Rita, Anita, My Mother and Me

Some Latina mothers teach their daughters how to spoon masa or plátano onto a corn husk or banana leaf when making tamales or pasteles.

My Latina mother taught me to love musicals.

Or, more precisely, how to worship the diva at the center of a musical, the woman pulling at the seams of its tidy romance plot, unraveling in her wake a trail of delight and mayhem. Some days it was Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in her mink hat and muff insisting that no one rain on her parade. Or Diana Ross easing on down the road. But most times it was Rita Moreno as Anita dancing her way beyond the borders of “Ameríca” in “West Side Story.”

In the decades since its opening night on Broadway in 1957, “West Side Story” has been the story, the persistent white fantasy of “Latinness,” that Latinas like my mom and I have had to reckon with. And yet my mom and I kept watching. Perhaps it’s because, like all musicals, “West Side Story” is a complex form of representation that revels in both its messiness and its marvelousness. My mother taught me to see in “West Side Story” not just the problems of brown-face makeup, but also the choreography of another Latina who could dance her way out of any script that sought to confine her or relegate her to a supporting role. My mother was showing me a diva who could move across these imposed limits. And who did it in a fabulous dress and heels.

It is not without a measure of sheepishness that I admit this now, long after the public and private conversations Latinoshave engaged in about our vexed relationship to “West Side Story.” No doubt, itpresents damaging stereotypes of “Latin” culture in America. Many of us have cataloged and condemned the musical’sdepictions of criminal youth and blatantly sexual women all speaking in exaggerated accents.

Musical divas like Ms. Moreno helped my mother and me forge our bond as we made our own way in America from our working-class neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas, a city that has long had a Latino majority. “West Side Story” endures as a paradoxical — and often pleasurable — cultural text by which manyLatinos have come to know ourselves and one another. Artists and thinkers like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court and Jennifer Lopez, to name a few, have turned to the musical as a means of understanding themselves or as a jumping-off point into a new narrative.

According to my mom, the first time we watched the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story” together was when NBC aired it over two successive nights in March 1972. I was a little more than a year old. In those days, she and I were sharing a bed in the front room of my grandparents’ house on San Antonio’s south side. My father was fighting in Vietnam. I spent countless nights in the years that followed curled up in bed with my mother singing along to “West Side Story.”

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