Through iconic and awarding winning roles in West Side Story as Anita and on the Electric Company to historic accomplishments like being the first latina and Puerto-Rican to win the pinnacle of acting awards known as the EGOT, Rita Moreno’s impact spanning eight decades has indisputably paved the way for young latino filmmakers, actors, and directors. Born in the small town of Humaco, Puerto Rico as Rosa Dolores Alverio in 1931, Moreno grew in poverty and faced adversity living in a rural area with little social mobility and economic opportunities. Despite these challenges, Moreno’s mother saved enough money to move Moreno and her brother to New York in search of a better life. In New York City, Moreno’s mother enrolled her in dance classes and Moreno subsequently appeared in Spanish language versions of American films and made her Broadway debut at age 13 in a production known as “Skydrift”. Getting her film debut in So Young, So Bad, Moreno began her work as a film actress and would later appear in smaller roles for MGM Entertainment where she earned a seven year contract under the stage name of Rita Moreno. However, despite the fast pace of Moreno’s career, she faced the enduring challenge of finding roles that casted her beyond racial and ethnic stereotypes like as “exotic” or “hypersexualized” characters that lacked true depth and development. As a result of her persistent typecasting as ethnic characters ranging from Native Hawaiian to Filipino, Moreno was rarely featured in prominent roles despite her appearance in the 1956 Film King and I as a young Burmese servant named Tuptim which shows Hollywood’s tendency to cast women of color as servile and submissive characters. Despite Moreno’s typecasting, Moreno was casted in the 1961 film West Side Story, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan's Upper West Side, as the “fiery” Anita who was sister-like figure to protagonist Maria who was portrayed by Natalie Wood. For her role as Anita, Moreno became the first Hispanic person and woman to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Given the prevalence of typecasting discrimination during the 1950s-60s, Moreno briefly retired from the film industry and made a transition to work in summer theater productions like The Miracle Worker; in this play, Moreno played “Annie Sullivan”. Although many now would understand Moreno’s departure from film acting, at the time, it was odd for an Academy Award winner to shift from film to summer theater. After a brief absence from film, Moreno returned in The Night of the Following Day and also appeared in television as a main cast member for the PBS children television series The Electric Company garnering her a Grammy in 1972 due to her contributions to the Electric Company’s soundtrack. Also, Moreno appeared on the Muppet Show, another PBS’ children program which eventually earned her a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. Through her portrayal of self made character Googie Gomez in the 1975 Broadway play, The Ritz, Moreno won a Tony for Best Featured Actress.
Due to her years of performing arts excellence and impact, Moreno performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton and would later be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As the quintessential actor who has appeared on Broadway, television, film (animated and live action), and all other major forms of media and entertainment, Moreno remains one of the most awarded and influential actresses alive as one of 18 EGOT current winners and the third overall. In her own words, Moreno is a “just a girl who decided to go for it” with a career spanning eight decades making her an influential force in Hollywood.
Films/ Television Shows You Should Watch starring Rita Moreno:
One Day at A Time
Eighty for Brady
West Side Story (1961, 2022)
Rita Moreno: “A girl who decided to go for it” (Documentary)
9 to 5
The Rockford Files ( Won a primetime Emmy for this series in 1978).