Words Fail Me

It is really hard maintaining a professional blog these days, trying to write about the arts after spending the week watching the world go hell all around me. Part of me wants to forget about this site’s ostensible focus and write pages and pages about the seemingly unending stream of horrors we’re all facing, hoping to find just the right words that could help make sense of the issues we’re all facing. Another part of me, however, knows that most of what I’d have to say could be succinctly boiled down to “stop acting like a bunch of lunatics!” And no matter what I say, given the nature of this site, I have to somehow tie it in to theater or the arts, which can require some considerable mental gymnastics on my part.

I thought I’d found a way to discuss the ongoing disaster in Puerto Rico, which began when Hurricane Maria made landfall nearly three weeks ago and still shows no signs of being resolved. As of this writing, almost ninety percent of the island is still without power, and full details of what’s going on are still hard to come by. The death toll is no more than an estimate right now, and seems bound to climb – not that we have any hard facts to go on, since the official FEMA website is being constantly edited to hide the worst aspects of what’s happening. But for all that, the one part of this awful story that I keep coming back to has nothing to do with the physical and personal toll of the storm. Just after Maria struck, a poll came out stating that more than half of Americans didn’t realize that Puerto Rico was a part of America, and that its people are United States citizens. With that in mind, it’s easy to read all sorts of ignorance and sinister intent in things like our president’s towel-throwing behavior during the recovery effort, the delay in helpful legislation (like waiving of the Jones Act), and general indifference towards our fellow Americans. And as soon as I read that statistic, I heard something in the back of my head. If you’re taking time out of your day to read a random actor’s blog in the internet, you’re probably hearing the same thing, brassy melody and all:

Immigrant goes to America

Many hellos in America

Nobody knows in America

Puerto Rico’s in America

You know, from West Side Story, arguably the greatest of all American musicals? Even if you’ve never seen the show or watched the movie, you’ve heard "America" in commercials and cartoon parodies and elementary school band recitals. So here I was, all set to pen a nice jeremiad about how the fact that Puerto Ricans are our fellow Americans is a fact we’ve been exposed to all our lives, that’s been conveniently missed by the people who need to know it the most. I was going to argue that if people somehow managed to miss that lyric and its crucial lesson, and haven’t realized that Puerto Rico’s in America by now, it’s because, for whatever reason, that’s a lesson they don’t want to learn.

But then, as I sat down to write this post, I decided to do some actual research (for once) and look up the full lyrics to America. And…well, here’s the very first words Anita sings in this number:

Puerto Rico . . .
You ugly island . . .
Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing . . .
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan.
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

Uncomfortable, right? If you’re like me, you can easily imagine some willfully negligent member of the federal government (hypothetically speaking, of course – can’t imagine who I could be talking about) having those words reverberating in their mind, justifying their indifference. If our current president does indeed have an internal monologue behind his actions, it might very well sound like that. But if that’s the case for folks like that, then they weren't totally ignorant of West Side Story.  They'd heard, and absorbed, the exact same song I did. But they'd conveniently forgot one part – and, I must confess, I’d conveniently forgotten the other.

Obviously, when Bernstein and Sondheim wrote "America," they meant for it to contain the full range of the immigrant experience. That’s why the song’s the landmark that it is (that and some clever things it does with rhythm). And what’s depressing is that, despite all of their efforts, we all refuse to acknowledge that full range. We cherry pick the parts we want, and fashion our own half-baked and off-topic arguments out of them, mostly to justify our own prejudices.

So I discarded the angry rant I was planning to write, and wrote this instead. And gave twenty dollars to the Habitat for Humanity initiative that will be focusing on Puerto Rico. Because oftentimes, galling though it is for a writer to admit, actions do speak louder than words.

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