"I like to be in américa!" What do Sondheim's lyrics in West Side Story reveal about the Puerto Rican "immigrant" experience in 1950s New York?


What does the song "América" from West Side Story reveal about the plight of Puerto Ricans in 1950s New York City? How does whiteness manifest in the lyrics, and how do male and female characters experience "América" and whiteness differently?

I hope to argue in my paper two main points. First, Puerto Ricans in New York in the 1950s were considered neither "white", an example of the constructed nature of whiteness (which we have studied at length in class); likewise, they were not considered "American", either, despite Puerto Rico having been a US colony since 1898 and a territory since 1900. Second, Puerto Rican men and women perceived their new status differently, though both perspectives are equally valid. While men directed their energy into disappointment with the US (namely poverty, organized crime, and anti-Hispanic racism), women were more optimistic about the future, looking towards the wealth and freedom they hoped for their community in the future.

My object of study will be "América" from West Side Story, written by Stephen Sondheim and composed by Leonard Bernstein. There are two versions of the song (both written/composed by Sondheim and Bernstein): one from the stage musical (first produced on Broadway in 1957) and one from the 1961 film. I plan to analyze both versions, as they each address different elements of the Puerto Rican-mainland experience. In particular, the film version of the song showcases the differing plights of men and women in immigrant communities in a way the original stage lyrics don't. (I also think I will look at the physical gestures performed by dancers during the song in both versions. But I don't think it will be a big part of my project; though it is beautiful choreography, I mostly want to focus on the lyrics because I think they will best answer my research question.)

In this song, Anita (played by the legendary Rita Moreno; the second female lead after María herself) argues with her boyfriend, Bernardo (George Chakiris) about the pros and cons of life in America. Both are “immigrants” from Puerto Rico—though that seems like a misnomer, considering Puerto Rico was colonized by the United States before the 1950s, when the story takes place. Other characters join in the singing and dancing, largely on gender lines. Most of the women agree with Anita that there is more opportunity in America than in Puerto Rico, and they are genuinely excited about their future. Bernardo and the men have a more pessimistic outlook, focusing on the anti-Latino sentiment and general poverty their community faces in New York. The women are optimistically excited about their future, looking forward to driving fancy cars (“Cadillacs zoom in América”) and economic success (“industry boom in América”). Meanwhile the men emphasize the “organized crime in América” and that life is all right in América “if you’re all white in América.”

My method of analysis will be as follows: first I will re-watch the 1961 film and watch the 2002 Broadway recording. Even though I only plan to analyze "América", I still need to make sure I understand the full context of the song, and for both renditions. I will then take notes on and analyze the lyrics from both versions, recording the differences between them (and possible contradictions if any appear). I will categorize my notes into two categories based on which of the two main points they can prove best. I will also look over the class material we've read covering whiteness and immigration so I can make connections to other immigrant groups and time periods.


"You forget I'm in América!" — Anita refutes Bernardo's claims about life as a stateside Puerto Rican in New York City

The island of Puerto Rico has been inhabited for millennia, but has only been part of the U.S. since the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Its residents have been U.S. citizens since 1917, but are politically underrepresented or even unrepresented in many cases in the federal government. Like all US citizens, they legally can move freely between Puerto Rico and the mainland, and between states on the mainland. But they are still treated as “immigrants” and outsiders whenever they leave the Caribbean. The largest population of Stateside Puerto Ricans (sometimes mistakenly called “Puerto Rican-Americans”) lives in New York City; mass migration to the city began after WWII, and exploded in the early 1950s, peaking in 1953 (“Puerto Rican/Cuban - Migrating to a New Land”, Library of Congress). Puerto Ricans living in New York are often known as “Nuyoricans”, a portmanteau of “New York” and “Rican” (“History of Puerto Rico”, History.com).

Perhaps the most famous representation of Nuyoricans is the musical West Side Story (composed by Leonard Bernstein and with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), first staged on Broadway in 1957 and first adapted to film in 1961. Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, the show tells the story of María, a Puerto Rican girl, and Tony, an Anglo-American boy, who fall in love despite their families belonging to rival gangs on the West Side of Manhattan in 1951 (“West Side Story”, Playbill). Even though about half the characters in the show are Puerto Rican, the show’s commentary on race, ethnicity, and nationality is largely isolated to one song, “América,” one of the few group numbers performed exclusively by Puerto Rican characters. Sung by Anita and Rosalia (the two most important women in the show after Anita) in the stage version and Anita and Bernardo (her boyfriend) in the film version, the song details the show’s characters’ experiences as outsiders in New York. The film version of the song takes the form of an argument between the men and women, alternating between the women expressing one or more things they like about America while the men try to refute them.

In particular, these lyrics reveal two things: first, Puerto Ricans were not considered white—an institution we already know is constructed—but they were not considered “American” either. Second, men and women had different feelings about the situation and their “belonging” in the U.S.: men were more angry and disappointed with the state of things, while women were more optimistic and excited for the future.

As we already know, whiteness is entirely socially constructed, so it does not matter that many Puerto Ricans have so-called “white” ancestors from Europe (namely Spain) among other diverse groups, including African-Americans, Native Americans, and East Asians. One of the most iconic lines from “América” is Bernardo and his friends’ claim that life is only easy in the states “if you’re all white in América,” showing that even though Puerto Ricans were citizens, and spoke English, that they were still excluded from society and the institution of "whiteness" (“América (Film) Lyrics”, Genius).

Likewise, Puerto Ricans were not considered “American.” Despite this being unequivocally false in every sense of the word (Puerto Rico, for one, is literally in the continent of America, and is even part of the United States of America), Puerto Ricans were (and are) still considered outsiders. The most obvious example of this is that these characters are singing about “América” in the first place: as if it's different from the island they came from, showing how “Americanness” is just as constructed as whiteness. Though, to Sondheim’s credit, the original stage lyrics are a bit more self-aware; they sing “nobody knows in América [that] Puerto Rico’s in América,” poking fun at this geographic misconception/ignorance (“West Side Story Broadway Revival”, YouTube).

However, the true gem in Sondheim's lyrics is the night-and-day difference between the men’s (Bernardo and his friends) and women’s (Anita and hers) experiences in New York. The men address many societal issues, singing in chorus that everything can be had but “for a small fee in América”, that the abundance of laundry machines is meaningless because they have “nothing to keep clean,” that there are “lots of doors slamming in [their faces],” that the only way to affordably live is “twelve in a room in América,” and that even though they may be “free” in New York, more accurately, they are “free to wait tables and shine shoes.” Their lyrics take the common positive misconception of abundant wealth in the United States and turn it square on its head, revealing the more disappointing reality of poverty in what is not actually a great country.

The men crowd together as they sing "Twelve in a room in América." This is just one of the lines through which they express discontent with the treatment of Puerto Rican newcomers and poor folks in New York.

They also deliver a scathing critique of Anglo-Americans’ terrible treatment of Hispanic folks in New York. They sing, “one look at us and they [Anglo-Americans] charge twice,” that they “better get rid of their accent[s]” if they ever want fair treatment, and that they must “stay on [their] own side” to avoid violence. They counter Anita’s claims that America is an open, free, and integrated place by exposing the reality of the Nuyorican predicament: they are overcharged for even basic things simply on account of their heritage and subject to violence if they dare to leave “their” part of the city.

In this dance segment, Bernardo and his friends mime gunshots representing white supremacist violence.
One specific move in the sequence involves them holding their chests, showing that they feel violence and racist hatred in their hearts.

Bernardo’s also dedicates an entire verse to organized crime, which he identifies as one of the most critical hardships facing stateside Puerto Ricans. He opens with the line, “everywhere grime in América"—referring not to literal grime but to those white supremacist gangs (like the Jets) making life harder for him and his family. He continues to decry “organized crime in América,” which makes for a “terrible time in América,” expressing his discontent with the city he arrived in when he was promised a much greater life.

Meanwhile, Anita and her friends (the women in the film) are far more excited. They unabashedly express their excitement for economic success in New York; “buying on credit,” “skyscrapers,” “Cadillacs,” and “terrace apartments” are just some of the things they look forward to. Most importantly, they echo the ideals of “freedom” typical of the American mythos; “here you are free and you have pride” and “free to be anything you choose” are just some of the lyrics expressing that. The way the women in this song see it, they have already arrived in America—why worry about the current state of things, bad as it may be, when there is so much more to look forward to? The best example of this is the last line of the song, which Anita sings directly to Bernardo; when he lists a few of his gripes with the mainland, she quips with “you forget I’m in América!” This shows how many of the women see America as their home: either their new home, if they feel it’s different than Puerto Rico, or they see Puerto Rico and New York as part of the same America, in which case nothing has changed. The line clearly shows the reason for their discontent with the men’s attitude: they feel there is no reason for the men to disrespect their home, new or old.

In one dance sequence, Anita and two of her friends, Rosalia and Teresita, come together and sing"Cadillacs zoom in América, industry boom in América!" Rosalia mimes driving a car while Teresita holds her hands in the shape of a skyscraper; this particular image synthesizes a lot of what is considered "great" about America (and New York in particular) and crafts the excited and optimistic energy the women sing about.

In sum, these lyrics show that Puerto Ricans living stateside, specifically in New York, were not seen as white in the 1950s and 60s, when West Side Story and its film adaptation were set and filmed. They also showcase the different realities experienced by men and women at the time; while women tried to make the best of their new lives and enjoy the experience (since there was no other option), men were more disappointed with the state of things and felt that energy should first be focused into changing them instead of looking for a glimmer of hope as Anita and her friends did.

"You forget I'm in América!" — Anita pushes Bernardo aside, and holds her hand to her chest, showing how she is a bit offended by his remarks considering América is, after all, her home (both San Juan and New York).


Works Cited

“América (Film) Lyrics.” Genius, December 7, 1961. https://genius.com/Leonard-bernstein-america-film-lyrics

History.com Editors. “Puerto Rico.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, September 28, 2017. https://www.history.com/topics/us-states/puerto-rico-history

“Puerto Rican/Cuban - Migrating to a New Land.” Library of Congress. Accessed November 16, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/cuban3.html

“West Side Story.” Playbill. Accessed November 16, 2019. http://www.playbill.com/production/west-side-storybroadway-theatre

“West Side Story - América (Film).” YouTube. Accessed November 16, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_e2igZexpMs

“West Side Story Broadway Revival.” YouTube. Accessed November 16, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUwvQbFUrjU&feature=youtu.be&t=2731