Study Guide

West Side Story Race

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ANITA: Back home little boys don't have war councils.

BERNARDO: Ah, but they do here. You want me to be an American, don't you?

There's a lot of tension among the Sharks about their identity. Are they Puerto Ricans or Americans? Historically, Puerto Ricans were considered American citizens starting in 1917, but immigrants like Bernardo weren't treated that way. They felt like second-class citizens.

ANITA: Skyscrapers bloom in America

ROSALIA: Cadillacs zoom in America

CHORUS GIRL: Industry boom in America

BOYS: Twelve in a room in America!

Yes, there are great things in America, but as members of a minority, the Sharks don't see any of it. They're definitely not in on the American Dream.

JETS: The Jets are in gear,
Our cylinders are clickin'!
The Sharks'll steer clear
'Cause every Puerto Rican's
A lousy chicken!

That's one of the milder racial insults in the film. The epithets fly: Spic, Mick, Wop, Polack—you name it.

MARIA: Now you know.

ANITA: And you still don't know. He is one of them.

MARIA: No, Anita.


Important tip about prejudice. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter the color of the skin or the culture or the dress or the gender or the sexual orientation. What matters is the very simple concept: us vs. them.

ANITA: [to Maria] One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind!

Anita fears that no good can come from Maria's romance with Tony. There's safety with sticking to your own group. Anita eventually accepts the relationship, but her fears are borne out.

MARIA: If Bernardo knew.

TONY: We'll let him know. I'm not one of 'em, Maria.

MARIA: But you are not one of us. And I am not one of you.

Love conquers all, it seems. Tony doesn't care about Maria's race. It's part of what makes him the hero. Maria's a little more realistic, though.

JETS: Yeah, but these PRs are different. They multiply. They keep comin'. Like cockroaches. Close the windows. Shut the doors. They're eatin' our food. They're breathin' all the air. The end to free enterprise...

Isn't this a familiar argument? We hear it all the time, every time someone's struggling and tries to blame it on immigrants or on a different race. They'll overrun us. They'll take all our stuff. It doesn't work that way, but it's an easy way to get people riled up.

BERNARDO: Who jumped me the first day I moved here?

ACTION: Who asked you to move here?

If you listen to the nightly news, you'll hear this kind of talk a lot. Maybe this is why West Side Story gets produced year after year after year.

BERNARDO: Come on, you yellow-bellied Polack.

The word "Polack" is a slur against people of Polish descent. We're pretty sure Bernardo didn't start the slurring, but he knows it will get a rise out of Tony. That may be the most awful weapon these characters use against each other. Like all types of racism, Bernardo learns it from others (the Jets) who hate as well.

MARIA: How many bullets are left, Chino? Enough for you, and you? All of you. You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets and guns: with hate. Well, I can kill too because now I have hate! How many can I kill, Chino? How many and still have one bullet left for me?

Maria's words ring true. She's that filled with hate. Yet even then, she doesn't take revenge the way the other characters to. She rises above racism and sets the gun down. She's the one to finally breaks the cycle. But it just costs her everything to do it.

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