- What was your favorite character? Why is that?
Caregiver Note: While this question will appear to be “fluff”, this is a good way to start discussing hard topics. Just jumping into hard questions is often difficult for most adults, let alone youth who struggle with interpersonal relationships and trusting adults. Allow your youth to discuss characters they appreciate and why to gain insight into where your youth may be emotionally and mentally with associating with such characters. I don’t advise this as clinical advice, but if you talk more about the movie this may help you make other connections later as a caregiver.
- Why are the police more lenient with the Jets than the Sharks?
Caregiver Note: I want to start by saying that this is never an easy discussion. It’s easy for adults to want to protect our youth and make big issues go away. However, the issue of systemic racism still persists today and for that reason it is very important for caregivers to be prepared to talk to youth, POC or white, about this topic to prepare them for the reality that is around them. Unfortunately, the white Lieutenant Schrank holds racist attitudes towards the Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood and makes this very clear in his talk with the Jets. This mindset affects his work and leadership with the local police department by how he enforces power with the minority characters but is lax and friendly towards the white Jets, who are the clear antagonizers of this film. This shows how having leadership that reinforce racism can have a trickle down effect in the communities they should be serving equitably.
- Why is Bernardo so distrusting of Tony?
Caregiver Note: Tony is well-known as a leader of the Jets and has likely had previous interactions with Bernardo in their youth as it is implied they are close in age. Between a personal history with Tony, the very intense relationship with the Jets, and the police’s favoritism for the Jets it’s pretty understandable why Bernardo would hold prejudice against Tony. Bernardo may be hot-headed and fueled with machismo but he does truly care for his sister and does not want her in harm’s way. This is evidenced in his attempt to set her up with mild-mannered Chino who is not involved with the Sharks at the start of the film. Bernardo sees himself permanently fixed as the community leader to protect against the Jets but wants more for his sister, who he sees as young and naïve. While it’s easy for us, and Maria, to want Bernardo to drop these prejudices, it’s very hard for an older brother with this type of history with Tony and knowing that Tony has a history of being in jail.
- Why didn’t Doc and Valentina’s relationship “fix” the neighborhood?
Caregiver Note: While it is wonderful that Doc and Valentina fell in love and had a life together that doesn’t negate the history of the communities around them. We wish that such conflict could be magically fixed by such a union, but without having more men of a privileged position like Doc to continue allyship and extend allyship beyond the context of his personal romantic relationship that will not heal the persisting issues that exist in the community. Real change can’t occur from one couple without addressing the issues with the police, the neighborhood, the school system, and the personal relationships between the community members harmed by such systemic barriers. In the same way, loving a child of color and claiming to be “color blind” will not remedy the barriers around your child. While investing in personal relationships is very important, that will not be the only change required to heal communities with such histories.
- Why do the neighborhood boys want to be with the Jets and Sharks?
Caregiver Note: We know already that characters such as Tony, Riff, Bernardo, and Maria are all parentless. Without biological families to rely on for support these youths have looked into their communities for sources of support. Throughout the film very few adults are seen investing in these young people and they are often left to their own devices. For this reason the boys have joined gangs to fulfill senses of support and identity that are lacking from the family of origin and the community members around them that, like Valentina, could have stepped in but have refrained.
- How could the neighborhood be different if someone like Valentina was caring for more of the boys as she cares for Tony?
Caregiver Note: If there were more men and women alike like Valentina who cared for these young people as individuals rather than just seeing them as local nuisances this could have prevented some of the losses suffered by the end of the film. When young people believe they have nothing to lose like Riff they can be reckless and self-sabotaging. If youth have intervention like Tony, while there is no guarantee all will benefit there is at least hope. Tony receives encouragement to look for better and that life matters even more than love. Riff is only encouraged by his peers and by members of law enforcement to keep on self-destructive paths. If that energy had been pointed and encouraged elsewhere this could have changed and saved many lives.
- Who is like Valentina to you? Why?
Caregiver Note: Allow your youth to lead this conversation as much as they are comfortable. It’s easy for adults to take for granted that youth know who to ask for help when it is needed or how to even ask for help. Help your youth come up with different supports they can rely on for various needs at home, at school, and in the community.
- Why does Bernardo try so hard to protect Maria?
Caregiver Note: Bernardo is quick-tempered but he cares deeply for his sister. It’s heavily implied that Maria is Bernardo’s only surviving family member. He came to New York before her in hopes of giving her a better experience and as a result has suffered much pain and loss he hopes she can avoid. Maria is 18 and legally a rent-paying adult but Bernardo struggles with his sister’s naive-nature due to the systemic barriers he and Anita have already faced in the same neighborhood. Though he is overbearing and should have listened to Anita, he tried to protect Maria to show his love for her.
- What is different between Valentina and Bernardo and Anita? What is the same?
Caregiver Note: While Anita is shown as more level-headed than Bernardo she and Bernardo are both still young and grappling with their own traumas from past and present. This influences their ability to make decisions and influence others in their circle of influences. Valentina, however, is older and has more life experience. She has wisdom to offer that young people lack in the echo chambers of the gangs. However, she is only one woman and can only do so much in bridging the divide between the Sharks and Jets alone. While it is honorable that Bernardo and Anita try very hard to take leadership roles in their home and communities they could still benefit from having an older and wiser adult to advise them as well.
- How can I be like Valentina for you?
Caregiver Note: Allow your youth to lead this conversation as much as they are comfortable. It’s easy for adults to take for granted that youth know who to ask for help when it is needed or how to even ask for help. Help your youth come up with different supports they can rely on for various needs at home, at school, and in the community. Also be prepared for potential criticism and don’t take it personally. It’s important to remember that we may react in ways that we believe are loving, like Bernardo, but perhaps is not the best response for our unique youth.
About the Reviewer: Rachael B. Rathe
Rachael B. Rathe is an East Tennessee native with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology with a Minor in Child & Family Studies from The University of Tennessee Knoxville. She has worked in mental health since 2013 and in foster care/adoptions for a private provider agency since 2014. Rachael was inspired to work in the field after working with children and teens on a volunteer basis 2008 – 2013. Rachael’s ideal self-care day involves snuggling on a couch with her kitties (Tabitha, Fergus, and Rufus) while enjoying a good movie or book. She also enjoys galavanting around conventions concerning all things nerd and geekery.