Ariana DeBose: West Side Story’s Anita Helped Me Embrace My Latinx Identity

ariana debose and rita moreno in west side story
Design by Leah Romero

Ariana DeBose creates characters that touch the heart and linger in the mind. Every new screen or stage role, whether it’s starring in Netflix’s The Prom or being in the Hamilton ensemble on Broadway, is a visceral challenge and a chance for her to grow. Her latest turn as Anita in Steven Spielbergs West Side Story looks to define her career as it did for Rita Moreno, who originated the part in the 1961 original film and became the first Latinx woman to ever win an Oscar. For DeBose, playing Anita is more than a vehicle for a brilliant performance; its a full circle moment. The film helped DeBose connect with her Latinidad as a child in Raleigh, North Carolina and sparked an interest in pursuing dance professionally. Now, she’s turning the mirror back on the next generation of Afro-Latinx moviegoers, who will see a more accurate representation of Latinx people who are diverse in culture and complexion, and crystalize the kinship therein.


I was probably seven or eight when I first watched West Side Story. The film—and Dance with Me with Vanessa Williams and Chayanne, which I saw as an early teen—introduced me to Latin dance and Latin ballroom. They also introduced me to Latinx culture.

We didn’t speak Spanish at home. My mother is an educator and a glorious white woman, and I love the upbringing that she gave me. The way she tried to keep my Latinidad alive in me was through art. I knew I was different, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. So, making sense of all that art was how I found solace. It helped me make sense of my identity.

dance shoes

The art that you consume during your formative years is incredibly impactful. I revisited West Side Story several times over, and every time I watched the film, I found something new. Oh, what did they cook? What are they making there? What are they talking about here? Why are the Sharks fighting the Jets?

I did see myself in Anita. Perhaps not completely in the physical manifestation of her, because Rita Moreno and I look very different, but in the attributes of this character. She’s a woman ahead of her time. She has agency and she speaks her mind. But she believes in the possibility of her American dream and that there is space for her at the proverbial table, and she’s willing to work hard to earn it. I understood that I could claim that space too later on when I had a greater understanding of my Afro-Latinidad. I came to a fuller acceptance of who I am as an adult because I didn’t understand that I could be both Black and Latinx growing up. Auditioning for Anita was an act of teaching the people in the audition room by existing and taking up space as a Black, Afro-Latinx, queer woman. I can’t separate one from the other. I have to celebrate my Afro-Latinidad, not deny it. And I wanted to do this with love and joy and strength and great vulnerability. Those are attributes that need to be seen.

Sixty years after the original movie’s release, I feel like our version of West Side Story is a step in the right direction. All Latinx roles are portrayed by Latinos in this film. We celebrate the diaspora with Latinos from every walk of life. That in and of itself is a massive part of West Side Story’s legacy. We all have different cultures and skin colors. We’re knocking down doors and walls. The fact that we’re showing it can be done respectfully and responsibly means everything to me. It’s what I always hoped to watch on screen when I was a kid.

rita moreno in west side story

We always remember the first time we feel seen and the times we do not.

I feel a tremendous responsibility toward this film and, quite frankly, have been sweating over the day that it’s finally out in the world. But I’m also very proud of the work—you sweat and you get nervous because you care. And I have great care for this movie. I want for the next generation of Afro-Latinx audience members to go, “That’s what I want to do. She looks like me, and I can do that because she’s doing it.” We always remember the first time we feel seen and the times we do not. For marginalized people especially, the validation we get in seeing ourselves in others is vital.

When I started understanding my Latinidad as an adult, I realized I didn’t want to fit into what I perceived as a more acceptable mainstream portrayal of Latinx culture. I knew I wanted to bring light to Afro-Latinxs who should be seen more and heard more, which has affected every story I tell and my activism work. I want us to be present. This version of West Side Story proves that change is a wonderfully powerful thing—if we allow it to occur.

I’m still evolving, transforming, and growing, but knowing that West Side Story helped bring me to this initial awakening about my identity doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s part of what makes me what I am. My Blackness, my Latinidad, and my queerness all resonate in me equally and can’t be separated from each other. All I know is that I am ready to participate as my true self for whatever life brings next.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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