway Song and Story: Playwrights/Lyricists/Composers Discuss Their Hits (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1985), 42.

2. Quoted in Guernsey, Broadway, 42 and Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co. (New York: Harper, 1989), 15.

3. Quoted in "Excerpts from a West Side Story Log" in Findings (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 145.

4. For the purposes of the general discussion, I will use the more wide-ranging "Hispanic," which refers to the people, language, and culture of Spain, Portugal and Latin America, as opposed to the more limiting "Spanish", "Latino," or "South American," although these other terms will appear where appropriate.

5. A front page New York Times story of May 1955 juxtaposed the victim, a "good student" at Mount St. Michael Academy and son of a prominent member of the community with his accused murderer, Mark Santana. Although gang rivalry was in general blamed for the murder, Santana and the Hispanic names of his gang friends were documented, along with Santana’s inexplicable lack of remorse over the incident. The story followed one in which the Mayor urged an overhaul of the police force to deal with youth crime (New York Times, May 2, 1955, Sec. 1, p. 1).

6. The Puerto Rican Study, 1953-1957; A Report on the Education and Adjustment of Puerto Rican Pupils in the Public Schools or the City of New York (New York Board of Education, 1958); New York University Graduate School of Public Administration and Social Service, The Impact of Puerto Rican Migration on Governmental Services in New York City (New York: New York University Press, 1957); Conference on the Spiritual Care of Puerto Rican Migrants (Report on the First held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, April 11th to 16th, 1955. (New York: Office of the Coordinator of Spanish-American Catholic Action at the Chancery Office of the New York Archdiocese, 1955); Beatrice Bishop Berle, 80 Puerto Rican Families in New York City: Health and Disease Studied in Context (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958).

7. Here I will refer to Puerto Ricans as immigrants, since this more accurately reflects the light in which they were seen by New Yorkers during this period.

8. Virginia E. Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1917-1948 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983), 35.

9. Lawrence Chenault, The Puerto Rican Migrant in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938).

10. Dan Wakefield, Island in the City: Puerto Ricans in New York (New York: Corinth, 1959). Numerous general studies of Hispanic groups in the United States emerged during this period, for instance: John H. Burma, Spanish-speaking groups in the United States. Duke University Press Sociological Series No. 9 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1954). Benjamin Malzberg, Mental Disease Among the Puerto Rican Population of New York State, 1960-61 (Albany: Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene, 1965); Joseph Fitzpatrick, Puerto Rican Americans: The Meaning of Migration to the Mainland (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971).

11. Korrol, 35.; Luis A. Cardona: The Coming of the Puerto Ricans (Washington: Unidos, 1974). Edward B. Lockett, The Puerto Rico Problem (New York: Exposition Press, 1964); Nathan Glazer, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1963)

12. For instance, José Hernández Álvarez, "The Movement and Settlement of Puerto Rican Migrants within the United States, 1950-1960", International Migration Review 2, No. 2 (Spring, 1968), 40-51 and Edward B. Lockett, The Puerto Rico Problem (New York: Exposition Press, 1964).

13. Oscar Lewis, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York (New York: Random House, 1966); Clarence Senior, The Puerto Ricans: Strangers—Then Neighbours (New York: Random House, 1966, reprinted 1968 and 1969).

14. Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (New York: Knopf, 1967) and Memoirs of Bernardo Vega: A Contribution to the History of the Puerto Rican Community in New York (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1984). Other English-language memoirs on growing up Puerto Rican emerged from the 1960s on.

15. Nuñez made this statement at a luncheon attended by 500 people in 1955, quoted in the New York Times, April 17, 1955, Sec. 1, P.77

16. Most literature emphasized the cultural differences between white America and Puerto Rican, but also fostered a false sense of the "newness" of the migrant population. For example, see Oscar Handlin, The Newcomers: Negroes and Puerto Ricans in a Changing Metropolis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959) and C. Wright Mills, New York’s Newest Migrants (New York: Harper, 1950).

17. Elena Padilla, Up From Puerto Rico (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958); Christopher Rand, The Puerto Ricans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958).

18. Carmine G. DeSapio, quoted in the New York Times of June 12, 1955, Sec. 1, P. 15, at a dinner honoring Antonio Mendez, the first Puerto Rican to become a democratic leader in Manhattan.

19. United States Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Juvenile Delinquency: New York Programs for the Prevention and Treatment of Juvenile Delinquency. Hearing before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary (December 4, 1957); Marjorie Rittwagen, Sins of Their Fathers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958).

20. Stephen J. Dubner, "The Pop Perfectionist," New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1997, p. 45. Almost 40 years later, the Capeman case became the inspiration for a musical by the same name composed by pop artist Paul Simon. Attempting to integrate Latin American music with his own style, Simon spent seven years on the project, approximately the same amount of time that collaborators took to create West Side Story. The Capeman opened on Broadway in January 1998 to generally horrendous reviews and closed two months later, losing $11 million for its investors.

21. During this period, both the problems but also the ethnic identities of Puerto Ricans and African Americans were often conflated, factoring into a larger racial picture in both New York City and the entire United States to which West Side Story (in both musical and cultural ways) spoke.

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