Something nice to remember when you watch West Side Story (either the 1961 original or the 2021 Spielberg adaptation) is that Rita Moreno, who stars in both films, spent large portions of her career fighting Hollywood racism, standing up for civil rights, and helping to create — as she sings in the new movie — “a place for us.”
Moreno plays Valentina in the 2021 adaptation, and also serves as one of the film’s executive producers. But it’s been a long, winding journey to get there, starting in a little cottage at the heart of a rainforest in Puerto Rico and winding through MGM musicals, The Muppet Show, dates with Elvis Presley, and a particularly successful run as a bathhouse chanteuse.
It’s an absolutely incredible journey. I’m obsessed. You should be too.
On December 11, 1931, Rita Moreno was born in a little town in Puerto Rico — or to put it more accurately, Rosa Dolores Alverío was born. The name “Rita Moreno” would come much later, courtesy of a casting agent at MGM.
For the first few years of her life, Rita grew up in what she later referred to as “a world of pleasure,” a lush forested village full of flowers and song. But looking back, as an adult, it wasn’t quite the paradise it seemed at the time: Not only was the family mired in poverty, but her mother had a rocky relationship with her father, who was unfaithful and didn’t support the family.
One morning, before the sun rose, Rita’s mother woke her 5-year-old daughter, handed her a suitcase, and said, “we’re leaving.” They boarded a steamer, leaving behind the only life Rita had ever known, and started a storm-tossed journey north to New York City.
It was a rough time to move; the Great Depression had left jobs scarce and deepened many Americans’ entrenched racism. There was a widely held belief that immigrants were to blame for the country’s economic woes, and widespread hostility toward Puerto Ricans. (This was, of course, entirely misplaced; immigrants had no role in causing the Great Depression, and even if they did, Puerto Rico is part of America, and its citizens are residents of the U.S., not immigrants.)
New York of the late 1930s was a difficult environment for Rita — who spoke no English when she arrived — and her mother, who found backbreaking work sewing clothes in a Manhattan sweatshop. But there was also happiness: Rita loved to put on records and dance. A family friend suggested dance lessons, and her mother scraped together the money for professional classes.
They were lucky enough to find an excellent teacher: Paco Cansino, uncle of film star Rita Hayworth. She quickly took to the lessons, and before she was ten years old, she had multiple agents booking her for dance performances in nightclubs and lounges around the city. Her mother quit her job to make costumes and support her daughter’s budding performance career, and Rita entered her teen years as the family’s sole breadwinner.
A chance encounter with a casting agent brought the family to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, who summoned Rita to his office and declared “she looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!” He offered her a contract on the spot, and with that she was off to Los Angeles to start her motion picture career.
It wasn’t what she expected.
At the time, Hollywood wasn’t interested in giving leading roles to people of color. Actors whose skin was even remotely dark or whose background was Hispanic tended to find themselves typecast into offensive, stereotypical roles — what Rita called “dusky maidens.” She was cast to play Mexican, Burmese, Native American, and Indian characters, and always to affect a vaguely “foreign” accent.
“I longed to speak English as I speak it today,” she later recalled. But instead, it was always “hands on hips, nostrils flared,” with dialogue that she dreaded, like “why you no love Ula no more?”
But then came a big break: An opportunity to play Anita in the film adaptation of West Side Story, a Broadway show about two star-crossed lovers in 1950s New York, one with ties to a Puerto Rican gang and another with ties to a white gang. The part of Anita was “THE part for a Hispanic girl,” she recalled: A bold, courageous character with firm values, and above all, self-respect. “Someone who actually had an opinion,” as Rita described her.
She fought hard for the role, undergoing an arduous casting process before she was finally offered the part. And then she almost turned it down.
In the song America, she would have to sing the lyric, “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases.” She was mortified, and was about to back out of the role she’d wanted to so badly — but at the last moment, she received an updated version: “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.” It was still a bit harsh, but far less hateful than the original. She breathed a sigh of relief, and accepted the role.
The 1961 film was a huge hit. Rita’s performance was called out as a particular highlight, from her energetic dancing to her arresting voice and her spellbinding performance. But despite the critical praise, she still wasn’t treated with respect by the industry: Nominated for an Oscar, the studio refused to pay for her travel to the awards show — she was forced to pay out-of-pocket to attend — and nobody, including Rita herself, expected her to win.
But she did.
Despite the victory, a string of dreadful roles followed. This time, though, Rita adopted confident Anita as a role model, and started saying “no” to the awful stereotypes. “I showed them,” she later recalled. “I didn’t make another movie for seven years.”
During that time, she endured a tumultuous relationship with the actor Marlon Brando, a huge star who was, by all accounts, a toxic presence. He was needy and controlling, and even forced Rita to get an abortion at one point. She struggled to extricate herself from the relationship, at one point going on a (completely uneventful) date with Elvis Presley to send a message to Marlon about her independence.
A highlight of those difficult years was her engagement with social causes. It began with environmental protection, and then blossomed into the growing civil rights movement. Rita attended protests and rallies, including the March on Washington where she saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from only a few feet away. It galvanized her, and imbued her with a new sense of pride for herself and her work, and completely transformed her career.
Through the 1970s, Rita started taking on roles that were more daring and that rejected stereotypical depictions of the past. One of the most famous is that of Googie Gomez, a character she initially created as a joke amongst friends: An oblivious cabaret singer with an outrageous accent, Rita created the character to be a parody of all the terrible stereotypical roles she’d suffered through in the past: “A way of ‘thumbing my nose at writers who wrote those stereotypes, all those asses who write characters like that seriously.’”
As it happens, a young playwright named Terrence McNally saw Rita do the character at a party, and decided on the spot that he’d write a play for her. Three years later, she made her debut in The Ritz, a door-slamming farce about a gay bathhouse based on the real-life Continental Baths in New York. It was a hit, and Rita earned her first Tony for the role that she’d created.
A slew of outstanding roles followed: She won an Emmy for an early episode of The Muppet Show, and another for The Rockford Files, as well as a Grammy for The Electric Company. Rita was now finally able to take the meaningful roles that were denied to her in decades past, like singing about feminism on Sesame Street and playing a hard-boiled nun on the show Oz.
She also continued her activism. In the 1980s, she appeared at an early fundraiser for HIV nonprofits, and also lent her name to a newspaper ad supporting Pride events. “I feel so strongly that I should defend human rights,” she wrote in the ad, “I’ve always supported my gay friends.” She presented at the GLAAD awards; her husband, a doctor, earned a reputation for caring for HIV+ patients at a time when many health care providers were afraid to do so.
And then, a few years ago, a breathtaking opportunity presented itself: Her agent told her that Steven Spielberg wanted to call her, and asked if it was okay to pass her number along. “It’s like, are there hookers in Houston?” Rita answered. “Of course I want him to call me!”
Steven was making a new interpretation of West Side Story, and asked if she’d be interested in appearing in it. Just as before, she nearly turned it down: “I’m so flattered,” she told him, “but I don’t do cameos.”
This was no cameo though — it was a new character, created with her in mind by screenwriter Tony Kushner. In the new film, she plays Valentina, a widowed shop owner who serves as a bridge between the Puerto Rican and white gangs. A particularly moving moment comes when she sings “Somewhere,” a song about her belief that even though a person may feel like they don’t belong, somewhere out there is a place where they can be accepted for who they are and who they love.
“There’s a place for us,” the lyrics go. “Hold my hand and we're halfway there.” It’s a fitting song for an actress whose entire career has been about asserting who she truly is, finding the courage to stand up for herself, and then using her platform to stand up for others who want to do the same.