West Side Story aims to improve on original's Latino representation

When Rita Moreno starred as Anita in West Side Story, the 1961 movie in which half of the characters are Puerto Rican, she was the only Latino performer among the cast. Still, she — and her white colleagues — were made to wear makeup that darkened their skin.

Actor Rita Moreno had to darken her skin for original film

West Side Story remake seeks to improve representation

8 months ago
Duration 2:10
Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 movie, West Side Story, focuses on providing a more authentic treatment of its characters by casting as many Puerto Rican and Latino actors as possible while also eliminating Spanish subtitles.

When Rita Moreno starred as Anita in West Side Story, the 1961 movie in which half of the characters are Puerto Rican, she was the only Latino performer among the cast.

Still, she — and her white colleagues — were made to wear makeup that darkened their skin.

It was a common practice back then. But in the 60 years since, Moreno says Latino representation in film and television "hasn't changed anywhere near enough."

"In some respects it has gotten better," she told CBC News. "In some respects, it's pretty much the same … I think we're represented so poorly in films and television."

Director Steven Spielberg says he wanted to cast his version, in theatres now, more "authentically" — to make sure the actors playing the famed musical's Puerto Rican teens "were 100 per cent Latinx and young."

Like the original, his version is based on the 1957 stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, recounting the forbidden romance of Tony, an American boy, and Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, in 1950s New York City. Their affair is complicated by allegiances to rival teenage gangs: the Puerto Rican "Sharks" and the white American "Jets."

David Alvarez portrays Bernardo Vasquez. The Cuban-Canadian actor says there is 'so much pride' in the new adaptation of the 1961 classic. (20th Century Studios/AP)

Moreno, now 89, takes on a new role as Valentina, a scene-stealing shopkeeper.

One expert says that Latino performers have been overlooked and stereotyped by Hollywood for years. The old West Side Story was no exception.

It "looks really weird to us today because we see that, and [we think], 'What is that?' and, 'Why does [Moreno] have so much makeup?'" said Charles Ramírez Berg, a professor of film studies at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on Latinos in American cinema.

"Back in 1961, that was just the convention and that was just how movies were made."

A new generation of Latino triple threats — all actors, dancers and singers — emerge in Spielberg's adaptation. One is Canada's David Alvarez, who plays Shark leader Bernardo, a role originally portrayed by Greek actor George Chakiris.

WATCH | Moreno discusses both West Side Story films:

Alvarez, who is of Cuban descent, says while he loves the original, it's not without its shortcomings.

"The only thing that I wish had been the case is that the old movie represented the Latin community a little better," Alvarez said. That's why there is "so much pride" behind this new film, he added.

"My parents struggled so much to try and give me a better life," said Alvarez, whose parents moved from Cuba to Canada during the 1990s.

"It makes me so happy that not only my parents get to see it, but just a whole entire community who understand the struggle that Bernardo, Anita and Maria go through."

Another change: Spielberg's West Side Story forgoes subtitles when characters are speaking Spanish.

"I felt that subtitling the Spanish would have been disrespectful to the second language in this country, and that it would immediately make English the dominant language," Spielberg said in an interview with Digital Spy, a British entertainment website. 

DeBose, left, director Steven Spielberg and Rachel Zegler attend the premiere at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center on Nov. 29 in New York. Zegler plays Maria in the new film. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

"It was out of complete respect, and to give the dignity where dignity is earned and deserved to be given."

Alvarez says understanding Spanish-language scenes is a matter of context, not linguistics.

"All you've got to do is look at how it's being said. How am I saying it? Am I kissing Anita when I'm saying it? If I'm kissing Anita … maybe I'm saying something flirty."

Audiences have increasingly pushed back against film and television that, when casting within a particular ethnicity, favour light-skinned performers, shutting darker-skinned talent out of roles.

By contrast, 2021's West Side Story has been lauded for casting Afro-Latino performers, including breakout star Ariana DeBose, who portrays Anita — the same character Moreno was made to darken her skin for in 1961.

Ethnic representation on the screen is never perfect, says Ramírez Berg. But these days "it's much better." 

"People are thinking and kind of expanding their cinematic view of stories that can be told, of characters that can hold our attention for a film, and actors who could play those characters."

Rita Moreno stars as Valentina in Spielberg's adaptation. In the 1961 original, she portrayed Anita, the close friend of romantic lead Maria and was the only actor of Puerto Rican descent. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios/AP)


Jenna Benchetrit is a web journalist for CBC News. Based in Toronto and born in Montreal, she holds a master's degree in journalism from Ryerson University. Reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca or on Twitter @jennabenchetrit.

With files from Eli Glasner and Reuters