At a community screening hosted by Centro, the scene in which the Sharks sing the revolutionary anthem was met with not applause or celebration or any visible reaction at all, just silence.
Mr. Spielberg said that he chose not to use subtitles, so as not to give “English the power over the Spanish.” But the question of identity and language is complicated, and not all Latinos speak Spanish. When words are not translated their meaning and power can be easily lost. In one scene, Anita, played by Ariana DeBose, an Afro-Latina who identifies as queer, confronts her boyfriend, Bernardo, after he excludes her from a family conversation. She asks him if he’s rebuking her because she’s “prieta,” a derogatory term for someone with dark skin. This denunciation of colorism will likely be lost on English speakers.
The over-accented Spanish, coaxed out of U.S.-born actors by dialect coaches, ultimately becomes a kind of linguistic brownface, providing little more than a facade of authenticity as thick and corny as the brown makeup worn by the actors in the original version. Was the point to make a film that speaks more authentically to a Latino public? Or one that non-Latinos would feel less guilty producing and consuming?
One bright spot of the remake is certainly the portrayal of Anita as unapologetically Black. In the 1961 version of the song “America,” Anita is so happy to leave the island, she wishes it would “sink back in the ocean.” In the reworked version of the song, the more disparaging lines about Puerto Rico are gone: Anita now sings ambivalently about both Puerto Rican and American life. Suddenly we find ourselves asking: How does her particular experience tinge her view of both Puerto Rican and American life?
Here is where the remake feels, for a moment, authentic to the experiences of Puerto Ricans — not just those who migrated in the 1940s and ’50s but also those who continue to be displaced in the wake of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, energy crisis and multiple disasters. It is Black women like Anita who often most directly feel the effects of fiscal austerity, decaying infrastructure, abandoned schools and rising costs of living.
Yet the songs of Puerto Rican migration have nothing in common with “America.” “En Mi Viejo San Juan” and “Boricua en la Luna” speak of the pain of exile, the permanent hope of return and of a deeply rooted identity that spans generations. This is the true Puerto Rican tragedy: the painful impossibility of both assimilation and return.
Some will argue that Mr. Spielberg’s production will pave the way for more Latino stories to grace the big screen. But I can’t help but wonder if the opposite is true. After the new film’s disappointing showing at the box office, will movie studios feel there is little audience for Latino-driven films? In the movie theater in San Juan’s Plaza las Américas, “West Side Story” may have distracted from other films written and produced by Puerto Rican filmmakers, like the dark comedy “Perfume de Gardenias” and the political documentary “Simulacros de Liberación.”