“America” from West Side Story is one of my favorite Broadway show tunes. I love the catchy rhythm, sharp choreography, and clever exchanges about immigrant life in the United States. For example:
Girls: Industry boom in America
Boys: Twelve in a room in America
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 
I never understood the meaning of the song, however, until I started studying immigrant history. I realized that “America” captures the essence of the immigrant experience in the United States: for millions of immigrants—including the Puerto Rican “Sharks” in West Side Story—the United States simultaneously represented a hope for a better life and a constant struggle against racism and other forms of injustice. “America” explores this tension between hope and injustice for 1950s Puerto Ricans immigrating in search of better economic circumstances. The relationship between hope and injustice evolved in the civil rights era, and one of the byproducts was the Young Lords Party (YLP), a Puerto Rican nationalist group established in the 1960s. The YLP organized in American cities to demand a better life for Puerto Ricans, which included solutions to problems such as poverty and racism.
The story of Puerto Rican immigration to the United States is a complex one, but a primary cause of immigration was the hope of finding jobs and wealth in the United States. The economic situations of Puerto Ricans were closely tied to American commercial interests in Latin America. Around the first half of the twentieth century, the United States government and American corporations invested in Latin American industries such as sugar production. American investment disrupted the productivity of small farmers, so many farmers and their families moved to America in search of better economic opportunities.  More Puerto Ricans emigrated during World War II to fill wartime jobs. After the war, continued American investment brought poverty and unemployment, which encouraged record numbers to leave for the United States.
Even though America promised to offer terrace apartments and booming industrial jobs, these opportunities were often denied to foreign immigrants. Instead, new arrivals found discrimination (“Lots of doors slamming in our face,” “Better get rid of your accent”), which led to unemployment and poverty (“Twelve in a room in America”). The YLP saw capitalism as the root of the problems plaguing the Puerto Rican community.  Using tactics like civil disobedience, the YLP organized to combat the elitism, racism, and greed in American society.  The YLP’s ultimate aim was to create a society in which “the needs of the people (came) first.”  To the YLP, America represented more than hope and oppression; it was a place where they could actively fight injustices to ameliorate their circumstances.
This active approach to advancement through fighting injustice was, in part, a product of the contemporary civil rights movement. Like other minorities, Puerto Ricans demanded social change, an end to discrimination, and an improvement in the lives of the impoverished.  Point eight of the party’s Thirteen Point Program and Platform (1969) even appropriated the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” using its Spanish translation, venceremos. 
The hopes Puerto Ricans brought to America contrasted with the injustices they found upon arrival. A line from “America” perfectly expresses the dynamic between hope and disappointment:
Girls: Life is all right in America
Boys: If you’re all white in America 
But Puerto Rican immigrants and their descendents continued to believe that they could improve their circumstances. Despite their demise in the 1970s, the YLP translated the enduring hope for jobs, a decent living, education, healthcare, and fair treatment into action. The YLP and other contemporary organizations fought to ensure that life was all right in America, even for those who weren’t “white.”
 West Side Story-America (1961 film version), YouTube video, posted by bravenewworld711, February 19, 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy6wo2wpT2k, 3:36-3:56.
 Mike Wallace, “Nueva York: The Back Story.” In Nueva York, ed. Edward J. Sullivan. (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2010), 57, 64, 69; Iris Morales, “Power to the People,” in !Palante, Siempre Palante! Companion Book, 6.
 “We face an energy crisis, a food crisis, a water crisis…. All symptoms of the same sickness—a global system based on greed and monetary gain.” Morales, 11.
 Ibid., 2, 4.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 1.
 Michael Abramson and the Young Lords Party, Pa’Lante: The Young Lords Party (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 150.
 West Side Story-America (1961 film version), 4:00-4:07.