I was a kid who wanted to do Chekhov, and there I was in movies, dancing barefoot and looking terrifically sulky and sultry.

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Rita Moreno is one of the all-time great Puerto Rican entertainers. A skillful actress who also sings and dances, her versatility has led to decades of success on stage, screen, and television. She has proved that Hispanic performers are not limited to “ethnic” roles, and in the process she became the only female artist ever to win the four major entertainment awards: the Oscar, the Tony, the Grammy, and the Emmy.

She was born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on December 11, 1932. Called “Rosita,” she came from a family of jibaros, small independent farmers, with land at the edge of El Yunque rainforest. In the 1930s, however, the pressures of the Depression and the side effects of the island’s rapid industrialization forced her family to look elsewhere for sustenance. Rosita’s mother, Rosa Maria, left home to work in the garment industry in New York City. A year later, five-year-old Rosita joined her mother in New York, leaving behind a father and brother whom she would never see again.

Though New York was a drastic change from life on the farm, the city provided a cultural atmosphere rich enough to nurture Rosita’s immense talent. Her dancing ability was spotted very early on, and she made her first public performance – at a night club in Greenwich Village – when she was only seven. After struggling to master English at school each day, she would attend performance classes and auditions.

As an eleven-year-old, Rosita lent her voice to Spanish-language versions of American films. By thirteen, she had her first role on Broadway, which caught the attention of Hollywood talent scouts. Over the next few years, she sang and danced professionally. At seventeen, she appeared in a film called So Young, So Bad. Soon after, Rosita Moreno, using the surname of her mother’s third husband, shortened her first name to “Rita” at the request of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer and signed her first movie deal.

In little more than ten years, Rosa Dolores Alverio, daughter of farmers, had reinvented herself as Rita Moreno, Hollywood starlet. However, she found herself relegated to a remote corner of the entertainment world. The range of her talents ignored, she was incessantly cast as a fiery Latin sex kitten or an Indian maiden in a succession of low quality movies. “The more I played those dusky innocents, the worse I felt inside,” Moreno said later.

“I was a kid who wanted to do Chekhov,” she admitted in 1999, “and there I was in movies, dancing barefoot and looking terrifically sulky and sultry.”

After a decade of these degrading roles (a highlight for Moreno was The King and I because – though barefoot – she wasn’t dressed in rags), she was cast as the strong-willed and independent Anita in the movie version of West Side Story.

The film West Side Story was released in 1961 to immense critical acclaim. This retelling of Romeo and Juliet on the mean streets of New York City had emerged as a Tony-winning Broadway show in the late ’50s (with Puerto Rican actress Chita Rivera playing Anita). The film version was a major breakthrough, a Hollywood movie with an unmistakable message against intolerance and division. In 1962, West Side Story collected nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Rita Moreno received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Almost 40 years later, what was once a groundbreaking portrayal of ethnic conflict appears at moments clumsy and antiquated. The Puerto Rican characters in West Side Story are dark foreigners with heavy accents, living in violence and poverty. Many Puerto Ricans abhor this representation and resent that the success of the film has perpetuated such stereotypes among the general American public.

Yet West Side Story is perhaps best understood not as a high water mark in the portrayal of Puerto Ricans in American culture – for it is undoubtedly not that – but as a kind of cultural turning point. Indeed, the film’s depiction of ethnic division and urban violence can be seen as a foreshadowing of the civil rights struggles and general social turbulence of subsequent years.

The film certainly sent Rita Moreno’s career in a different direction. Having slogged through movies with names like The Fabulous Señorita and Pagan Love Song, the exposure of her electric, Oscar-winning performance gave her a chance to make a clean break from the past.

Throughout the 1960s, Moreno focused on the stage, starring in She Loves Me in London and in plays by Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon in New York. In this time, she married Lenny Gordon, a doctor, who remains her husband and manager. She returned to motion pictures in the late ’60s and starred in several movies, the most famous of which is the Mike Nichols comedy Carnal Knowledge with Jack Nicholson.

The ’70s were an even busier time for Moreno. Now the mother of a young child (her daughter was born in 1967), she appeared on Sesame Street and was a cast member on another children’s television show, The Electric Company.
She hoped these appearances would provide inspiration to Hispanic children.

“I am Latin and know what it is to feel alone and ignored because you are different,” she said at the time. “My presence [on The Electric Company] can tell a lot of children and some adults, “Yes, we do exist, we have value.”

Moreno received a Grammy award for her contribution to The Electric Company soundtrack album in 1972. Three years later, she garnered a Tony for her performance in the Broadway show The Ritz. In 1977 and ’78, she won Emmy awards for her roles on Sesame Street and The Rockford Files, respectively.

Rita Moreno has remained busy the past 20 years. She continues to appear in movies, most recently in the highly praised independent film Slums of Beverly Hills in 1998. On television she has spent several seasons on another critic’s favorite, the HBO prison drama Oz. She has been performing solo concerts since the early ’70s, and last year she did a series of cabaret shows in San Francisco and New York.

Ultimately, Rita Moreno’s success goes far beyond her ability to act or sing or win awards. In the early 1960s, she criticized what she called “Hollywood Jim Crowism.” That system, which used to be rampant in the movie industry (and which is still not fully dead), marginalized actors who did not seem to represent mainstream America and cast Latinos and other minorities in menial roles. Rita Moreno’s real contribution has been her ability to transcend the discriminatory practices of Hollywood and set a precedent for Latino actors to be recognized by talent rather than ethnicity.

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