¡Yo soy Puertorriqueña!:” Ariana DeBose Makes History At Oscars

Her heart-wrenching reimagination of “West Side Story’s” Anita wins Academy Award.

Ariana DeBose accepts Academy Award for "West Side Story."
Photo Courtesy / YouTube ABC

Actress Ariana DeBose made history at the 94th Academy Awards, becoming the first openly queer actor of color to win an Oscar. DeBose won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s reimagined “West Side Story.” 

“Even in this weary world we live in, dreams do come true,” DeBose said in her powerfully emotional acceptance speech. “So, to anybody who has ever questioned your identity…I promise you this – there is indeed a place for us.” 

With her Oscar win, DeBose, alongside legendary actress Rita Moreno — who portrayed Anita in the 1961 version of “West Side Story” — became the first and only actresses to win an Academy Award for the same role in a remake. 

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is a modern retelling of the classic play; he manages to modernize the story, infusing it with the diversity that the original lacked, all while maintaining the same, key messages of love and hate. 

“Some non-Hispanic actors played Hispanic parts,” Moreno revealed in an interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News, recalling the 1961 version. “Skin was definitely, I’m going to tell you, darkened.” Hearing this for the first time was immensely shocking. Not only was it painfully obvious when watching the original every time after hearing this, but it completely broke down the authenticity of the original film. I remember thinking ‘can they do that?’ And while they did in 1961, DeBose broke down the changes in how society attempts to view or define culture. “Latinos are not a monolith,” she adds. “There’s no one way to present.”  

DeBose’s portrayal of Anita allows “West Side Story” to become more relevant in 2022. It does not shy away from how unfair the system is and holds the system accountable. Viewing the reimagined film in Dec. 2021, I could clearly see how things were stacked against the Puerto Ricans. It is important to not only see but understand these perspectives. When you force people into marginalization and objectification, then penalize them for being in the margins, the result is violence, hate and anger.   

The role of Anita is purely gut-wrenching. The character, whether it is Moreno’s or DeBose’s embodiment, is put through horrifying experiences. DeBose’s Anita experiences the death of her love, Bernardo, and an attempted assault on her when she goes to deliver a message to Tony from Maria. The amount of grief and the assault on her person is immensely difficult to watch. 

“It is ugly. It is loud. It is highly emotional,”  DeBose told NBC. At this point, you are not a viewer anymore; you are part of the film, wanting to save Anita, feeling the desperation of her cry for help and wanting to do something, anything, to make it stop. The chill down your spine, the sickening pit in your stomach, the tears welling in your eyes during various scenes by DeBose. From identifying her murdered love to her near assault, these pure testimonies show how DeBose not only portrayed, but became Anita.  

I believe this is why classics are retold. “West Side Story” is a classic because it has the ability to be reimagined. The 2021 film provides historical context to better understand the meaning of the film; it becomes tangible in a way, and it feels extremely real and raw. The character of Anita represents a modern-day woman who speaks her mind, which “comes very naturally to [DeBose].” Despite being women of two different time periods, experiencing different hardships, obstacles and discrimination, DeBose’s performance validates and reinforces the 1961 and 2021 versions of Anita — and all that she represents.