By now I am sure you’ve heard of the BBC’s disastrous decision to cast Sierra Boggess (a white woman) as Maria (a Puerto Rican) in their upcoming WEST SIDE STORY staged concert performance. While real life Puerto Rico is in blackout right now and nowhere near recovered from the Hurricane months ago (and has yet to receive appropriate aid), someone decided this was a good idea do this. No mames, güey.
It’s a shame that we’re really still having to educate people about why the basic human dignity of representation matters in 2018. In the year 2018, we’re still having to convince people of the legitimacy of our right to existence and our worth of basic human dignity. We have to constantly push back efforts to erase and re-erase us from our own histories. Being historically and racially appropriate is seen as secondary to a white person getting to play a “dream role” intended for a person of colour. This is not a drill. To which I say, again, no mames, güey.
I am not saying that Sierra Boggess is or isn’t talented, because that’s immaterial to this discussion and not the point.
I am going to refrain from delving into how I feel about two white dudes writing a Latinx narrative (as evidenced by Anita being the textbook Spicy Latina Trope, one that has a lot of horrifying real-life consequences. Again, why representation matters). I am, however, glad that it seems that Puerto Ricans are reclaiming WEST SIDE STORY for themselves.
It doesn’t matter if non-Latinas have played the Maria before, that only speaks to the legacy of whitewashing and white supremacy that even a show that is about race and race relations could be whitewashed. I’ve mentioned this in other pieces before, but if we’re talking about talent, no matter HOW talented you are, any choice you make as a white actor essentially imitating a minority is rooted in racism and stereotypes. No one’s “talent” is a justification for racism. It doesn’t matter if Boggess has depicted the role already for the BBC Proms, because it wasn’t right then and it isn’t now. Actually, let’s talk about that accent for second.
- People who have accents speaking a second language have them because their initial languages have informed the way they speak when speaking another language--not because they’re trying to have them. Regional accents can also be phonologically, grammatically, and lexically informed by indigenous languages. Scottish accents are rooted in Scots-Gaelic, as much as Mexican accents are partially rooted in Nahuatl. (This is known as a bipolar linguistic continuum) I assure you, that accent you’re attempting to imitate never, and I mean never, sounds as good as you think it does.
- I’ll give you a great example: Speedy Gonzales doesn’t sound like any Mexican in the history of Mexicans because he was portrayed by someone who was imitating what he thought Mexicans sound like. Whereas Panchito Pistoles, for instance, who wasn’t designed as a stereotype to laugh at Mexican people, and was created by the Disney company as a goodwill ambassador, was voiced by Joaquin Garay, real life Mexican star of radio and film--and the difference is staggering.
- Puerto Ricans do not have “Spanish” accents, they have Puerto Rican accents. Puerto Ricans speak Spanish, but have Puerto Rican accents. Accents from the various Latin American countries sound nothing alike. Mexican Spanish and Mexican accents in both Spanish or English sounds nothing like Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Argentinos-the list goes on and on. (I don’t even know that as a Mexican I would feel comfortable or that it would be appropriate taking on a Puerto Rican role, but that’s my personal stance.)
Who else could sing it better? Well, actually a lot of Latinas. Not “notable” or “famous” enough? Well, some of them are literally singing the great stages of Europe. I am not in the business of pitting people against each other, but it remains to be seen that, yes, there were better choices that could have been made before Boggess. Without further ado:
Nadine Sierra (who is not only Puerto Rican, but age appropriate):
Ana María Martínez
Ana Maria Martinez
This is an abbreviated list. Obviously I was unable to include all of the names I wanted, but you get the idea. Merely proving my point that the BBC Proms are as lazy as they are racist.