West Side Story Newcomer Rachel Zegler Talks What The Musical Is Doing For Latina Representation In Hollywood

Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story
(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

West Side Story is a classic Broadway musical that debuted on the stage back in the late ‘50s. Over six decades later, we’re singing “Tonight” again thanks to Steven Spielberg’s remake that keeps the story set in its era, but retells it through a necessarily modern lens. For the first time on the big screen, the story is told with a completely Latin cast led by 20-year-old Rachel Zegler’s Maria

In her debut role, Rachel Zegler follows Natalie Wood’s casting of the tragic “Juliet” reimagining, which is controversial today considering Wood was a white woman playing the part of a Puerto Rican American. Zegler, who is of Colombian/Polish descent and grew up in New Jersey shared her thoughts on the new West Side Story’s representation to Time

Our movie is a step in the right direction. There's still so much work to be done when it comes to representation in Hollywood for all minorities. My experience as a Latina in Hollywood is just not having seen myself a lot growing up. And if I did see myself, I wasn't necessarily portrayed in a positive light. I think West Side Story does such a wonderful job at exploring the idea of Latin joy, which I don't think is always at the forefront of media that has our people in it. And so, I'm very blessed to be a part of something that does and also something that tells an authentic, true story about love and identity and what happens when we choose love over hate.

West Side Story of course explores New York City in the mid-50s when an onslaught of Puerto Rican immigrants arrived and shook up the social climate. Tensions explode when Rachel Zegler’s Maria and Ansel Elgort’s Tony meet eyes at a dance and share a magical moment that has them instantly devoted to one another. As it becomes love at first sight for Tony and Maria, the gangs each of them have association with, the Jets and the Sharks plan a “rumble” that leads to troubling violence. 

Steven Spielberg’s film takes a more authentic approach to the story, between the casting of Latin actors and employing plenty of Spanish dialogue throughout the film (without subtitles), which has led to early praise from the Latino community. Unfortunately, a movie like West Side Story is a rare sighting in mainstream Hollywood. As Time points out, in 2019 it was reported that just 4.6 percent of movie acting roles were taken up by people in the Latino community. 

Rachel Zegler was quick to point out that she is a White Latina, and therefore among the portion of the community that has more privilege than those that are people of color. West Side Story does right by representation by having a diverse people play the Puerto Rican people in the film. For example, Hamilton’s Ariana DeBose is an Afro-Latina woman, who gets to take on the role of Anita for the film. 

It’s  a stark contrast to the 1961 film, which had many white actors playing the Puerto Rican characters, except for Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita at the time. The actress is even back for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story to play the role of Valentina. West Side Story is now playing in theaters. 

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.