Thinking about Tony and Maria got me thinking about Maria’s brother, Bernardo and his girlfriend (and Maria’s surrogate sister), Anita .
Thinking about Anita started Rita Moreno singing in my head : “I like to be in America, everything for free in America…”
What makes West Side Story an excellent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the catchiness of its musical numbers, clever lyrics, and its ambitious address of a serious American social issue – Immigration.
It’s a distinctly “American” issue to me not just because I’m the Second Generation son of an immigrant but because I grew up in New York City, sitting through social studies classes year after year, elbow-to-elbow with kids from Europe, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Greece, and the Dominican Republic (to name a few), and being told how the Puritans and Quakers sought to escape persecution in their native lands by endeavoring to start fresh and free in the New World.
It’s the statue in the harbor. The one they told us about in social studies class:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
More than just a story vehicle to drive Tony and Maria to their tragic end, the Jets and the Sharks provide a glimpse at the tensions that arise when two waves of immigrants (assimilated and newly arrived) meet. The dialogue between Bernardo and Anita that sets up the song, “America,” discreetly tell us that the Jets are Second Generation Polish immigrants and the Sharks are newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants.
“America” describes the hopes immigrants arrive with and the challenges they face in pursuit of the hopes described. It’s a playful song that draws upon universal expectations and disappointments experienced by all new immigrants. It succeeds in its storytelling because it avoids heavy-handed preaching about hardships. Instead its seemingly superficial lyrics tug at deeper shared experiences.
In my opinion, Anita’s story is more tragic than Tony and Maria’s. The exuberant woman who so playfully teases her boyfriend about his unwillingness to assimilate and leads her friends in praising their newly adopted country is transformed by the prior wave of immigrants (deluded natives) into the angry woman who warns Maria to "Stick to your own kind."
Despite Tony’s tragic murder (and that of Maria’s brother, Bernardo), Tony and Maria maintain their “innocence” (for lack of a better word). Nothing really changes emotionally? Spiritually? (What’s the word?) Anita, however, has her innocence robbed. Following the murder of Bernardo, that Anita that sang “America” dies also. Where Tony and Maria traverse a plateau of faith, Anita falls off the edge and loses her faith.
And then there’s Riff and his gang of Second Generation Immigrants. Unlike the Sharks they’ve been born without their parents’ their accents – But at a cost. They cope daily with their parents coping in the not-so-new-anymore-“New World." Their parents (perhaps like Anita) have also suffered a loss of faith. However, they’ve found ways to manage the disappointment, as detailed by Riff and his gang:
I can’t help wonder if Anita and the Sharks will grow older in America to raise “Piranhas,” a Second Generation gang like the Jets?
Former immigrants and their children seem to easily forget that it was them on the receiving end of blame for every convenient social ill when they first got here. To bastardize Riff’s remark: “You see them Cops [Conservatives, Republicans, Tea Party members, etc.] they believe everything they read in the papers about us JDs [immigrants, Mexicans, South Asians, Middle Eastern, etc.]”