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Hollywood’s Portrayal of New York City Latinos: West Side Story and Maid in Manhattan

Hollywood’s Representation of Latinos

When speaking about the racially oppressed and the oppressors in the United States, society has trained us to think of white privilege and Black suffering. Occasionally, people will think of the hardships Asian communities endure, but this can be easily shrugged off as they are the model minority. The oppression of Native Americans is often ignored. And, how could Latinos be racially oppressed when the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” aren’t considered a race––but rather an ethnicity (Lopez, 2023)?


This has developed an unspoken ranking in our society: Who experiences more racism? Who is more oppressed? While often unnamed, the continuum of racial subordination does not go unacknowledged, “Blacks [receive] the worst treatment/benefits, and whites [receive] the best treatment/benefits and Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans [receive] worse treatment than whites, but better treatment than Blacks,” this ideology of hierarchy is called the Black/White Paradigm (Rogelio, 2005; Brown 2005). 


While we culturally uphold this doctrine, it is supported by the US government, as it explicitly states that Latino/Hispanic people are part of a broad ethnicity rather than a racial group. For example, question six of the 2020 U.S. Census asks, “Is this person of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origins?” with answers as no or multiple yeses with options of specific countries of origin. In turn, question seven seeks, “What is this person’s race?” and answers with white, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, various Asian countries, an array of Pacific Islander options, and a category for some other race (Lopez, 2023). 


US Census questions 6 and 7

With no option for Latino or Hispanic as a race, 27.6 million identify as two or more races (including yours truly), and 22.1 million single-race Hispanics identified as another race. Despite the US government's characterization of Latinos and Hispanics as an ethnicity rather than a race, a Pew Research Study showed that 57% of Latino adults say skin color and racism have impacted their daily lives (Lopez, 2023). Nevertheless, while Latinos do not have a place in the Black/white Paradigm, their place in society and on-screen has been encased in our popular culture. 


However, outside the bounds of our cultural hierarchy, Latino art is often casted to the wayside as its importance and need in our society are generally overlooked. Additionally, like all people of color, Latino voices are not given the power to dictate how these stories are told, allowing white minds to whitewash vital portrayals that reproduce inauthentic and negative caricatures. According to a University of California study, Latinos make up 19% of the United States population. Still, in the film industry, Latinos meet less than 5% of all lead or co-lead characters (in the last 16 years and out of 1,600 films) (Case, 2023). 


This made selecting films I’ve seen with Latino leads that a mainstream stream audience would have seen extremely difficult, especially when attempting to analyze a broad range of characters and stereotypes. However, I was unable to truly achieve that goal, as 43% of characters in 2022 films worked as maids, in construction, cashiers, bartenders, chauffeurs, seamstresses, or doormen, and another, 33.6% were depicted as criminals (Case, 2023). With 76.6% of characters in modern-day films in these categories, I realized that highlighting the wrongdoing of mainstream classics, like West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, USA, 1961) and Maid in Manhattan (Wayne Wang, USA, 2002), is vital. Especially since New York City currently has 2,464,120 Latinos, a whopping 29% of the city’s population (U.S. Census).…and because I was unable to select two films out of these categories. (After all, Jane from Jane The Virgin is a waiter, Wednesday Addams from Wednesday breaks countless laws, Ana Garcia from Real Women Have Curves is a seamstress, and half the characters in In The Heights are hairdressers and cab drivers). 


Maid in Manhattan poster

At first glance, what could be wrong with Maid in Manhattan? It's about two beautiful people falling in love and overcoming social pressures of race and class. While Marisa Ventura's (Jennifer Lopez) and Christopher Marshall’s (Ralph Fiennes) chemistry effortlessly hypnotizes audiences, an allegory hides and promotes themes of immigration, racism, and stereotypes. More specifically, the film minimizes Marisa’s Latina nature while simultaneously holding her to Latino stereotypes, ultimately degrading what it means to be Latino and how Latinidad culture is represented in media. 



The film takes on a journey similar to Cinderella. Once upon a time, Marisa is cleaning the room of villainous Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson) when Stephanie Kehoe (Marissa Matrone) convinces Marisa to try on an ensemble piece Caroline has asked her to return. When Marisa’s son, Ty Ventura (Tyler Posey), asks his mom if he can go on a walk with Chris and his dog Rufus. Marisa walks out in a glamorous Dolce & Gabbana jacket. Gobsmacked, Chris insists that Marisa must join them. Never recognizing that she was the maid cleaning his bathroom and needing to hide the fact that she was wearing a guest’s clothes, Marissa called herself Caroline Lane, erasing her Latina identity by removing the maid trope and the Spanish name.


Furthermore, the film depicts an interesting dynamic with what it means to be Latino and the term itself. For example, Marisa's mother, Veronica Ventura (Priscilla Lopez), has a noticeable unnamed Latina accent, acknowledging her immigration to the United States but never fully connecting to a country of origin. This erases key differences in Latino cultures, melting countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America into an overarching Latinidad culture (Liberato, 2009). 


Additionally, on multiple occasions, Marisa states she is from the Bronx. At first glance, this is strong New York City/borough pride, but in actuality, this incorporates shame into Marisa’s Latina identity as she never pridefully claims her racial/ethnic background. Veronica’s storyline depicts being Latino as a racial archetype rather than an overarching term that connects people of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds together. Marisa’s behavior depicts shame, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Veronica. 


By strategically separating herself from her ethnic culture, she enters a form of racial untethered-ness due to the legal definitions of “Latino” and “Hispanic.” In fact, after their first unofficial date, when Chris stumbles upon the blonde Caroline Lane, he searches for Marisa, asking people if they have seen a “five foot six Mediterranean looking woman.” This strips Marisa of her racial identity, allowing her to assume New York and the US as her true culture, resulting in ownership of mainstream media, also known as white culture. In short, as Marisa runs from her Latin roots, she heads towards assimilation, which will get her into a hotel manager position (Knadler, 2005). 

But, when Marisa is dressed in her maid’s uniform, her physical features immediately identify her as Latina, at least in the eyes of the real Caroline Lane, who misnames Marisa “Maria” until the catalysis of Act Three. When Carolina learns Marisa’s name, she accuses and assumes that Marisa lied about her name. When in actuality, Marisa didn’t want to correct her; this shows how she goes above and beyond to be a good maid and coworker. Small blocking motifs support this theme, which pushes her coworkers to apply for a management position on Marisa’s behalf, and it’s why management wants to hire her: Marisa is a good Latina


A good Latina is the ideal woman of color, a hard worker, family focused, heteronormative and responsive, passive, and apolitical (or too busy to be politically forthright); this portrays Marisa as the lap dog to the whims of hegemonic culture. In order for her to succeed, she must obey the social and racial hierarchy, so Marisa attempts to stray away from her identity as a first-generation Latino American, climbing towards the “American dream,” Veronica reminds her of the inequalities they have faced due to their racial/ethnic background and xenophobia, which heightens the conflict between the pair (Knadler, 2005). This oppression is highlighted as she dates outside her class and race, lying to do it, ultimately challenging this convention. The only way for the narrative to make sense is to reframe Marisa as another Latino stereotype, a criminal. By “borrowing” Caroline Lane’s coat and identity, Marisa loses her job, and she sheds her good Latina identity (Knadler, 2005). 


Rebirthed and free, she publicly talks down to Christopher, calling out his behavior and general Latino mistreatment in the US, “Come on, half the time I’m some stereotype that they’re making fun of. The other half of the time, I’m just invisible” (1:24) Unfortunately, this powerful truth doesn’t linger, as Christopher saves her from her terrible fate as the help. In the credits, we see Chris and Marisa happily married and successful, depicting how she needed her white savior to thrive in this world. As learned in The Blind Side, The Help, and the White Savior genre, the characters of color struggle with social order as the white knight comes and saves the day (Hughey, 2012). Maid in Manhattan depicts the classic Latino stereotypes of maids and criminals, all while enforcing a positive yet derogatory image of a Latina woman. 


Unlike Maid in Manhattan, West Side Story does not rely on the white savior narrative but portrays the dichotomy between white Americans and Puerto Ricans (who are also Americans). Based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story takes place in New York City in the 1950s. The families Montague and Capulet are reimagined as one's chosen family for these teenagers, their gangs: The Jets and The Sharks. 


Tony (Richard Beymer), retired gang leader of the Jets, attends the dance where his best friend, Riff (Russ Tamblyn) suggests a rumble to the opposing leader, Bernando (George Chakiris). Bernando eagerly agrees because mere moments earlier, from across the room, Tony’s eyes meet Maria’s (Natalie Wood), and as they are physically drawn to each other, they begin to dance. But the Jets and Sharks do not care that the whole room falls away as Maria and Tony first meet; all they see is that this relationship is a nonstarter. And like Romeo and Juliet, it ends in heartbreak.


Nevertheless, a heartbreaking aspect is the stereotypical and violent portrayal of Latino/Puerto Rican people. Films often paint Latino men as violent, with stereotypes as criminal thugs, and gang leaders––synonyms that describe all the Shark and Jets members. But with an infinite number of white men on screen, the Jets are not stereotypes but specific characters sharing a story. The Sharks, however, reinstate their socio and economic class, emphasizing their otherness and their place in the racial hierarchy, below the white folks. Crime/violent centered films “created notions of Latino inferiority based on class-specific presumptions of power and masculinity. The narrative suggests that Latinos lack the assertiveness and brilliance of the tough white gangster” (Liberato, 2009, p.948). In other words, their misused masculinity is their own downfall, and as they are not smart enough to control it, they will bring down others as they fail. In terms of West Side Story, this failure resulted in the death of multiple Jets and Sharks members.



Despite the negative representation, West Side Story does give Latinos a space to air their grievances; here, we can see how the harmful depiction of Latino masculinity shapes the men and women’s points of view. In the song “America,” the Puerto Rican women sing about what they love in the US, and the men refute their statements. 


Life can be bright in America (Women)

If you can fight in America (Men)

Life is all right in America (Women)

If you're all white in America (Men)


In this stanza, the women are hopeful, but the men disagree as they are tied to this destructive chauvinism. As this quotation summarizes their lives and foreshadows the rumble, the Sharks (and the Jets, for that matter) are unable to stop themselves as  “the ‘machismo’...castrates, manipulates and controls other people’s individuality and identity and that conceives interactions with other people through the lenses of clearly delineated hierarchies, where somebody always has a recognized power over others” (Liberato, 2009, 953). Fated by stereotypes and racist ideology, these men could never feel as if their life is all right in America because they understand the importance of race and the privilege of whiteness. (The film features the women as seamstresses, a job in the same stereotypical genre as a maid, but the detriment of microaggressions was less focused on at this time. They do mention this archetype in “America” with “free to wait tables and shine shoes.”)


While this analysis has been focused on the 1961 West Side Story, the 2021 reboot has similar themes as the storylines are the same, with some minor variations on how the film is expressed. For example, the Puerto Rican characters in the film are played by white actors, except for Anita (Antia). The Sharks added makeup to darken their skin, including Rita Moreno, who was born in Puerto Rico, spoke in Puerto Rican accents, and incorporated Puerto Rican Spanish into their dialogue in order to authentically embody Purto Ricans and Latinos (Benchetrit, 2021). This unequivocally whitewashes what this race, ethnicity, and culture means to those who identify in this group and how mainstream media views them. Thankfully, the 2021 version incorporates a spectrum of color in the Latino cast, including Ariana DeBose, an Afro-Latina woman. While it is excellent that Latino characters were, in fact, played by Latinos, this does not fix the problem: it fixes a problem. Rita Moreno herself said Latino representation in television and film “hasn’t changed anywhere near enough…in some respects, it has gotten better. In some respects it’s pretty much the same…I think we’re represented so poorly in film and television”  (Benchetrit, 2021). And how can it be when this representation relies on the same stereotypes?


Ultimately, as long as we continue to culturally uphold the Black/white paradigm pitting races against each other, playing who is more oppressed, all people of color will suffer as hegemonic powers will continue to dominate. While Maid in Manhattan and West Side Story share Latino storylines, representation in film and television is more just than being on screen or sharing their stories. “Representation must be coupled with issues of reception so as to get beyond preferred readings and explore a possible interpretation among the Latina community and issues of production, as well as to explore the agency that individual actors may have” (Valdivia, 1998, p393).  These films are unable to be well receptive because of the harm they will perpetuate and the belief systems they uphold. To dissolve the significance of the Black/white paradigm in our society, we need Latino representation on screen as it will hopefully mirror the improvement in our society or show us a path forward. When Latino doctors, lawyers, scientists, and artists are featured on screen written, produced, and directed by Latino creatives, the racial hierarchy that dictates Latino’s social and economic structure will no longer be a stereotype, and new opportunities might be reached.




 

Benchetrit, J. (2021, December 11). The New West Side Story movie is attempting to cast Latino performers in a better light | CBC news. CBCnews. https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/west-side-story-latino-representation-1.6278442#:~:text=When%20Rita%20Moreno%20starred%20as,makeup%20that%20darkened%20their%20skin


Brown Dorothy A., Moving Beyond The Black/White Paradigm: An Introduction, 12 Wash. & Lee J. Civ. Rts. & Soc. Just. 1 (2005). Available at: htps://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/crsj/vol12/iss1/3  


Case, A., Smith, S. L., & Pieper, K. (2023). Hispanic/Latino Representation in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,600 Popular Movies. USC Annenberg. https://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-inequality-in-1600-popular-films-20230811.pdf   

Hughey, M. W. (2012). Racializing Redemption, Reproducing Racism: The Odyssey of Magical Negroes and White Saviors. Sociology Compass, 6(9), 751–767. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.1111/j.1751-9020.2012.00486.x 


Knadler, S. (2005). “Blanca from the Block”: Whiteness and the Transnational Latina Body. Genders, 41.


Liberato, A. Q., Rebollo-Gil, G., Foster, J., & Moras, A. (2009). Latinidad and Masculinidad in Hollywood scripts. Ethnic & Racial Studies, 32(6), 948–966. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.1080/01419870802334549


Lopez, M. H., Krogstad, J. M., & Passel, J. S. (2023, September 5). Who is Hispanic?. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/09/05/who-is-hispanic/#:~:text=In%201976%2C%20the%20U.S.%20Congress,their%20origin%20or%20descent%20from  


Lasso, Rogelio A. Some Potential Casualties of Moving Beyond the  Black/White Paradigm to Build Racial Coalitions, 12 WASH. & LEE J. C.R. & SOC. JUST.  80  (2005).

U.S. Census Bureau . (n.d.). U.S. Census Bureau Quickfacts: New York City, New York. U.S. Census Bureau Quickfacts: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/newyorkcitynewyork/POP010220  


Valdivia, A. N. (1998). STEREOTYPE OR TRANSGRESSION? Rosie Perez In Hollywood Film. Sociological Quarterly, 39(3), 393–408. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.1111/j.1533-8525.1998.tb00510.x 


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