From the moment Rita Moreno arrived on a boat in New York City as a 5-year-old girl, she was navigating new curves and bends in a new place she'd call home.
Toting just a trunk and two plastic bags (“poor people suitcases”, as Rita calls them) she and her mother put down roots in the Bronx. It was a far cry from her native Puerto Rico, the “idyllic, fragrant paradise where I was born.”
And while New York in the middle of winter was an intense culture shock, nothing prepared Moreno for the horrors of racism that would haunt her throughout her childhood, and into her adult life.
That’s why Moreno’s speech at the Simmons Leadership Conference in Boston on Wednesday was titled “Jumping the Curve”; because it was an action Moreno performed both literally and figuratively as a young woman searching for a new life in a strange land of tenement housing and street crime.
“It was my theme as a 6 year old Puerto Rican girl running to and from school in the Bronx,” Rita told the audience of over 3000 women. “I avoided the gangs that owned the street. I escaped the jeers and the name calling. Spic, Garlic Mouth. Names I had never heard until we arrived in this cold, frozen hell in the dead of winter.”
As Moreno got acclimated to New York, her star began to rise as a singer, dancer, and actress. But the limits of Hollywood soon reared their ugly head as it became clear to Rita that the only roles she would be offered were racial stereotypes.
Arabian Girl. Polynesian Princess. Mexican Whorehouse Madam. For Moreno, there were few paths she could go down when it came to making movies.
Forced to comply, Rita hit upon what she refers to as the “staple of her repertoire: The Universal Ethnic Accent.”
Pigeonholed in roles that reinforced stereotypes and didn’t provide the challenge she desired as a performer, Moreno was thrilled when megastar Gene Kelly cast her in her first non-ethnic role, as Zelda Zanders in “Singin’ in the Rain.” It wasn’t a leading role, but for Moreno, it meant that she was no longer paralyzed by society’s depiction of Latinas as oversexed, overemotional women.
But it turned out to be the role of a strong, passionate Latin woman that would skyrocket Rita to superstardom- and earned her an Oscar. Anita may have been Puerto Rican, but the powerful girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo and best friend of Maria in “West Side Story” was so much more.
“I was 28 when I met Anita. She was real, she was Puerto Rican, and she fought for her rights,” Moreno told the crowd. “She had plenty to say with what was wrong in America and the world. I had never been given the opportunity to play the role of a woman who stood up for herself. Her suffering, her anger were my suffering, my anger.”
Now 82, the leather pants-clad actress has no qualms about singing and dancing across the stage for the crowd. It’s an outlook she embraces both on stage and in her life.
“I don’t worry about my bones calcifying,” Moreno said. “It’s part of the Puerto Rican world view. No life is ever hurt by the passion of the sprit, and no spirit is ever diminished by a passion for life.”