Rita Moreno: Grace in the Face of Media Ignorance
It’s no secret Latinx creatives have been working and striving in the background for years. We’re only now seeing a stronger push for inclusion across all popular media. But what about the people who opened the door for us, who fought the hard fight?
At the onset of the film industry, any actor who was not caucasian had no option but to accept the stereotypical and offensive parts they were offered. The Iconic Rita Moreno faced disparaging attempts against her character throughout her career to become one of three people to achieve PEGOT status. Are you staring at the acronym, wondering what all the letters stand for? Rita is a Peabody, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award-winning creative. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it gatekeepers!
Rita came to live in New York with her mother in the late 30’s. She immediately thrived in her dancing and singing classes; she was eventually cast in roles on Broadway which lead to her performing in films. Her early career was fraught with stereotypical roles for ‘brown’ people, of which she did not share a common racial or ethnic background. At the time, these parts were what was available to people who didn’t check the box of being a Caucasian American. Rita was eventually featured on the cover of Life Magazine which led to her casting as Anita in West Side Story.
West Side Story may be full of holes on Hollywood’s understanding of ethnic relations, but we as a society are better for having seen her performance and resulting Oscar win. Finally, a vibrant Latina actress cast as a lead in 61′! Imagine performing alongside Natalie Wood (a Russian American actress cast as Maria no less) covered in skin darkening makeup as an already full-blown Puerto Rican woman. I mean – what the fuck! Our community was lucky she was cast and even more fortunate that she continued her acting journey after being denied lead parts in favor of her white counterparts.
After her Oscar win, Rita was determined never to play an alienating and stereotypical role again. She did not take another film role until seven years after the Oscar. Rita went on to find continued success on Broadway and TV. She even got to perform with the Muppets, was a featured guest on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and starred in the hit PBS show The Electric Company! During this time, she won her Emmy, Grammy, and Tony awards.
Rita has continued to break barriers wide open for the Latinx community and makes hella noise at 88 years old. What an amazing lady – when I watch her, I’m reminded of the strength of my mother, Latina women, and myself. In 2019, Rita won the career achievement Peabody award a monumental addition making her one of three total PEGOT achievers.
All of us need to remember the grace she sustained in the face of ignorance, as well as the way she came to love and value who she is. She is one of the many Latinx people who have shaped the landscape of the United States.