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Blanca Vázquez, a professor at Hunter College within the City University of New York, remembers vacationing in Greece in the late 1980s and being introduced as a Puerto Rican from New York. The reaction was immediate, says the long-time activist, whose work focuses on Puerto Rican and other Latino issues: “Ah, Puerto Rican? West Side Story! Knives!”
That reaction, she says, was typical of people whose only exposure to the Puerto Rican culture had been the Academy Award-winning 1961 film, which was based on the 1957 musical. “West Side Story was how Puerto Ricans were introduced to the world,” Vázquez says. Ironically, “most Puerto Ricans never saw the musical,” she adds. “We didn’t have the money to go to the theater. We saw the movie. And many non-Puerto Ricans who saw the movie had never met a Puerto Rican.”
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Even so, some Puerto Ricans loved the film simply because it made them a key part of the tale. “My family and friends thought ‘Great, a movie that has Puerto Rican characters in it,’” says Angelo Falcón, 57, president of the nonprofit National Institute for Latino Policy. “It wasn’t until after the civil rights movement and the Puerto Rican empowerment movement [from the 1960s to the 1980s] that we viewed it in retrospect and thought, ‘Oh my God, it makes us look like we’re all in a gang.’”
A new bilingual production of West Side Story coming to Broadway this spring could deepen that perception. Written and directed by its original librettist, Arthur Laurents, the new production aims for a more realistic portrayal of 1950s New York, including dialogue in Spanish and an unvarnished look at the Sharks and the Jets. “Both sides were villains,” says Laurents, 90. “They’re so poor, they fight over who’s king of the hill of this particular block. It makes them vicious. That attitude is not restricted to any one nationality. The gang members were all out and out killers.”
Violence, a hallmark of the turf wars that historically dominated New York City, earned one section of Manhattan’s West Side the alias of Hell’s Kitchen even before the West Side Story era. Spanning roughly from 34th to 59th streets, and Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, Hell’s Kitchen was a gritty, rough place that was true to its unofficial name.
Now a ritzy enclave known as Midtown West, from the 1930s through the 1960s Hell’s Kitchen was the bastion of working-class Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Greece, and Italy—and anything but glamorous. Families lived hand to mouth; many teenagers dropped out of high school to work and help their parents make ends meet. Gangs claimed blocks or park sections as their turf. A few fights ended tragically, making headlines. By the late 1950s, in fact, gang culture had proliferated beyond the boundaries of Hell’s Kitchen to all five boroughs of New York City.
Contrary to the exotic, foreign image that the film and musical versions of West Side Story projected of the Puerto Rican Sharks versus the “American” Jets, many immigrant kids in Hell’s Kitchen were bilingual and bicultural: “Everyone except the Irish spoke a foreign language at home with their parents,” says John Montero, a former West Side resident whose story follows.
And despite the tensions that West Side Story highlighted between Puerto Ricans and the kids of European immigrants, members of both communities often mingled and even married. “The 1950s was actually a time when, for Puerto Ricans, you said you were American, not Puerto Rican,” Vázquez says. “The Puerto Rican movement didn’t really start until later, with the Young Lords in the 1960s.”
In fact, the West Side even beyond Hell’s Kitchen, say those who know best—the people who lived there—was much more than gang rivalries. Rather, it was also an endearing place full of characters, immigrant optimism, a strong work ethic and friendships that would last a lifetime.
Here, in their own words, is what it was really like.
Being a skinny kid and carrying a violin case around Hell’s Kitchen could have attracted trouble in a place where a tough exterior was an asset. But John Montero, who was born to a Puerto Rican custodian and a seamstress in Manhattan, got by on his quiet charm and likeability.
He lived in a Hell’s Kitchen tenement for a decade, until 1940, before Puerto Ricans moved into the area in large numbers about 20 years later. He hung around with a group of mostly Greek American kids who lived on his block, 53rd Street, between Ninth and Tenth avenues.
The best way to stay out of trouble was to know your place, which generally was the block you lived on, he says. “One block was Italian, another block was Polish, and the Irish block—you didn’t want to just wander in there, where the Irish were,” says Montero, 82, during an interview in his warm, airy home in suburban Bergenfield, New Jersey, about 25 miles from where he grew up. “The Irish were the toughest, and you’d find trouble if you went into their territory” on 54th Street, just one short block away from his own home, he recalls.
Growing up on the West Side meant playing stickball, stoopball and marbles in the middle of the street with your friends. A highlight was riding scooters down the incline between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, which spanned the length of about three city blocks. “We were poor, so we’d make the scooters ourselves,” Montero says. “We’d get discarded fruit crates from the supermarkets, cut out a two-by-four for the base. Then we put the box on top, and nail on wheels from old roller skates, and you had yourself a scooter that ran pretty well.”
Montero did not see the original Broadway production of West Side Story, but remembers thinking the film was “strange” and “nothing like the place and people—that includes the Greeks, Italians, Puerto Ricans—I knew.
“The film had a part where one guy took a knife and attacked someone with it, and another part where a gun was used to kill Tony,” Montero says. “The truth is, we didn’t have weapons. In fact, the groups looked down on weapons. You were considered a coward if someone thought you had a weapon; and I never knew or even heard about anyone who did… Like you weren’t tough enough to fight natural, with your fists.”
Then again, Montero says with a laugh, “Our group had Tony.”