MovieChat Forums > West Side Story (1961) Discussion > What ethnicity were the JETS supposed to...

What ethnicity were the JETS supposed to be?


We know the Sharks are the Puerto Ricans but what ethnicity are the Jets? Italian or Irish? I assume one or the other since this takes place in Hell's Kitchen (West Side NYC) correct?

Also, the actor who played Bernardo, was he in brown make-up? Because he didn't look right to me.

Thanks for your comments.

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The ethnicity of the JETS is left pretty vague. They're probably a few included based on their different hair coloring (Eliot Feld, blonde = ?Irish/northern European; Tony Mordente, dark = Italian) and physiques. But clearly, a caucasian bunch.

The action took place on the Upper West Side, not Hell's Kitchen. In fact, much of the filming took place on the ground that was to become Lincoln Center -- before that land was cleared it was made up largely of tenements and parking lots.

AND yes, Bernardo, played by a Greek (George Chakiris) was in fact made up 'browner' to conform more to the stereotype of darker skinned Caribbean genes. They could easily have dispensed with the makeup and everyone would still have been credible.

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Also the Sharks were Catholic, like Maria. I suspect some of the Jets were too. Get thee to confession.

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My hunch is that both the Sharks and the Jets were Catholic, and Tony and Maria probably were, also.

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The Jets were supposed to be white. It didn't matter what their ethnicity was.

So lay down
The threat is real
When his sight goes red again
Seeing red again...

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On the rooftop scene Bernardo mentions that Tony is 1st generation Polish American. Most of the Jets were probably the sons of Irish/Polish immigrants. Anita even mocks Bernardo in the scene by saying :"Your mother's a Pol, your father's a Sweede, but you were born here. That's all that you need."

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Correct. In fact, Tony's name actually was Anton.

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I concur. The Jets are a Polish/Irish mix. Throughout the story the Sharks refer to the Jets as polaks.

Turning to Tony's/Anton's name. Everyone knows Tony is a derivative on Anthony. According to http://www.behindthename.com/name/anthony the Polish derivative of Anthony is Antoni. To quote Shakespeare, what's in a name? Ironically from "Romeo and Juliet" by the way. The Jets will still be polaks even if Tony was called Mogambo.

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"Wap" is another epithet that is thrown at (at least) one of the Jets in the soda shop scene. That would imply some Italians as well.

I do notice that the Polish / Irish / Italian collection is made up entirely of nationalities that tend to be Catholic. You never hear any of the ethnic slurs for nationalities with a higher percentage of Protestants, such as "limey" or *beep* Of course, the Puerto Ricans also would figure to be Catholic.

Gang war between the guys attend mass in English and the guys who attend mass in Spanish? The guys whose ministers are allowed to marry stay out it?

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Hello PillowRoc,

Do you by chance mean "WASP"? White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I thought the same thing.

I live in a glass house, ergo, I throw no stones.

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Do you by chance mean "WASP"? White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

The word we hear in the movie is "wop," a pejorative for Italians.



"You must sing him your prettiest songs, then perhaps he will want to marry you."

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The word we hear in the movie is "wop," a pejorative for Italians.


Another word that we hear in the movie is "mick", which is a pejorative term for Irish Catholics.

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'Wop'.... it's a denigration of Italians. It apparently derived from 'without papers' when Italian immigrants didn't have immigration papers. Huh.... learn something every day.

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I immediately thought that the term "w*p", which has the letter "o" between the W and the P, which is a disparaging term for an Italian, or someone of Italian ancestry, and that it was directed towards Action, in retaliation for his having called the Sharks a bunch of Sp*cs during the pre-Rumble War Council.

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Hm in those days all Catholics attended Mass in LATIN.

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Trading racial epithets was one of the biggest ways they fought, back in the day, before it became politically incorrect. Now if you fight, you use a gun. Much more effective, right?

But yes -- they were white american new yorkers who were Irish, Polish, probably a few Italians, and whomever.

*****************************************
The world doesnt owe you a damn thing.

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You've made some great, good points, leader-7. However:


But yes -- they were white american new yorkers who were Irish, Polish, probably a few Italians, and whomever.


To be more exact, the Jets were white American New Yorkers who were of Irish, Polish and Italian descent.

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True enough, leader-7. You've made some great, good points that clearly articulate the reason(s) that there should absolutely not be a re-make of the original 1961 film West Side Story....at all...by anybody, including Spielberg! Thanks for making an excellent point.

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WOP is the correct spelling for that epithet. It stands for "WithOut Passport" which is how many Italians came to this country. it's how MANY people came to this country, but it stuck on the Italians for some reason.

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That I understand, leader-7. That particular epithet also means 'Without Papers", or "Working On Pavement".
Not only does that particular epithet look rather nasty on paper, but it has a rather nasty sound to it when it's uttered vocally, by anybody. So does the term M**k (which is a disparaging term for Irish-Catholics), for that matter.

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They were also Italian. Specifically, Action - who responds angrily to the derogatory term "w*p" - which is used for those of Italian descent. "M**k" was also used at the same time and is a derogatory term for those of Irish descent.

(Sorry don't want to offend anyone, so I didn't want to spell those terms straight out.)

"Good times, noodle salad"

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This:

They were also Italian. Specifically, Action - who responds angrily to the derogatory term "w*p" - which is used for those of Italian descent. "M**k" was also used at the same time and is a derogatory term for those of Irish descent.


is very true, JujusFlix.

I'd say, that, except for the former Jet gang leader, Tony, who was of Polish descent, the Jets were mostly of Irish and Italian
ancestory.

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Action was probably of both Italian and Irish descent.

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This:

I concur. The Jets are a Polish/Irish mix. Throughout the story the Sharks refer to the Jets as polaks.



is not quite accurate. Bernardo refers to Tony as a "yellow-bellied Polack" during the Rumble, at which point, Riff moves forward and hits Bernardo.

During the pre-Rumble War Council at Doc's Candy Store, when Action refers to the Sharks as "S**cs", one or two of the Jets refer to Action and the Jets as "M**ks and W*ps".

Maybe it means that Action was half Italian and half Irish, and the Jets, overall were an Irish-Italian gang, with the exception of Tony, the ex-Jet, who was of Polish ancestry.

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They include at least Irish, Polish, and Italian. I think it's just native-born Europeans, as opposed to recent-immigrant Puerto Ricans.

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You mean native-born (United States-born) European-Americans.

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They are mixed. Several ethnic slurs are thrown around declaring Irish and Italian. Further, Tony was Polish.

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Immigrants? Really?

"Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America."

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Rita Moreno was the only latin actor in the movie. Everyone else were "painted".

I don't know whether Chakiris was actually "painted" or not. He is of Greek descent, another "olive skinned" ethnicity. From the other things that I've seen, his complexion isn't all that much lighter than Moreno's. (You can spot Chakiris as one of the 4 dancers working with Rosemary Clooney during the "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" number in White Christmas. He also has a fair sized role in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, though his dialog is all dubbed by a French actor.)

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Yeah, its safe to conclude the Jets were a mixed bag of European ethnicities. They are mostly lighter haired though. Even the one called "A-rab". Action does look Italian. Tony does not look Polish; one of several problems with casting Richard Beymer.


One of the gangs they defeated was "The Emeralds" so I always thought that was the Irish gang.

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Actually, however, when one stops to really think about it, there are different ways that people of different ethnic groups look.

Not all Irish or Polish are light-haired and fair-complexioned. There are people of Irish and Polish descent who are deeper-toned in complexion, and darker-haired as well. Ever head the term "black Irish"? That's where this term comes from.

Not all people of Italian extraction are dark complected and dark-haired, either. There are lighter-skinned and fairer haired people of Italian descent, as well.

Because there are so many different ethnicities here in the United States, and there's a long history of intermarriage between the various white Euro-American groups here in this country, that's where the differences in looks come from.

Hope I've been of some help here.

I also might add, however, that most of the Jets, including Riff, Ice, and Joyboy, had mousy-brown hair and average-looking complexions, if one gets the drift.

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The casting of Richard Beymer as Tony, who was of Polish ancestry, doesn't matter. There are different ways for people of different ethnic groups to look.

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(You can spot Chakiris as one of the 4 dancers working with Rosemary Clooney during the "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" number in White Christmas. He also has a fair sized role in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, though his dialog is all dubbed by a French actor.)


He can also be spotted as one of Marilyn Monroe's suitors in her famous "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" rendition from the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He's made up to look like an older gentlemen with the gray streaks, but he was only 19. haha

.

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Actually, PillowRock, it's not true that Rita Moreno was the only Latina actress in the film West Side Story. If you watch the film West Side Story all the way to the end, especially through the credits, and look at the names of the Shark actors/actresses under the Sharks category in the credits, you'll see that there were quite afew Latin Actors who did play Sharks parts.

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i always interpreted that as sarcasm toward police officers in general, because historically so many NY cops (especially in the early 60s) were of Irish descent. What's interesting about Krupke is that the name itself is genealogicaly difficult to trace to a particular ethnicity.

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The policemen Krupke and Schrank are of German descent, obviously. Krupkes occur in North-East Germany.

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One of the points that the playwright (and later the screenwriters) made clear in one of the scenes in Doc's store was that, although the Jets were all "white," they were all descended from different ethnicities. It was the fact that they were white that consolidated them against the Puerto Ricans.

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They're of mixed ethnicity -- and the WOP reference, to Italian heritage, is actually a slur coming from "WithOut Passport" meaning, the arrival of many italians (esp. from Sicily) who got to Ellis Island, without papers.

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That's so interesting, leader-7! It's kind of strange that the origins for slurs for Italians are not so easy to determine as the origins for slurs against other ethnic groups. It wasn't until I read The Thorn Birds that I understood the origins of the terms "Eyeties" and "Dagos" (I - Ts and D'Agostinos). It's interesting (and kind of sad) how words can become so derogatory without anyone ever remembering where they came from.

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Sorry, leader-7, you are wrong about the etymology of "wop." See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wop for more information.

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Yes, but Urban Legend prevails.

Wop is a pejorative slur used to describe Italians, or people descended from Italians. According to Merriam-Webster its first known use was in the United States in 1908. The dictionary is unambiguous that it originates from a southern Italian dialect term guappo, meaning thug, derived from the Spanish term guapo, meaning handsome, via dialectical French, meaning ruffian or pimp.

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That's very true, leader-7. Calling somebody a w*p is like calling somebody the N-word. Both of these particular terms (as do all racial-ethnic epithets), have an equally nasty sound to them, and they both look rather nasty on paper, to boot.

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