Life is All Right in America…If You’re All White in America

“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 [1]

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. [2] 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.

Emigration from Puerto Rico, 1900-1990, courtesy Lehman College Department of Latin American & Puerto Rican Studies, http://lcw.lehman.edu/lehman/depts/latinampuertorican/

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. [3] Using tactics like civil disobedience, the YLP organized to combat the elitism, racism, and greed in American society. [4] The YLP’s ultimate aim was to create a society in which “the needs of the people (came) first.” [5] 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. [6] 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. [7]

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 [8]

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.”

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] “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.

[4] Ibid., 2, 4.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid., 1.

[7] Michael Abramson and the Young Lords Party, Pa’Lante: The Young Lords Party (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 150.

[8] West Side Story-America (1961 film version), 4:00-4:07.

10 thoughts on “Life is All Right in America…If You’re All White in America

  1. I really liked your choice of West Side Story as a framework to interpret this week’s readings. If well done, musicals can effectively convey important historical themes and concepts by providing a human face for them. I saw Miss Saigon when I was in middle school and it was one of my first exposures to the themes and legacy of the Vietnam War. When I learned about the Vietnam War in high school I couldn’t help but refer to the doomed love story of American GI Chris and Vietnamese girl Kim. For better or worse, Miss Saigon was one of my frames of reference when dealing with the topic and educators/historians need to be conscious of that.

    That being said, historians also need to be careful when mining musicals and other forms of entertainment for their historical content. Lyrics, plots and characters tend to be exaggerated, bombastic and simplified for the sake of a rhyme. In this case, however, I think you’ve done a good job combining a recognizable example and historical scholarship to prove your point.

  2. I also love your West Side Story references, but agree with Sarah that analysis of musicals and other modes of entertainment for historical content can be problematic. While the portrayal of information can tell us a bit about the writer or artist, their political, social, or cultural values, its actual content is a different matter.

    On a different note, another thing that I found interesting in the foreword written by Iris Morales was the cyclical movement between Puerto Rico and the U.S.–while movement into the U.S. was more numerous, the YLP did open two branches in Puerto Rico in the 1970s. Unfortunately, their efforts didn’t work out, and they decided their efforts needed to be focused on the U.S. I guess what interests me is the dichotomy of identity here: A desire to maintain an ethnic identity while also working for equality. Furthermore, and I think ironically, during their fight for rights, the organization itself was extremely hierarchical and leader-driven.

    1. Thanks! I, too, believe that mining musicals can be problematic, which is why I chose a broad theme from history that was fortuitously illustrated by a song. I guess my process was different, with historical ideas first (developed through research and analysis of scholarly sources), and then musical example second. Also, along with your point, I think musicals and other forms of entertainment are really good windows into a particular culture’s/group’s/person’s weltanschauung. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics about hope and injustice were therefore filtered through his worldview. Is this because the theme of hope for a better life while coping with injustices was so pervasive for immigrant groups and their descendants in the US?

      1. I was just listening to NPR and they were re-airing interviews with Arthur Laurents. He was the author of the script for West Side Story among other great musicals. He just passed away last Thursday (R.I.P.).

        In the interview he said he first conceived of West Side Story on a trip to Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to re-interpret Romeo and Juliet and he was struck by the Chicano and African American gang problem that was emerging in the early ’50s in LA. When he got back to New York he pitched the idea to Sondheim. Sondheim didn’t think there was the same kind of gangs in New York, so he thought they should focus on a story about African American and Jewish gangs. Gradually, input from the producers helped them settle on Puerto Rican gangs.

        I think this story is very interesting because it shows the universality of the story of West Side Story for many immigrant groups. The stereotypes of Puerto Ricans in West Side Story abound. I think that although the musical is stereotypical it brings to light some of the struggles faced by Puerto Ricans. For many people this musical was the only interaction they had with Puerto Rican history and society. In schools today, students do not really learn about the history of Puerto Rican immigration. You do not learn a lot about it in either American History or Latin American History classes because Puerto Rico exists in a limbo, where it is not really part of the United States and not really part of Latin America. It is from this limbo that the Puerto Rican struggle is based.

  3. I think it is important to add one word to better describe Puerto Rican immigration to the United States: colonialism. While this could easily devolve into a debate about dependency theory, the lyrics of “America” offer a contrast between the hopes and realities of the immigrant experience. Still without remedy almost two decades later, groups like the Young Lords began to take action on behalf of the Puerto Rican immigrant community which was largely still caught in the hands of colonial poverty. I think the takeover of the Lincoln Hospital offers a great example of this, as the group sought to improve life in a community that was exploited and then neglected by the government.

    1. So true. Every immigrant or minority group, from Native Americans to African-Americans, has its own particular issues. The Puerto Rican community is unique due to its history of colonialism. Most contemporary Americans don’t think much about our colonial past as colonialism is considered a European thing. However, it is very much part of the American story.

      I wonder whether it would be instructive to look at colonial and post-colonial communities and their relationship to the dominant culture in places like England or France. I imagine that one could find some very interesting connections between the experiences of Jamaicans in England, or Algerians in France, and the Puerto Rican community in the United States.

  4. As a one-time performer in West Side Story, I will always have a personal connection to that show. I was a Jet and obviously in the show we clash with the Sharks. As a senior in high school (not to mention my history studies), I certainly realized the social message of the show. But now I come to wonder if this resonated with anyone else in the cast. Undoubtedly, the emotional nature of the show resonates from a human perspective, but how deeply do people take the social ramifications?

    For example, we had a huge turnout for our show because people love West Side Story. Two of the numbers with the greatest social message, “America” and “Officer Krupke,” were also some of the most popular in the show. However, they were also the silliest and showiest. I think this can be a problem with shows, especially musicals. The showmanship and general feeling of the musical can overshadow the message. And as many of you have also stated, that message can be distorted or adjusted for the sake of the stage performance.

    Despite some of these drawbacks, I will always have an interest and appreciation for very poignant and thought-invoking theater. Olivia, I appreciate your insight into Puerto Rican life in American and the fine use of West Side Story.

    1. Not mine, Matty, although I must admit it’s pretty tempting to take credit for somebody else’s hard work and fine use of West Side Story. Kudos should be directed to Sweetheart.

      There’s kind of a cool juxtaposition going on with these two blogs today. In Manahan’s post, we have art as most people think of it–paintings, posters, the kind of traditional works that you would associate with a museum. Here, ABC discusses a more popular kind of art–film. The art Manahan talked about was created by Latin Americans as a commentary on the struggles of their community, while this musical, as Christine pointed out, was definitely NOT created by members of that community. We all know which one proved to be way more popular. As several people have pointed out, watching West Side Story has been many children’s only schooling on the Puerto Rican community. I think it’s unavoidable that children will continue to be introduced to diverse communities through movies and other types of popular art that may not necessarily be accurate. That’s why it’s so important that schools be encouraged to visit museums and cultural centers where kids can temper their popular culture-driven understanding of other ethnic groups with the actual art and culture of these groups.

      1. It is an interesting juxtaposition in that these art forms were centered around a similar historical topic, but were created for vastly different reasons based upon who was the artist. The people highlighted in my blog were born in Puerto Rico, and then moved to America for schooling and to establish themselves. With the makers of West Side Story, the historical context is somewhere in the story, but it is not the focus of the musical. It is still a human experience story, based around forbidden love. I wonder what the musical would have been like had it been written by a Latin American dealing with that situation and if it would have permeated the American community as much as Sodheim’s West Side Story lyrics did.

      2. I agree with Olivia that that many people are not always versed in other ethnic cultures outside of popular culture. Though I do agree that many cultures should be celebrated and that the 1960s was a great spring board for inclusion and awareness of various cultures, I am more interested in the possibility of a balancing of awareness and collective story of American history. Each group we have studied created their own opportunities for awareness and equality, with mixed results. Today ethnic diversity is celebrated and has become a celebrated feature of American identity, though I wonder if there is a possibility of being too separated. It seems the issue of being both “American” within a shared culture and yet ethnically apart and unique is a feature that plagues each of the groups we discussed this semester. I wonder at whether there is a way (or if we have created away) in which this reconciliation of identity can be created both on the individual and national level.

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