Rita Moreno: a Living American Portrait
When Rita Moreno talks, there’s always a contextual echo. “I’m an actress,” she’ll say, excusing in advance a rich bag of memories and stories that she’ll tell with exuberance and without much prompting.
“You’ll be lucky if you get to say anything,” she kidded with National Portrait Gallery curator of Latino art and history Taina Carago, who was interviewing her.
Moreno had a lot to say in the July 9 Living Self Portrait event, featuring Moreno who is part of the NPG’s “Dancing The Dream” exhibition which ends July 13. She was also here for a post-interview book signing, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir.”
“I came to this country when I was five years old, “ the 82-year-old actress said. “I came from Puerto Rico. My parents were divorced—my father had a problem with womanizing, I think—and my mother came and brought me to New York to Spanish Harlem. She was a single mother, which was kind of scandalous in those days for a Hispanic woman, but she raised me. She worked and was a wonderful seamstress, among other things. She made sure not just that I survived, but that I got to go to dance classes, to learn, to nurture whatever talents I had. I am always amazed by her. She was so strong.”
She recalled when she was coming into New York Harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty. “In Puerto Rico, you see statues of men, generals, the achievers, statesmen, that of kind thing. When I saw that great green statue of a lady—I thought, my goodness, a lady runs this country.”
“When we came on the boat, there was a storm, and I was frightened. Puerto Ricans don’t swim, you know. And I wondered why my mother brought me to this place, where it was cold and took me from my tropical paradise.”
Moreno recalled that, while she went to classes and to school, there were no role models of any sort, no mentors. “It wasn’t like today. There wasn’t this large population of Hispanics when I was a child. And you get the usual things—people calling you a 'Spic.' One thing I realized, if I was going to realize any sort of dream, I was going to have to learn the language, to speak the language, and not just speak ghetto Spanish. To learn to speak like the people around you, or you would not get anywhere. You would never feel at home, otherwise.”
Listening to her talk about her childhood—“It’s all in the book,” she said—you can’t help but be caught up a little in one of the biggest issues of our day. You've heard the stories on the nightly news—the logjam of children from Central America, trying to make their way into the United States, the combative, divisive debate over immigration and the current crisis on the Texas border. The stories from the news form a kind of background noise for the stories of Rita Moreno, who led a different immigrant’s life that over the years led to an accumulative triumph, but also times of frustrations and emotional turmoil.
The story is that Moreno has made a home here, more than that, a life which still moves with energy. “I am a working actress, a performer,” she said. “I still work all of the time, because that’s who I am.”
Who she is and was is a woman who is one of only eight living performers and the only Latino to have achieved the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony and the Grammy. She won two Emmys for “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files,” a Grammy for her 1972 performance on the “Electric Company” album, and a Tony for her performance as Googie Gomez in “The Ritz”.
Her Oscar came for her performance as Anita in the 1962 riveting, spectacularly successful film version of “West Side Story”—the mind’s eye can still remember her flaring her brightly colored skirt singing and dancing in “America,” as in “Everything is free in America. We like to be in America.” She played the girlfriend of the leader of a Puerto Rican gang, battling with white gangs framed around a Romeo-and-Juliet type love story, featuring Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood.
Her whole Hollywood career which commenced when she was very young—she had been taught dancing by Rita Hayworth’s uncle—centered around a string of roles playing ethnic girls. “You name it, Indians, and Indians, Polynesians, Arabians, Latin Americans, girls of easy morals, sexy and spicy and the movies often weren’t very good.” They ranged from big studio efforts like “Garden of Evil” (Mexican spitfire) to “The Yellow Tomahawk” (sexy Indian maid) and so on. One excellent role was the doomed young girl in “The King and I.” “When I first started I was taken to see Louis B Mayer, the head of MGM studios," Moreno said. "He looked at me and he said, 'She looks like a Mexican Elizabeth Taylor.' ”
“Oh, my God, I hated it,” she said. “I couldn’t get away from it. It took a long time, and it seemed like you had to fight for everything. It was exciting at first, but then it was one dusky maiden after another. They didn’t see me.”
She had to relearn dancing to get the part of Anita. “I heard on Oscar night that there was this huge audience watching their television sets in Spanish Harlem and that they went nuts when I won.”
By that time, people did see her in all her glory—the dancer, the actress (“Carnal Knowledge” in a small but powerful role as a prostitute), the singer, the out-and-out-full-steam-ahead performer. And wife, and doting mom of jewelry designer Fernanda Louisa Gordon.
“You have to keep going,” she said. “I am what I am, and you work hard to keep yourself sharp and smart. You test yourself.”
“Sometimes,” she said. “I remember that little girl who was a little afraid in this country. “
She doesn’t sound one bit afraid. She remains: that woman, so smart and so funny, storyteller and actress, Rita Moreno, star of stage and screen and memories.