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A real-life 'West Side Story'
Family of Maria actress reflects play's immigrants

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When this week’s Civic Center audiences meet a girl named Maria, played by the actress Evy Ortiz, she’ll be singing the story of her grandparents. They left Puerto Rico for New York in the 1950s, just like the immigrants portrayed in the Broadway musical “West Side Story.”

“This is the role everyone said I should play, and it’s been my dream since I was younger,” said the actress, who grew up in New York herself, in Spanish Harlem. “It was sort of meant to be, I guess.”

She puts up their photos in her dressing room — her grandfather Andres, with a skinny tie, and her grandmother Eloina, feeling pretty in a tight dress and pearls. You can practically hear them singing.

Skyscrapers bloom in America. Cadillacs zoom in America. Industry boom in America.


They saw it all and, like their fictional counterparts, developed mixed feelings about their noisy new home. Ortiz forwarded an email her grandmother sent last week from their home in Orlando, where the long-married couple moved awhile back.

“Your grandfather did not like it here. He came to live in a rented room in the house of a lady he says was crazy. She walked around the apartment with a Bible on her head and would not let them turn on the lights.”

Ortiz filled in a bit of family lore. “He lived above an apple shop, and to this day he hates the smell of apples.”

Andres was 11 years old when he arrived, and Eloina just 9. Their families had known each other back on “the island,” as they still call it, and they stuck pretty closely with other Puerto Ricans in New York. Andres was reluctant to learn English.

“We both had problems in school,” Eloina wrote. “I constantly fought with some African-American girls, and Andres was badly beat up by a gang of Italians. The other guys that he was with left him when the fight started.”

Those cowards should have learned the song.

You’re never alone. You’re never disconnected. You’re home with your own. When company’s expected, you’re well protected.

Things are different now. New York still has a lively Puerto Rican community, but they’re jumbled together with a broader mix of Latinos across upper Manhattan and the Bronx, Ortiz said. She was a teenager when her family left Spanish Harlem, or SpaHa, for the quieter, leafier neighborhood of Westchester County.

But she recognizes the view from the bridge.

“Maria is definitely a Puerto Rican, but she’s in between,” she said. “She still wants to experience a new place. That resonates with me because I don’t really see barriers. I want to see other cultures and other people.”

The show’s current revival has taken pains to be more authentic. A number of songs were adapted into Spanish by the original playwright, Arthur Laurents, who died last May at 93, and the reworked staging reflects new efforts to pull more depth out of the classic score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins.

“It’s much grittier, less about ballerina gangs and more about the love story,” Ortiz said. “We try hard to make it as realistic as possible.”

If they succeed, her grandparents will let her know. They’ll see the show for the first time in May, when the tour heads to the East Coast.
Tags: 2010 national tour, evy ortiz, interviews, maria

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