Rita Moreno is considered a living legend by many — including the Library of Congress, which bestowed its Living Legends award on her in 2000. The Puerto Rican actress, singer, and dancer is also the first Latina to win an EGOT — that is, an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award — and the list doesn’t end there. She has earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Golden Globe, a Peabody Award, and a National Medal of Arts, as well as receiving the Kennedy Center Honor and induction into the California Hall of Fame.
Moreno came to New York from Puerto Rico with her mother when she was a young child, and her talent was clear from the start. She began doing voice-over work at age 11 and landed her first role on Broadway at 13 as Angelina in Skydrift. Her story is an immigrant story, but unlike many starlets who came before her (including her idol, Rita Hayworth), she didn’t lean away from Latina roles or her identity as Puerto Rican.
Instead, the triple threat broke barriers for Hispanic actresses in Hollywood, codifying her breakthrough when she became the first Latina to win an Academy Award, taking home Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in the 1961 film West Side Story (an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical). Remarkably, she did not appear in a movie for seven years after that, because all the roles she was offered were what she called “island girl” parts — objectified, uneducated women with little backstory or purpose beyond the sexual gratification of the leading men.
When respectable Hollywood roles dried up, Moreno found success once again on the Broadway stage, and in television. Her voice (“Hey, you guys!”) was as well known as her presence on The Electric Company, a show created by Jim Henson. She played roles that subverted expectations on HBO’s Oz (1997-2003) and the beloved 2017 reboot of Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcom One Day at a Time.
But it’s not just her triumphant career that makes Moreno a legend. She overcame decades of racism, sexism, mental health struggles, and near-constant undermining of her talent due to her stunning looks and ethnicity. She developed an unwavering self-respect, exceptional savvy, and a strategic tack of waiting — waiting for the right part, the right person to help her, the right moment. These 14 quotes showcase the spirit that has made Moreno, now age 90, an inspiring and beloved performer for more than seven decades.
Let me just say, first of all, that I’ve never in my life thought of myself and the word "legend" in the same breath… I guess I am one.
What I really wanted to do was kill the bad Rita who was always getting me in trouble, but it turned out if you’re going to kill the bad Rita, you’re also going to kill the good one.
What was important about [playing] Anita to me — and still is — is that Anita, believe it or not, was the only part I ever remember where I represented Hispanics in a dignified and positive way.
Therapy is something that really saw me through some horrible times in my life, particularly things having to do with prejudice and bias. I don't think I could've done it on my own.
I really started to understand that everyone has a responsibility to others and to a community, that you are not the only person in the world you simply represent, whether you like it or not.
I want women to know that all the awards in the world will never make up for the things I have experienced in my life. The be-all and end-all is respect, and self-respect, which took me a long time to earn.
I think some people would say I was tough. I think it’s resilience. Because if I’m tough, there’s a part of me that’s become hard. It’s simply not in my nature.
I come from an era when there were no role models, none… It took me forever to find someone I could model myself on. It turned out to be Anita in West Side Story. This is a woman who had dignity, she has a sense of self-respect. I had never, ever played a Latina like that.
Just because you’re older doesn’t mean that you’re no longer womanly or sexy. That’s ridiculous.
My thinking was, I will do this as long as I have to until somebody discovers that I actually have talent, and I don’t have to flash my bare shoulders around and shake my little hoop earrings. It took a very long time.
The best advice I ever got when I was starting out: Never give up. And I never did.
Even at my most humble, and I was, let me tell you, really humbled, I always believed that I had good stuff and I was talented.
I have always been a quick study. Fast learner. Anything to survive.
Do you have a choice to be courageous? I guess you do. The choices are very narrow. You can either sink or swim, and I obviously chose to swim.
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