Thursday, January 06, 2022

The Other West Side Story



The days of Peace

     I think Steven Spielberg’s (bless his heart for trying to get it right) mistake in remaking the West Side Story was—well, remaking the West Side Story. (No, I’ve not seen it and not sure I want to. I suspect if a master like Spielberg directed it, the movie is a sound production.)

     My gripe has nothing to do with cultural appropriation or getting the cultural aspects right, though both are important issues. My gripe is more a question: “Does the world really need to see more Latino gangsters on the “big” screen, no matter how beautiful the actors appear or how superbly they sing and dance? At least Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet represented the upper echelons of Italian society.

     According to L.A. Times writer, Ashley Lee, the story’s original creators saw a newspaper article in 1955, where “…a fight broke out between two gangs in San Bernardino: Two young men fought outside a dance…one died. It sparked the idea to inject the tragic love story with some racial conflict.”

     That’s the basis for West Side Story, the murder of a Chicano at a dance in San Bernardino. One has to question the media’s use of the word “gang” in the 1950s. While Caucasian motorcycle and auto enthusiasts, even the Hells Angels, were considered “clubs,” Chicanos, in a group, were often considered “gangs.”

     Even into the 1990s, a district attorney in Orange County investigating the accidental murder of an Anglo youth during a confrontation between two groups of teenagers, one the media referred to as a group of Caucasian friends and the other a "gang", Mexican kids from the same high school with no gang ties. The D.A. said the legal system had no "gang" designation for white youth.

     While some Latinos might think the West Side Story isn’t about them because, “It’s about Puerto Ricans,” I don’t think that’s how the country will see it. When West Side Story is shown in Asia, Africa, and Europe, will audiences understand the ethnic differences?

     Even in the States, many Caucasians, especially in Middle America, have never taken an ethnic studies class, so they won’t differentiate between Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Argentinians, Paraguayans, or any other Latino group. To them, we’re all “Mexicans” moving in among them, toting the violent, foreign culture they saw in Steven Spielberg’s latest movie.

     The new, improved West Side Story is just another reminder to American society that “gangsterism” and Latino culture are synonymous, probably going back to our savage indigenous roots, a topic Luis Valdez explored in his play Zoot Suit; though, many historians claim that before the arrival of the Europeans, most indigenous groups lived harmoniously, and if skirmishes did break out, battles to the death were rare.

     Even in Mesoamerica, with all the sacrificial victims, large scale, murderous wars between groups weren’t the norm. We know the different indigenous groups participated in flower wars, intimidating each other with a show of aesthetics over violence. Besides, it was more profitable to turn a conquered enemy into subservient subjects rather than killing them.

     Some historians say, when the Indians first witnessed European savagery on the battlefield, they were horror-stricken, wondering what kind of men could engage in such mass slaughter.

     As for Hollywood, there is a reason it’s called the “Big Screen,” not for the size of the screen, alone, but for the large impression movies leave on their audiences, especially the youth. Too many people leave the theater believing what they saw up there on the “big” screen is true, possibly true, or could be true.

     I recently read where there is no such thing as an anti-war movie, no matter how violent, brutal, or horrendous the particular movie portrayed combat. Army recruiters say recruitment rises after the release of these movies. Before combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers and marines watched Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, driving themselves into a “hoo-rah” frenzy before rushing off into “Indian-country” to confront the enemy.

     Today, youth are obsessed with small fast cars, racing, spinning wheelies, crashing, and dying, or killing others. Is it a coincidence Hollywood’s blockbusters in the past twenty years, especially among Latino youth, have been movies like the Fast and Furious?

     When I once asked my father about gangs in his generation, he told me gangs didn’t start in Mexican neighborhoods because of poverty or poor living conditions but because of Hollywood, especially the 1930s George Raft, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson gangster movies. Kids flooded the theaters, and after watching a gangster movie, they wanted to dress and act like the gangsters on the screen, bringing in the Zoot Suit era. Since they were unable to afford their own suits, they donned their parents too-large “drapes” making them look stylish. The first zoot suitors weren't even Caucasian or Mexican but Filipinos.

     Gangs are an American phenomenon, as Martin Scorsese showed in Gangs of New York, going back to the late 1800s. The early "gangsters," according to New York writer Jimmy Breslin, were corrupt bankers, businessmen, and politicians, guys with names like Barney, Rubenstein, and Schultz. With their "take" they founded prestigious American institutions. Breslin writes, Barney, "...who was not smart enough to stop stealing...blew his brains out. This didn't stop his heirs, who founded Smith Barney stockbrokers and used the motto, 'We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it.' They should have said, 'We steal it.' That's right. This is America."

     The movies, and guys with names like Siegel, brought the culture to the West Coast in the 1920s and 1930s, challenging corrupt businessmen and politicians who had already set up shop in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Small groups of working-class kids played the role and handed it down from one generation to another. However, most youth didn't have time to play gangster. They were too busy working to help support their families. After WWII, now veterans, they married, found jobs, and settled down, along with everybody else.

     In Southern California, young men, like men anywhere, identified with their neighborhoods, friends and relatives, whether it was Santa Monica, Venice, West L.A., or Pacoima in the Valley, Maravilla or White Fence in East L.A. Home ownership brought in responsibility and an entirely new era. There were always the pachucos who couldn't assimilate, found themselves in an out of jail, or strung out on drugs, just like the rebels in other cultures, and, often, an embarrassment to their own.

    In the 1950s-early 60s, California car clubs appeared, mostly Caucasian youth who could, first of all, afford to own cars. Modeled after movies like Black Board Jungle, the Wild One, and Rebel without a Cause, club members wore black leather jackets or personalized club jackets with the name of the car club on the back. A cousin told me, recently, when he was at University High School in the 1950s, the big deal was belonging to the Continentals car club. Each high school had its own car club. “They, the white guys, I guess, didn’t really want us in their club,” he said, “us” meaning Mexicans. “So, we started our own club, the Falcons."   

     The zoot suit, a thing of the past, they wore mostly blue jeans and white t-shirts. They “horsed around,” drank beer, drove around town, or hung out at the neighborhood park. There were fights, usually fist fights against other clubs. Sometimes, if it got bad, someone would pull out tire iron or a bicycle chain as a weapon. The thing was--most of them knew each other. Santa Monica had the Cobras and Venice, the Dukes, and it wasn't long before the media dubbed them "gangs." 

     In the 1960s, the khaki and Pendleton years, drugs like heroin then cocaine in the 70s, 80s, and 90s added an entirely new element to the culture, addiction, which meant the need for money. Lots of it. There were turf wars. Kids who proved their mettle with their fists, were now chasing and shooting each other, devastating families. Crack hit South Los Angeles' streets. Nixon, Reagan, and future drug wars kicked everything into high gear. It was no longer neighborhood gangs fighting over reputations, it was hundreds then thousands, and today, millions of dollars at stake. The international drug trade, banks, big pharma, and governments (the true gangsters) entered the picture, and it's an entirely different world. 

     Still, the numbers of youth involved in so-called gangs were, and are, small in comparison to the numbers who go to school and work each day, live normal, productive lives. I don’t know many hard-working neighborhoods or families where gang members are praised, except in their own small world. I suppose that’s why it’s somewhat irksome that the movie West Side Story has made such a big splash.

     Many of us will view it for what it is, an entertaining movie based on American gang lore and just another version of the Romeo and Juliet story. Still, there will be others who will take it as fact and think that Latinos created gang life in the United States instead of the other way around.     

1 comment:

Mario Acevedo said...

I was never a fan of Westside Story. Like when Tony goes into Spanish Harlem and yells "Maria!" Only one woman sticks her head out the window.