Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month and Honoring Hispanic Heritage in Film

National Hispanic Heritage Month History

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the official record keeper of the U.S., recognizes Hispanic Heritage Month from Sep. 15 to Oct. 15, 2021. During Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the achievements and contributions of Hispanic Americans who have inspired others through their success and activism. The observation began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988.

Hispanic heritage has greatly enriched American society and culture. Prominent Hispanic Americans include entertainers such as Jennifer Lopez, Desi Arnaz, and Gloria and Emilio Estefan, activists Joan Baez and Cesar Chavez, Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, and U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. NARA offers more information on its Hispanic and Latino Heritage resource page and in the Archives Catalog, including records about Puerto Rico,  prominent Hispanic Americans, and Hispanic and Latino issues in the United States.

Honoring Hispanic Heritage in Film

Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors to play people of color. Director Steven Spielberg and Twentieth Century Fox are working to change that and honor Hispanic heritage with the release of an updated version of the iconic musical, West Side Story. The classic tale of star-crossed lovers is set to hit theaters in December 2021.

Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the Academy Award winning best picture of 1961, will have a pivotal role the new version. In an interview with Huffpost, Moreno shared her experience working on the original film in which white actors such as Natalie Wood and George Chakiris wore brown makeup while portraying Puerto Ricans living in New York City. Even Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, was forced to have her skin tone darkened for the role. The article also addresses Spielberg’s commitment to casting actors within the Puerto Rican and broadcast Latinx community for the remake.

From Huffpost:

“We all had the same color makeup, it was a very different time,” Moreno told hosts Hinojosa and Julio Varela. “I remember saying to the makeup man one day―because it was like putting mud on my face, it was really dark and I’m a fairly fair Hispanic―and I said to the makeup man ‘My God! Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish…’ And it’s true, we are very many different colors, we’re Taino Indian, we are black some of us.”

But Moreno’s attempt to explain how racially diverse Puerto Ricans resulted in a very unexpected response. “And the makeup man actually said to me, ‘What? Are you a racist?’” she added. “I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t come back with an answer.”

Spielberg and his team were committed to finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican as well as the broader Latinx community. The team has been conducting research and having conversations with Hispanic heritage and advocacy groups. In December 2018, Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who is adapting West Side Story, sat with professors and students at the University of Puerto Rico (Universidad de Puerto Rico – Río Piedras) to learn more about performing arts on the island.  The production team maintains a dialogue with the University and Puerto Rican filmmakers there.

“When the process of casting began, we announced that we would cast the roles of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino and the Sharks with Latina and Latino actors. I’m so happy that we’ve assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America’s multifaceted Hispanic community,” said Spielberg. “I am in awe of the sheer force of the talent of these young performers, and I believe they’ll bring a new and electrifying energy to a magnificent musical that’s more relevant than ever.”

After auditioning more than 30 thousand women from around the world, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story found the lead of Maria in fresh faced 17-year old New Jersey High School student Rachel Zegler who will make her film debut opposite Ansel Elgort as Tony.

Rounding out the principal Shark roles are Broadway veterans Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo. Theater performer Josh Andrés Rivera has been cast as Chino.

The new cast joins Rita Moreno, who will play Valentina, a re-conceived and expanded version of the character of Doc, the owner of the corner store in which Tony works. Moreno also serves as Executive Producer. “I simply cannot wait to get on set to work with this group of young actors,” said Moreno. “What an ensemble, and I look forward to passing the baton to this next generation of Sharks!”

Rachel Zegler, 17, will join Elgort in leading the legendary musical.  Zegler saw the notice on Twitter back in January 2018 for Latinx actors and submitted a video of herself singing “Tonight” and “Me Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”).

“I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast,” said Zegler. “West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.”

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