The Volokh Conspiracy

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What Do You Get When You Cross a Colombian with a European? A Shark?


Judging by the reviews, the new West Side Story movie sounds awesome. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

But I remain perplexed by the hullabaloo over the casting of Maria. Critics argued that the original 1961 movie was insensitive to Puerto Rican culture, in part because most of the Puerto Rican characters, the "Sharks" and the women in their circle, were played by white, non-Puerto Rican actors.

So, as I noted a while back on Volokh, director Steven Spielberg hired all sorts of cultural and diversity consultants and this is what he and they came up with:

"When we began this process a year ago, we announced that we would cast the roles of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino and the Sharks with Latina and Latino actors. I'm so happy that we've assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America's multifaceted Hispanic community," said Spielberg. "I am in awe of the sheer force of the talent of these young performers, and I believe they'll bring a new and electrifying energy to a magnificent musical that's more relevant than ever." ….

"I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast," said [Rachel] Zegler. "West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community."

I commented at Instapundit at the time:

Why do Puerto Rican characters in West Side Story need to be played by Latinos, but not Italian characters by people of Italian or (better yet, given the demographics of New York's Italian community, specifically Sicilian) descent? Why is having a Colombian American a politically correct choice to play a Puerto Rican? What do Colombia and Puerto Rico have in common besides different dialects of the Spanish language? If you were trying to cast an Australian of 1960, would casting an English-speaking actor from the US, or India, be "authentic"? Isn't kind of insulting to assume that all Spanish-speaking countries are interchangeable?

Meanwhile, Zegler, it turns out, is only half-Columbia. "Her father is of Polish ancestry on his own father's side, and of Irish, German, and Italian ancestry." In fact, assuming all the Sharks are Puerto Rican, and the Jets a mix of European ancestries, Zegler's ethnic background fits in better with the Jets than with the Sharks–unless, again, one assumes that all Latino subgroups are interchangeable. And for what it's worth, on the 2000 census sixty-two percent of Colombian Americans marked their "race" as white, one of the higher percentages among Hispanic groups.

In retrospect, I respect the fact that part of the issue here is ensuring that Latino actors do not get passed over for roles as they did in the past. But if the issue is instead cultural sensitivity, to Puerto Ricans, I still don't see why it's more culturally sensitive to Puerto Ricans to cast a half-Columbian, half-European actress from New Jersey as Maria, as opposed to a half-Russian, half-Armenian actress (Natalie Wood). Neither of them, after all, are Puerto Rican.

I was going to end the post there, but thinking about it further, I suppose some see Hispanics as a race, or at least as a quasi-race, and therefore Zegler is playing a character of the same race, given the historical American norm that "White And" = And. I'm not a fan of that norm, nor do I find the notion that Hispanics, who are multi-racial (just as Americans are), are a race congenial.

UPDATE: Over at the Daily Beast, Mandy Valdez wonders, "Why Can't 'West Side Story' Just Cast a Puerto Rican Maria?" As implied above, I'm not sympathetic to the argument that characters of a certain ethnicity must be played by an actor of that ethnicity. But, again, if you are going that route, it strikes me as at best clumsy and at worst offensive to suggest that you meet that demand by having a native-born American of half-Colombian, half-European descent play a migrant from Puerto Rico.