This isn't a movie about choosing sides. Jets and Sharks alike get to own what goes down in West Side Story. But we do admit a certain sympathy for Bernardo, who we see in the beginning as getting hassled by the Jets for no reason. He's walking along, minding his own business, and the Jets skunk him.
It ain't right.
Unfortunately, starting your own gang and evening the score probably isn't the right call either. Things get bloody and if you aren't careful, you'll get inadvertently knifed to death by your sister's new boyfriend.
So it is with Bernardo, hotheaded Puerto Rican immigrant and the unquestioned leader of the Sharks. In Romeo and Juliet terms, he most closely resembles Tybalt, the angry young man who loves to fight. Played by George Chakiris, he's smokin' hot.
Angry Young Man
We can sense Bernardo's passion from the very beginning: that seething glare that clues us in to the angry man underneath that fabulous hair. We can tell this isn't the first time he's been harassed. He's been on the receiving end of racism ever since he came to the U.S.:
RIFF: You crossed the line once too often.
BERNARDO: You started it.
RIFF: Who jumped Baby John this afternoon?
BERNARDO: Who jumped me the first day I moved here?
RIFF: Who asked you to move here? Move where you're wanted, Spics!
And check out this treatment from the cops:
LIEUTENANT SCHRANK: Good deal all around, huh, Bernardo? I get a promotion and you Puerto Ricans get what you've been itchin' for. Use of the playground, use of the gym, the streets, the candy store. So what if they do turn this whole town into a stinkin' pigsty?
Bernardo's met institutionalized racism at every turn. He knows that Tony's father is Polish but he's still considered an American. Why not them? He's not impressed with the America that Maria and Anita love. He says they came to America "Like children, believing, trusting," but Anita's tired of hearing his constant complaining. They spar during a mad song-and-dance number:
ANITA: Buying on credit is so nice.
BERNARDO: One look at us and they charge twice.
ANITA: Lots of new housing with more space.
BERNARDO: Lots of doors slamming in our face!
ANITA: I'll get a terrace apartment.
BERNARDO: Better get rid of your accent!
No wonder he's constantly defensive and on guard. It's interesting to think about why the Anita and the other women are happier in America than Bernardo and the guys. Maybe it's because, as men in 1950s America, they feel more pressure to be strong and respected providers. When they're treated as second-class citizens, it's completely humiliating.
We Are Family
Bernardo's very protective of his family, which gives him a stake in the gang war that goes beyond hate. He wants to keep his little sister Maria safe, to the point where he's decided who she's going to marry. And it's not going to be that Polack Tony. He sets her up with Chino, one of "her own kind," as Anita puts it.
Maria, of course, has her own ideas about who to fall in love with, and in his efforts to prevent her from falling in love, Bernardo actually seems to push Maria and Tony closer. When Tony tries to have a relationship with him, he wants no part of it. He's blinded by hate.
Forced to defend his pride and his manhood, Bernardo agrees to a fair fight with Ice, but he really wants Tony. When things get out of hand, and Riff's killed defending Tony, Bernardo's the next victim of hate.