Saturday, February 14, 2015

if you're all white in america

Sample lyrics from America from West Side Story:

STAGE:SCREEN:
Puerto Rico
You ugly islandMy heart's devotion
Island of tropical diseasesLet it slip back in the ocean
Always the hurricanes blowing
Always the population growing
And the money owing
And the babies cryingAnd the sunlight streaming
And the bullets flyingAnd the natives steaming
I like the island Manhattan
Smoke on your pipe and put that in

I like to be in America
OK by me in America
Ev'rything free in America
For a small fee in America

Only minor changes, but it makes the movie version just a little nicer to Puerto Rico. Sandoval-Sanchez (1999) is not as kind as I am; he writes, "In the film version, this scene, which, in the original text is a racist and defamatory articulation toward Puerto Rico, was revised in order to soften the negative attitude toward Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican immigrants" (p. 72). Elsewhere, Sandoval-Sanchez seems to be arguing that the film, like the play, makes quite specific effort to put the onus for the violence on the Puerto Ricans over the Anglos. "The Jets skillfully transfer the concept of deadly weapons [onto] the Puerto Ricans" (p. 69). That is, the dialogue suggests that the weapon suggestions will only come from the Sharks; the Jets will merely be reciprocating. They will be responding to the invasion they compare to cockroaches. Unwanted, under foot, "the PRs can move in right under our noses and take it away." It's the ongoing American fear, that some new Other will ruin what we've got going.

A bit of retroactive projection, I'd say. We came an ruined what the natives had going, so we assume someone else will do the same to us. 1790, we restricted naturalization to "free white persons." We allowed blacks in after the Civil War, and Asians in the 1950s. 1921, the Emergency Quota Act limits post-World War I immigration from Europe--the incoming number from a given country can be no higher than 3% of the number of residents we already have from that country (per 1910's census numbers). The Immigration Act of 1924 dropped that to 2%. It also made it so that no alien who was ineligible to become a citizen (e.g. Chinese) could be admitted as an immigrant. Rubin and Melnick (2007) suggest that the limitations after World War I "created more job opportunities for Puerto Ricans in New York and elsewhere in the continental United States." I mentioned yesterday the hurricane in 1928 that increased Puerto Rican immigration numbers.

It's important to understand, though, that Puerto Ricans were not, strictly speaking, aliens. They were not foreigners. Since 1917, Puerto Ricans were citizens of the United States. Rubin and Melnick quote Padilla (1958) in suggesting that for Puerto Ricans leaving Puerto Rico for New York, they are not even going to a foreign land; to them, "New York is a Puerto Rican frontier" (p. 106, citing p. 24). And, unlike so many other immigrants, Puerto Ricans came by plane and cross no national borders. Jaime Carrero (1964) called this flight the "Neo-Rican Jetliner" (or, more accurately, the jet neorriqueno). NeoRican, or Nuyorican literature of the 1960s and 70s "expressed the harsh reality of poverty, discrimination, racism, and disillusionment confronted by Puerto Ricans" (Perez y Gonzalez, 2000, p. 155). Since some of these writers took a militant stance, Perez y Gonzalez laments, "Unfortunately, the content of Nuyorican literature became associated with antisocial behavior, including the drug scene, prison, and criminal activity" (ibid).

West Side Story is not Nuyorican literature, in case any of you were thinking that was where this was going. But it falls in the same timeline. A post-World War II, postcolonial world was ripe for minority groups to, well, want more. And generally, to deserve more. They came to work and found they could not get ahead. Going back to the "America" number in West Side Story, there's an evocative exchange just before the song begins; Anita says of Puerto Rico, "It's so good there? We had nothing." Bernardo replies: "We still have nothing, only more expensive." Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri, in his "Puerto Rican Obituary" writes:

They worked ten days a week
And were only paid for five
They worked
They worked
They worked
And they died
They died broke
They died owing
They did never knowing
What the front entrance
Of the first national city bank looks like

...

[They] all died yesterday today
And will die again tomorrow
Passing their bill collectors
On to the next of kin
All died
Waiting for the garden of eden
To open up again
Under new management

It wasn't (and isn't) just Tony and Maria looking for a new place to live and belong. Not even just Puerto Ricans. All immigrants, presumably, are looking for someplace better than that from whence they have come. But, they detract from what we've got, what we've worked to build, what our patriots have died to protect...

And all that rhetoric.

I was reading today about the performance of utopia (Munoz, 2006), that is, making the imagined future real by literally performing ourselves into it. What's that line from Gandhi? Be the change that you wish to see in the world. Maria and Tony give it a shot. They do not fail because of their own shortcomings, necessarily, but because the tidal (racial) forces around them are too strong for two individuals to overcome easily.

It wasn't impossible.

It isn't impossible.

But, deeply embedded ideas about immigrants and foreigners and our "natural" inclination to distrust the Other means we will never let it happen easily. It's easier to let things come to a slow boil and explode, then blame the immigrant or the inner city resident with the darker skin; it's their way, and we're better than that. That's what we tell ourselves. Play it cool, boy and let those who don't belong ruin their own lives...

Because that's easier.

Works Cited

Munoz, J.E. (2006). In D. Soyini Madison & J. Hamera (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Performance Studies (9-20). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Perez y Gonzalez, M. (2000). Puerto Ricans in the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Pietri, P. (1973). Puerto Rican obituary. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/XCD0IsZ4HLI

Rubin, R. & Melnick, J. (2007). Immigration and American Popular Culture: An Introduction. New York, NY: New York University Press. Nook edition.

Sandoval-Sanchez, A. (1999). Jose, Can You See? Latinos On and Off Broadway. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

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