How West Side Story reflects the Criminalization of Immigrants in America in 1960 and 2018 

West Side Story is a 1961 film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical, which is a modern (for the time) retelling of Romeo and Juliet, in which the feud between the Capulets and Montagues is replaced with a feud between two rival gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The song “America” sung by the Sharks describes the hopes the Puerto Rican’s had in coming to America, but how they have been snuffed out by the rampant racism facing them (the male Sharks are much more pessimistic about life in America than the female Sharks).

One line from the argument leading up to this song and dance number stuck out to me the most, “You’re the Spic, and you go back in handcuffs,” said by one of the women. While the line doesn’t seem so out of place in a show that focuses on gang members and gang violence as similar issues with the law shows up in Jet scenes such as “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but when thinking about how relevant the issues of that movie are relevant today, it sheds light on how immigrants, particularly asylum seekers are villainized and wrongfully criminalized, the most topical example being the frenzy over the “caravan.” From exaggerations to blatant lies, the Trump administration has done almost everything to terrify the American public about a large group of asylum seekers trying to enter America from the southern border.

The Department of Homeland Security sent a statement to The Washington Post, “We stand by our previous release that there are a large number of individuals with criminal convictions traveling with the caravan flow. In fact, we have identified an additional 200 criminals in this group since our prior statement” (Kessler, 2018). Kessler then went on to refute that statement, discovering that the 200-300 estimate of identified criminals is from the group that was already deported from Mexico for having criminal records.

Those coming to our border are in fact fleeing criminals in their own country, and yet the U.S. Military is sent to meet them, sending the message to the country that they are somehow dangerous and to be feared (Kinosian, 2018). While this is an extreme example, that trickles down into our everyday lives, influencing people’s perceptions of those around them and encouraging prejudices. And sadly it’s not very different from the early half of the 20th century. As star of the film Rita Moreno says about her childhood in The Dancer Within, “I was Puerto Rican in New York City at a time when it was not good to be a Latina’” (Eichenbaum, 2008, p.127).

This negative attitude against Latinx citizens that Moreno experienced in her childhood is still prevalent in our society today, although of a different and modern breed, and will need a lot of hard work to overcome to create an equal society for all. Until then, our art will reflect the harsh realities of our world.