The Jets are white. The Sharks are Puerto Rican.
West Side Story's first and foremost a love story, but the themes of immigration and racism seethe below the surface. The song "America," in part, is about how American culture treats Puerto Ricans like second-class citizens, and the tensions between the two gangs sometimes boils down to "your skin is a different color than mine."
The film itself, and the play before it, came under fire from some quarters for being a little racist itself. When Stephen Sondheim was first asked to join the team, he said, "I can't do this show…I've never been that poor and I've never even known a Puerto Rican." (source).
So how did he create his characters? How could he present an authentic view of the Puerto Rican experience in America?
Some people think he didn't. The lyrics in "America" ("and the natives steaming"); the failure to use Puerto Rican actors; the hyper-sexuality of Anita and Bernardo; Anita's dismissal of Puerto Rico as primitive and oppressive; Bernardo's refusal to accept Tony's offer of friendship; the depiction of the Sharks as the aggressors—all these can work to create stereotypes of Puerto Ricans as the "Other."
Of course, our society today has totally gotten over any anti-immigrant sentiment, and our cities are now peaceful melting-pot havens.
Questions About Race
- How much harder does Schrank come down on the Sharks than the Jets?
- What is it about the Puerto Ricans that sets them apart? Why do the Jets hate them?
- At what points do characters like Schrank drop the cover and just admit that they're racist?
- Are the Sharks racist as well? Why or why not?
Chew on This
Racism is one of the central problems in this story, the thing that sets the Jets and the Sharks against each other.
Race is just one part of the battle going on here. It's really about two groups at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder trying to prove that they're at least better than someone.