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"Queer for Uncle Sam": Anita's Ambivalent Citizenship in West Side Story

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Abstract:

In what is now regarded as the iconic rooftop dance scene from the film version of West Side Story, the young Puerto Rican men and women of the Sharks debate the merits and failings of "America." The arguments fall conspicuously along gender lines with the men expressing a nostalgic longing for their island home and a sharp critique of the structures of racism that circumscribe their lives in New York City, while the women praise the industrial and technological advancements available in their new home. This scene stages the larger debates about and among Puerto Ricans concerning their fraught positioning in the U.S. as both citizens and colonial subjects. The musical debate is led by Bernardo, the Shark's leader, and his irrepressible girlfriend, Anita, a role made famous by Chita Rivera on stage in 1957 and by Rita Moreno in the 1961 film. In the midst of their ongoing argument about the possibilities offered by life in "America," Bernardo turns to his fellow Sharks, proclaiming, "Look! Instead of a shampoo, she's been brainwashed! She's given up Puerto Rico and now she's queer for Uncle Sam." Anita responds coyly, "Oh, no! That's not true," and then launches into the song, "America," by mocking the men's nostalgic devotion to Puerto Rico while executing flawless Caribbean-origin dance moves. As a result of this gendered debate, the scene is commonly evoked as an emblem of sexist and racist depictions of immigrant Latinas as agents of assimilation and easily colonized subjects. But, the scene is just as frequently, and often simultaneously, lauded for Moreno's charismatic, uncontainable, and virtuosic performance.

While Bernardo clearly uses the phrase, "queer for Uncle Sam" to deride Anita's apparent assimilationist desires (the historical connotation of the statement translating to "sweet on Uncle Sam"), I am interested in riffing on Bernardo's claim to explore the ways that Moreno's performance of Anita embodies a queered model for Latina/o citizenship and pleasure. Moreno's bodily migrations in her portrayal of Anita and the character's narrative mobility within the story express pleasurable possibilities for and a productive ambivalence central to Latina/o claims to citizenship in the United States. Anita's lyrics may express containment within the discourse of immigrant assimilation, but her body refuses to be contained by either traditional choreography or the spatial and racial divides that propel the musical's narrative. Anita's (and Rita's) mobility, as skilled dancer and as border-crossing character, reveals one of the most compelling reasons that Latina/o audiences and artists continue to be drawn to West Side Story. Despite its depictions of racialized criminal youth, sexualized "Latin" women, and brownface performances, the musical remains a contradictory and pleasurable site of Latina/o subject formation and dis-identification. The musical's continued legacy is not because Latinas/os who embrace the musical, like the women on the rooftop, are deluded by the false promises of "America," but because of Anita's ultimate resistance to discursive, choreographic, and spatial containment.
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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509745_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Paredez, Deborah. ""Queer for Uncle Sam": Anita's Ambivalent Citizenship in West Side Story" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509745_index.html>

APA Citation:

Paredez, D. ""Queer for Uncle Sam": Anita's Ambivalent Citizenship in West Side Story" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509745_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: In what is now regarded as the iconic rooftop dance scene from the film version of West Side Story, the young Puerto Rican men and women of the Sharks debate the merits and failings of "America." The arguments fall conspicuously along gender lines with the men expressing a nostalgic longing for their island home and a sharp critique of the structures of racism that circumscribe their lives in New York City, while the women praise the industrial and technological advancements available in their new home. This scene stages the larger debates about and among Puerto Ricans concerning their fraught positioning in the U.S. as both citizens and colonial subjects. The musical debate is led by Bernardo, the Shark's leader, and his irrepressible girlfriend, Anita, a role made famous by Chita Rivera on stage in 1957 and by Rita Moreno in the 1961 film. In the midst of their ongoing argument about the possibilities offered by life in "America," Bernardo turns to his fellow Sharks, proclaiming, "Look! Instead of a shampoo, she's been brainwashed! She's given up Puerto Rico and now she's queer for Uncle Sam." Anita responds coyly, "Oh, no! That's not true," and then launches into the song, "America," by mocking the men's nostalgic devotion to Puerto Rico while executing flawless Caribbean-origin dance moves. As a result of this gendered debate, the scene is commonly evoked as an emblem of sexist and racist depictions of immigrant Latinas as agents of assimilation and easily colonized subjects. But, the scene is just as frequently, and often simultaneously, lauded for Moreno's charismatic, uncontainable, and virtuosic performance.

While Bernardo clearly uses the phrase, "queer for Uncle Sam" to deride Anita's apparent assimilationist desires (the historical connotation of the statement translating to "sweet on Uncle Sam"), I am interested in riffing on Bernardo's claim to explore the ways that Moreno's performance of Anita embodies a queered model for Latina/o citizenship and pleasure. Moreno's bodily migrations in her portrayal of Anita and the character's narrative mobility within the story express pleasurable possibilities for and a productive ambivalence central to Latina/o claims to citizenship in the United States. Anita's lyrics may express containment within the discourse of immigrant assimilation, but her body refuses to be contained by either traditional choreography or the spatial and racial divides that propel the musical's narrative. Anita's (and Rita's) mobility, as skilled dancer and as border-crossing character, reveals one of the most compelling reasons that Latina/o audiences and artists continue to be drawn to West Side Story. Despite its depictions of racialized criminal youth, sexualized "Latin" women, and brownface performances, the musical remains a contradictory and pleasurable site of Latina/o subject formation and dis-identification. The musical's continued legacy is not because Latinas/os who embrace the musical, like the women on the rooftop, are deluded by the false promises of "America," but because of Anita's ultimate resistance to discursive, choreographic, and spatial containment.


Similar Titles:
West Side Story from Below: Young Puerto Rican Mothers' Cultural Readings

”Tropical Metropolis: West Side Stories and Imperial Redemption”

I Want to Be in America?: Urban Integration, Pan American Friendship, and West Side Story


 
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