This essay addresses West Side Story’s enduring legacy among Latinas/os through a queer, feminist reading of the character Anita, informed by Latina/o performance and dance studies. Rita Moreno’s bodily migrations in her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film and the character’s narrative mobility within the musical embody a kinesthetic model for the ways Latinas/os enact queered relations to dominant conceptions of citizenship in the United States. In particular, Anita captures and catalyzes the affective ambiente central to Latina/o assertions of cultural citizenship and queer utopian visions.
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Foundational works by performance scholar Sandoval-Sánchez (1999) and film scholar Negrón-Muntaner (2000, 2004) have made important contributions to understanding the role and repercussions of West Side Story among Latina/o, and specifically, Puerto Rican communities. For the concept of tropicalization, see Aparicio and Chavez-Silverman (1997).
Sandoval-Sánchez speaks of his scholarship on West Side Story as “survival writing” after his AIDS diagnosis in 1990. Herrera observes that the musical is “a necessary tale … something [a Latina/o] has to work through.” Comments delivered at “West Side Story: A Roundtable Discussion,” American Studies Association Annual Meeting, San Juan Puerto Rico, 17 November 2012.
My argument builds on Negrón-Muntaner’s foundational insights about West Side Story’s endurance as a “constitutive site for AmeRícan ethno-national identifications” (Negrón-Muntaner, 2004, 58) and her attention to the ways “Rita Moreno’s bodily poetics and dignity in playing Anita continuously threaten the [musical’s racialized] narrative” (Negrón-Muntaner, 2000, 92). But whereas Negrón-Muntaner focuses her queer reading of the musical on a discussion of ethno-national shame and a consideration of male homosexual desire and of the genderqueer character Anybodys, my analysis centers on the queer function of and possibilities afforded by Anita’s narrative and choreographic mobility within the musical.
In the stage version, the musical debate is enacted among the Shark women.
For more on queer bonds in mid-twentieth-century musicals, see Wolf (2006). For a more expansive treatment of gender, queerness and women in Broadway musicals, see Wolf (2011, 2002). For more on queer (in particular, gay male) spectatorship of musicals, see Miller (1998), Clum (1999) and Doty (1993).
Arguing against the anti-relational theories of queerness (that is, Edelman) while also adopting a critique of the romance of community (that is, Joseph), Muñoz (2009) borrows the concept of “being singular plural” from Jean-Luc Nancy to posit the notion of “the being singular plural of queerness” (15).
Editors of La Prensa, one of New York City’s leading and long-standing Spanish-language newspapers, threatened to picket the premiere, calling for changes, in particular, to the lyrics of “America” that, at the time, included a reference to Puerto Rico as an “Island of Tropic Diseases.” While the picketers ultimately never materialized, Stephen Sondheim did change this lyric (among others) in the song for the film version of the musical. For a chronicle of the parallel histories of the musical as an American classic and as an “emblematic yet problematic representation of Latinas/os,” see Herrera (2012, 234).
Two notable examples within the field of theater history include Sandoval-Sánchez (1999) and Roman (2002), both of which deploy stories of West Side Story as a lens through which to examine their own relationships to Latina/o queerness and the costs of this affiliation within and beyond Latina/o community and kinship networks.
One popular example that I do not address within this essay is the frequent referencing of the musical in the television show Glee, particularly within the narrative arc of Season 3 in which West Side Story functions to further the development of the show’s queer Latina character, Santana. I do not include an examination of it here, as I have limited my discussion to works that are produced/written/created by Latina/o artists.
For more on Ugly Betty as a queer Latinovela, see Paredez (2010).
Another notable example of a Latino artist incorporating West Side Story as a narrative frame through which to depict the struggles of a Latina/o family is Matthew Lopez’s play Somewhere, in which a family of dancers aspires to audition for the film version of the musical.
In her discussion of Rita Moreno’s performance in West Side Story, Ovalle (2011) observes the ways Anita is marked as different through choreography and costuming from Maria and the Jets’ women (116–117).
All observations and analyses are based on the 1961 film version of the musical directed by Robbins and Wise.
In the play version, Velma is Riff’s girlfriend. For the movie, Graziella assumes the role of Riff’s girlfriend.
For more on Robbins, see Jowitt (2005).
In her discussion of female duets in golden age musicals, Wolf writes that “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” functions as a “queer pedagogical duet [wherein] one woman persuades another to change her mind, and a lesson occurs.” This connection, Wolf (2006) argues, “provides a representation of intense homosociality that dislodges the heterosexual couple’s already fragile union” (354).
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I would like to thank the anonymous readers for their generative insights. I would also like to thank the following colleagues who invited me to present and who responded generously to earlier versions of this work: Stacy Wolf, Jill Dolan and Dick Hartog at Princeton University; Margo Crawford and Mary Pat Brady at Cornell University; Frank Guridy and the faculty of the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas – Austin; and Julia Foulkes, Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez, Brian Eugenio Herrera and Elizabeth Wells for a stimulating roundtable conversation at the 2012 American Studies Conference. Special thanks to Clare Croft for her lessons on how to observe and think like a dance scholar; to Stacy Wolf for her foundational scholarship on gender, sexuality and musical theater; and to my mother, Consuelo S. Villarreal, who taught me to love musicals (and all things complicated, imperfect and over-the-top) unironically.
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Paredez, D. “Queer for Uncle Sam”: Anita’s Latina diva citizenship in West Side Story. Lat Stud 12, 332–352 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/lst.2014.46
- West Side Story
- Rita Moreno
- cultural citizenship
- Latina/o performance