Why it is Hard to Cast Puerto Rican Roles – And Any Role in General

First off, I won’t be watching West Side Story. Not because of the casting, but because I don’t enjoy musicals. I am a Puerto Rican born and raised in The States (and Puerto Rico). However, I was not raised in New York, but was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chicago, Illinois, San Antonio, Texas, and Puerto Rico, too. While I met Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico that were raised in New York, I never had that experience, so I was never drawn to West Side Story.

Mandy Velez wrote a great essay on the issues she takes with the casting of the new West Side Story. You can read her piece here.

I fantasize about Marta – my heroine of the Housekeeping Detective Series – getting her own TV series. But here’s the thing. I can’t think of one Puerto Rican actress that would perfectly encapsulate the role.

DON’T GET ME WRONG! I can think of at least five awesome Puerto Rican actresses – three of them Puerto Ricans from Chicago. Here they are and here’s why I have trouble believing that they would work as Marta:

Justina Machado – She’s got the acting chops and the great chip on her shoulder, but she is so cute. Okay. Revising my opinion. She might actually work as Marta.

Kiele Sanchez – The differences here are conflicting to me. Kiele seems to have this grit in her acting that is so compelling, but she’s fair-featured. My mom is naturally blonde-hair and blue-eyed, as is my brother, some of my aunts and uncles, my grandfather, and so on. They are as Puerto Rican as they come. But, those lighter features don’t fit Marta’s physical description. Also, Kiele is very pretty.

Roselyn Sanchez – Roselyn is a legit, born-and-raised-in-Puerto Rico Puerto Rican. But she is a former Miss Puerto Rico and is absolutely beautiful. But maybe I am changing my mind. She’s got a toughness about her that could be honed to a sharp chip on her shoulder, which would work for Marta.

Jennifer Lopez – Honest to God, in writing this essay, J.Lo’s name only came up just now. I would not want Jennifer Lopez for this role because I am worried that her fame would eat up the entire story and the rest of her characters. Also, she is very pretty. Marta Morales is not unattractive, but when we find her in book one, she is pretty bitter and pissed off.

Andrea Navedo – Andrea Navedo comes pretty close to approximating my vision of Marta. Like the other actresses here, she is very pretty.

Ana Ortiz – I only know Ana’s work from Ugly Betty. The truth is that I don’t know if she would work as Marta because I don’t know enough of her work.

Gina Rodriguez – Like Kiele and Justina, Gina is another tough Chicago girl. I love Gina’s work. Whenever I see her on something I’m watching, I get excited. She is so bubbly, funny, and electric. But, she is pretty and young-looking.

Non-Puerto Ricans that might fit the bill:

Alyssa Diaz – Her intensity and humor and grit are everything I love watching in a performance. She is so thrilling to watch.

Eliza Dushku – Eliza is intense and very pretty. Her acting is a sharp as a knife.

Friends and family that might that might fit the bill:

A.C. is a Puerto Rican woman from Florida who has actually done some housekeeping work. She’s deep and philosophical. She has a lot of experience dealing with difficult people. Even when being stung, she is out there looking for – and finding – the beauty in everyday things. But, she is not an actress. Also, a problem is that she is breathtakingly gorgeous to look at.

E.R. is my cousin who lives in Chicago. She is a hardworking family woman. But she is also very pretty and stands out for it.

A.A. is one of my childhood friends who lives in Puerto Rico. She is assertive and intelligent, but she is also beautiful and fair-featured. And – not an actress.

Pretty isn’t a problem. Pretty is wonderful to look at – being in children, women, men, and pets. However, a lot of beauty in one person is distracting. A pretty person stands out. A pretty person gets singled out and gets different treatment. If Marta were beautiful, she probably would have had an easier go of things.

Pretty is not what Marta is. Marta is attractive, but that’s not her most prominent feature. She’s intense, tough, funny, and the street-smartest person in the room.

I understand the difficulties that come with converting a literary character to a silver screen one. It is hard. Our fictional characters encapsulate things that are difficult to find in one person – which is probably what writers strive for. Casting directors are left with the hard work of matching a physical description with a personality, ethnicity and sometimes a cultural identity. That is a tall order.

So, I will cast Steven Spielberg some slack, and I hope you do, too. Maybe, one day, artificial intelligence will be able to transpose a written character to a physical depiction for the big screen. But we aren’t there yet, and I don’t think we want to be. I think, that at the very least, we can agree with casting humans in human roles.

marta cleans up

Cyndia Rios-Myers

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