As we embark on another Hispanic Heritage month and celebrate Latinos and Latinas, no list of outstanding Hispanic women would be complete without Rita Moreno. Rita Moreno is one of a select group of performers and the only Hispanic to have won all four of the most prestigious show business awards: an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy. She was also inducted into the California Museum’s California Hall of Fame as one who embodies California’s innovative spirit.
Over the years, Moreno won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Anita in “West Side Story.” She is a two-time Emmy winner (for “The Muppet Show” in 1977 and “The Rockford Files” in 1978). She received a Grammy Award in 1972 for her performance on “The Electric Company” album for children based on the long-running television show of the same name. She received a Tony Award in 1975 for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role in “The Ritz.” She received three ALMA Awards (for “Oz” in 1998, 1999 and 2002, and a Life-time Achievement Award in 1998). She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1995.
But it was a far different and indifferent world when Moreno arrived by boat from her native Humacao, Puerto Rico, at the tender age of five. The year was 1936, and young Moreno, then known as Rosita Dolores Alverío, arrived in New York to live with her mother who was toiling as a seamstress in one of the Big Apple’s infamous sweatshops of that era. Being raised in New York during the heart of the depression was especially difficult for Puerto Ricans – a situation that didn’t change much and was ironically chronicled in the musical “West Side Story,” the movie that made Moreno a star.
Recalling her journey to star-dom, Moreno told Hispanic Outlook Publishing in an exclusive interview. “[Today’s Hispanic performers] have no clue about how tough it was for Latinos when I was starting out in this business. Jennifer Lopez says I inspired her before she was famous, but I’m sure she has no idea about how hard it was to break through. None of them do.” Moreno told Hispanic Outlook Publishing that Latinas were relegated to playing “Indian maidens and Latin spitfires.” Moreno explained that the racism that was so pervasive during the so-called golden age of Hollywood was based on ignorance as well as malevolence. She says that the assumption was that Hispanics couldn’t speak English that well or could “only speak with an accent.” Those kinds of assumptions suppressed the Hispanic work force in films and theatre.
Still, the grit and determina-tion Moreno showed – even as a child – drove her to dare to dream the American Dream. She started taking dancing lessons when she was six years old. And by the age of 13 she was appearing on Broadway in the play “Skydrift.” Little Rosita Alverio eventually landed in Hollywood and was transformed into Rita Moreno – an attempt by MGM to turn her into an all-American starlet, like Brooklyn born actress Rita Hayworth who was, ironically, the daughter of Spanish flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino (Sr.) and English/Irish-American Ziegfeld girl Volga Hayworth. What followed was a film career that included appearances in more than 40 films, including “West Side Story,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The King and I,” “The Night of the Following Day,” “Marlowe,” “Popi,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Ritz,” “The Four Seasons,” “I Like It Like That,” “Angus,” “Carlo’s Wake,” “Blue Moon,” “Piñero,” “Casa de los Babys” and “April Showers.”
For her, staying power is the key to her success. She says it’s easy for some people to question some of the film choices she made to sustain herself and her career. Moreno says she made those choices because she was “determined to keep making films until something changed, and something wonderful happened.”
Something wonderful did happen for Moreno when she landed the role of Anita in the film version of “West Side Story.” But even winning an Oscar for that role didn’t change the perception of Hollywood toward Latina actresses.
“I got the Oscar, and I was invited to do more gang movies in lesser projects, which I turned down. And that was very sad for a while. I didn’t do a movie for about six years after I won the Oscar. I was offered some things, but they were all the terrible gang type movies, and I didn’t want to do that again.”
Despite also receiving numerous honorary degrees from universities and colleges across the country, Moreno does not hesitate to explain that she does not have any formal education. She conceded that she attended the school of “hard knocks,” but that this was not a choice she made but more of a necessity. She now gives this advice to young Hispanics: don’t forgo an education as you pursue your career choice.
Moreno insists, “The most important thing young people can do for themselves and their children or future children is to go to school and get a good education. They need to find something they love and pursue it. They should not give up following their dream. It’s not always possible to find something you truly love, but if you can, you must work to fulfill your dream.”
Moreno has spent a lifetime pursuing her dreams. In addition to her film, stage, television and concert careers, she is a much sought after lecturer for various organizations and university campuses. She has served on the National Endowment for the Arts as a commissioner on the President’s White House Fellowships and as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. At a White House ceremony in 2004, Moreno was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The medal is the highest honor given to a civilian and ranks second only to The Congressional Medal of Honor as the nation’s highest award and is conferred to individuals for a lifetime of meritorious service.
Despite her remarkable career, Moreno worries about the younger generation of Hispanics as they make their own life choices. She is concerned that these young people who have more opportunities for advancement and success than ever before sabotage their own efforts. “Too often young Hispanics ghettoize themselves. Part of it is peer pressure and part of it is allowing others to define them. They are too willing to accept the judgment of people who would marginalize or minimize them and their abilities.” She also has a dire prediction for the future of American society – one that she hopes young people will pay attention to. “We are moving into a new world of dish-washers. There’s nothing wrong with being a dishwasher. Someone has to do that job, but if you have a dream, you should go after it. It’s called perseverance.”
And perseverance is something Rita Moreno knows a lot about.