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Puerto Rico has gotten a bad rap; and we can’t blame Lin Manuel-Miranda! After all, his raps have made American History fresher than a Prince from Bell Air. Despite Puerto Ricans, voting down statehood, as recently as 2012, the island is still a US Territory. Therefore, under law, it’s citizens are Americans. So, why less love than its US counterparts in the wake of recent hurricanes? I blame the mad lyrical skills of one Stephen J. Sondheim.
Lin Manuel-Miranda, the creator of the hip-hop musical Hamilton, has used his fame, and heritage, to positively remind the world that Puerto Rico is part of America. Yet, with all of his success he plays Papa Doc to Sondheim’s B-Rabbit in an 8-mile Broadway world.
Miranda, would likely subjugate Sondheim in a freestyle rap battle. However, Sondheim’s painstaking efforts to properly select every word, for every note, of every song, for every character makes him the indisputable godfather of Broadway lyricists. There is no Lin Manuel-Miranda without Stephen Sondheim. But there is, perhaps, no Broadway for future generations, without Lin!
For the benefit of those reading, who are not as big of a Broadway geek as me, I’ll start with a history lesson. One of the dominant songs in the Broadway songbook is AMERICA, from the musical West Story; music by Leonard Bernstein and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It was Sondheim’s first legitimate contribution to Broadway, so its understandable he may have some regrets.
Sondheim is legendary for his lyrical ingenuity. In spite of this, he has always attempted to put character before cleverness. Not to overshadow the character with his own words and thoughts, but to let the words flow naturally from the character. He’s, repeatedly, expressed a desire to go back and change several of his lyrical contributions to West Side Story.
A song, that often comes up for revision is, “I feel pretty.” He has stated that his lyrics, were too complex for the simple and sheltered character of Maria. The lyrics rhyming quality, while simple, was too sophisticated for her character to have conceived. I’d argue that it subtly showed her ability to see beyond the simplistic culture clashes of the two gangs; the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets. But, Mr. Sondheim has yet to accept my lunch invitation.
Throughout the musical, Puerto Rican characters are viewed as outsiders, from a foreign country. The largest lyrical conundrum comes from the song, America. The Latin character’s sing the song to emphasize their distance from home. The characters would have known they were American, yet at times, I feel the lyrics betray them. When the girlfriends of the Shark’s sing:
Group: “I like to be in America, ok. by me in America.”
Rosalia: “I like the city of San Juan”
Anita: “I know a boat you can get on.”
The ladies are arguing over the conditions between the cities of New York and San Juan. In the same way that Yankee fans dispute baseball prowess with rival Red Sox fans. Throughout the song, the lyrics, overtly compare Puerto Rico to America as if they were separate countries.
Some characters sing of Puerto Rico, fondly, “Puerto Rico, You Lovely Island.” While other snig with prophetic disdain, “Always the Hurricanes Blowing” and ending their phrase with, “I like the island Manhattan.” The refrain returns with “I like to be in America! O.K. by me in America!” Implying that, Puerto Rico is not in America.
Perhaps, the strongest words to de-emphasize the American connection of Puerto Rico are, “I know a boat you can get on.” Most American’s cannot conceive of American’s coming to America by boat. Only “foreigners” come to America by boat. The rest of us drive.
In the original Broadway script, the Sharks are often disparaged as “spics.” This slur, by definition, is an ugly way to describe a Spanish speaking person. In the US, it has derogatorily become synonymous with people from Mexico.
Flawed logic suggests;
Cuban’s speak a form of Spanish, and they get to America on boats, therefore, they are foreigners.
Mexican citizens speak a form of Spanish. They don’t get here by boat, but on any map, there is a line dividing the United States and Mexico. They speak Spanish. They are unwelcomed in America. We need to keep them out. So, we’re building a wall.
According to that line of thinking, it’s not surprising that some Americans synonymously view, “Puerto Rican” as “Mexican.” To most English-speaking ears, both speak the same language. So, if a portion of Mexico was destroyed by the hurricane, then we can build a smaller wall. America would save money. That’s a good thing. Right? Viva America!
Haiti collected nearly $13 Billion dollars in relief funds following the earthquakes. While there are still questions surrounding the whereabouts and usage of those funds, money was raised. Why should Puerto Rico receive any less, regardless of Nationality? It’s not an excuse, but, perhaps Americans, feel tapped out after supporting Texas and Florida.
Recently, the President has approved lifting shipping bands that limited shipping between coasts to US-flagged vessels. This will open the gates for much needed supplies to reach Puerto Rico. Celebrities and big businesses are stepping in to help, perhaps individual citizen will follow.
As a Nation, are we more ignorant, because, in 1957, a group of artists decided to take some liberties with Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet? They used stereo types to quickly convey a story of divisiveness to mass audiences. They weren’t giving a cultural dissertation, they were creating profitable entertainment.
They were not being any more intentionally irresponsible, than Lin Manuel-Miranda’s use of an African American actor as Alexander Hamilton. Today, there are children, and possibly adults, who think Alexander Hamilton is a man of color. Miranda’s goal was to break down color barriers, to show that anyone could have done what America’s forefathers did, regardless of race.
The end result is the same. Without proper context and education, kids will grow up with a misinterpretation of the facts. After all, many of us, as children, learned about US law from a cartoon Bill sitting on Capitol Hill. It sticks with you!
I consider myself educated. I’m ashamed to admit, that I didn’t know Puerto Rico was part of the United States until a couple of years ago. Miranda’s speaking up on behalf of American-Puerto-Ricans opened my eyes. Until then, I believed citizens living in Puerto Rico, were no different than French, Germans, Russians, etc. living in their own countries. I cannot change the past, but I can grow and learn.
Yes, American-Puerto-Ricans have a unique culture of amazing wine, beautiful people and mouthwatering food. That shouldn’t prejudice anyone from recognizing them as an American Citizen. Wink!
America is a melting pot. Multiple cultures, religions, races, orientations, etc. make up this great country. It’s a work in progress. Hell yes, it’s flawed? But, we have the responsibility to keep working on it.
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