By Gabriela Flores
From acting on stage to channeling his South Bronx and Puerto Rican roots in his comedic YouTube series “Tita’s World,” Victor Cruz has immersed himself in nearly everything the entertainment industry has to offer. This includes serving as one of the dialectal coaches for the upcoming Steven Spielberg adaptation of the film “West Side Story.”
Translated from the original Broadway musical, the film shows the tensions between two different ethnic gangs: the Jets and Sharks. Cruz’s role was to advise actors how to colloquially speak like a Boricua living in America during the 1950s. Last Wednesday, Nov. 11, Brooklyn College’s Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Department (PRLS) invited him to take part in its “West Side Story: The Brooklyn Connection Lecture Series.”
There, Cruz discussed how his creative journey began and the fateful offer he received in 2018 that led him to join “West Side Story’s” production.
“It was emotional for me, […] because I remember the original production, and I remember how impactful and important that movie was,” Cruz said, referring to the 1961 film with Rita Moreno, who was the only Puerto Rican portraying a leading Boricua character on set. “But I know every single person in that room was Latino, whether they were Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Colombian – every single person. And that was exciting.”
While conversing with PRLS Chair María Pérez y González and Brooklyn College Professor Emerita Dr. Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Cruz gave a behind the scenes look at the film. He retold how those playing Anita, Maria, and the Sharks were not only picking up Puerto Rican lingo, but also juggling singing and choreography. Under his guidance, Cruz ensured the actors that they were in a safe space to adopt the Boricua dialect’s “cadence and rhythm, and musicality – which cannot be necessarily broken down in phonetics.” Using dialectical references from politicians, sports, and other figures, along with the film’s script translated by a Puerto Rican, Cruz focused solely on checking in with each actor’s Spanish fluency.
“I didn’t want to necessarily intimidate the actors, make them feel overwhelmed because it was a lot to take in a short amount of time,” Cruz said. “But they honestly did such a great job doing it all.”
Cruz’s good ear for sounds and his reputation as a “great mimic” dates back to his childhood when he would record his voice and make funny sketches channeling the Nuyorican and Puerto Rican accents of his relatives. In high school, knowing he wanted to make his stake in entertainment, Cruz made his way to musical theater. While exploring his theatrical intuition, Cruz began doing stand-up comedy gigs at 16.
“[…] They were still smoking at the bars back then. So by the end of the night, I had this huge headache like I had smoked packs of cigarettes. But it was very clear to me at that time, being in musical theater and comedy, that I wanted to act,” Cruz explained, noting that he also knew cartooning would be in his future.
As an undergrad majoring in acting at SUNY Purchase College, Cruz found his mentor Tom Jones, who also worked on dialectical coaching for “West Side Story” and connected Cruz to the production. While honing his skills as an actor, Cruz carried his culture into the voices of different character portrayals, whether it be a nasally South Bronx tone or a deep, raspy accent that he derived from his uncles. Having Jones encouraging him to embrace his cultural authenticity, Cruz found the reassurance he needed after feeling “quite alien” for doing voices that most around him wouldn’t embody.
“You suddenly start to question. ‘Is what I’m doing wrong? Is what I’m doing considered ghetto or too Latino?’ The weirdest thoughts come to your mind, and what I learned is that no, you keep everything that is beautiful about you because there is nothing wrong with you,” Cruz said.
A day before graduating from Purchase, Cruz landed his first major role in HBO’s “The Sopranos” after ditching many classes to shoot his shot in different auditions. Though he thought “The Sopranos” was a stepping stone that’d set his trajectory as an actor, Cruz didn’t hear any callbacks for nearly a year, pushing him to consider pursuing something else.
“I remember sitting by my mom’s window, and I was looking for a star that I could wish upon, and then I saw a star. With all the pollution, I saw a little star, and I said, ‘Please help me, help my career,’” said Cruz. “And then the star started to move, and I realized it was a plane.”
But it was that wish that took Cruz to new opportunities and eventually led him to one of the projects he’s most proud of: “Tita’s World.” The series, which features cartoons created and voiced by Cruz, follows a Boricua living in the South Bronx named Tita. The sketches first garnered attraction when Tita read the famous tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” after premiering in May 2020. As the world began to know Tita, Cruz’s children became involved in the creative processes, tapping into their inner producer and giving genuine reactions to his works.
“Because of them, the show is a success. I make the show today for them, I don’t even do it for the world anymore,” Cruz said, noting that he and his literary agents aim to land a network deal for Tita.
With “West Side Story” hitting theaters this December, Cruz closed the event reflecting on the production’s push for authenticity. After his conversations with Rita Moreno, who starred as Anita in the 1961 version, Cruz saw the importance of prioritizing the Boricua dialect’s accuracy and bringing his community onscreen this time around.
“I think the actors have worked really hard, and I think it goes all the way up to the leadership – from Speilberg to all the way down to the producers, making it their absolute business to make sure that this picture was going to be as close to authenticity as possible,” Cruz said. “And they didn’t cut any corners, and I’m really grateful for that.”