Richie Narvaez guest blogs here today, talking about how a story he wrote for the recently published anthology Midnight Hour was inspired by West Side Story. Which is all good timing of course, since the new film adaptation of the musical has just come out.
I Like to Write in America
by Richie Narvaez
West Side Story takes place in an area of Manhattan that used to be called “San Juan Hill,” and that was heavily populated by African Americans and Latinos from the 1920s to the 1950s. The tension between those populations and the lower class Italian, Irish, and Polish population they lived alongside was the context of the play and the movie. Only a few years after the story was set, the whole area was seized via eminent domain (Robert Moses strikes again), and thousands were evicted. The tenements were razed in order to make way for Lincoln Center. (Remember that the next time you’re taking in Shostakovich at Alice Tully Hall.)
If you know me, you know I can’t resist a good gentrification story.
When members of the Crime Writers of Color announced a call for stories for an anthology, I raised my hand high, “Oooh! Oooh!” The anthology would be themed around midnight, and deep in my brain was the memory of a line from West Side Story: “Doc’s at midnight.” Which was where and when the gangs would meet for a war council.
I have always been interested in surveying how Puerto Ricans are and have been portrayed in popular culture. Which is easy because there’s not much there. There’s Popi (Oy!) and The Believers (Double oy!), some JLo movies. But what looms above them all is West Side Story.
There are many issues with the movie. Very few of the cast were Puerto Rican or even Latino/a/x/e at all, and many of the actors were bronzed to fit preconceptions. Oh, and all of the men were gangmembers. Nice. But when I first saw the film as a child, none of that mattered. Natalie Wood was from Caguas as far as I was concerned—it was just nice to see Puerto Ricans on TV!
But as a writer today, I see those flaws, and I see that appropriation of my culture, and I feel as a Puerto Rican I am allowed to appropriate it back. (This will be my defense should Steven Spielberg, director of a remake coming out soon, and his lawyers send me a letter.)
I have often wondered what happened to Chino after the credits rolled. He’s given so little to do (much less than his counterpart, Paris, in Romeo and Juliet), he just seems like a patsy. He gets arrested for Tony’s murder and perp-walked away. But what’s the deal with his fiancée Maria not digging him? What was going on there, with her, with him, under the surface? There’s no room to tell that story, what with all the Jets’ cavorting in song.
So I let my imagination dance on the rooftops. I did my own episode of What If...? What if Chino meets Maria again years later, after he’s out of the pokey, and she’s been married for years to a rich man who doesn’t always keep her company. They’re from different worlds now—how do I crash them together? And where—well, where better than Lincoln Center? Who is/was Chino really? I was inspired quite a bit by Jose De Vega, the Filipino-Colombian actor who began his career playing Chino on Broadway and in the movie.
You can review the results (on page 65!) in Midnight Hour: A Chilling Anthology of Crime Fiction (Crooked Lane Books), edited by Abby L. Vandiver and published by Crooked Lane Press. Other authors in the anthology include such stalwarts as Tracy Clark, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Abby L. Vandiver, Callie Browning, Frankie Y. Bailey, E. A. Aymar, Valerie Burns, Delia Pitts, Faye Snowden, Jennifer Chow, H-C Chan, Gigi Pandian, Tina Kashian, Elizabeth Wilkerson, Stella Oni, Marla Bradeen, Christopher Chambers, Rhonda Crowder, and Raquel V. Reyes. Get it now! Go, man, go! (And thank you, Sondheim.
You can buy Midnight Hour right here.
Richie Narvaez writes frequently about Latinidad, Puerto Rico, urban culture, and social issues. His first novel, the gentrification thriller Hipster Death Rattle, was voted the premiere North Brooklyn Reads book selection by Brooklyn Public Library patrons. His most recent novel is the historical YA mystery Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco, which won an Agatha Award and an Anthony Award and which Spielberg should immediately option. His latest work is the collection Noiryorican, which was nominated for an Anthony Award. He knows a boat you can get on.