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In the One The Stage Trailblazer Series, we look at legendary titans of the theatre – those who shattered stereotypes, broke glass ceilings, and made history. Today, we highlight Puerto Rican actress, dancer, and singer Rita Moreno. One of the last surviving actors in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Moreno continues to dazzle on stage and screen at 91 years old.
Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Moreno came from humble beginnings and spent most of her early life on a farm with her family.
When she was five, her mother saved enough money to move them both to New York City, although they had to leave behind Moreno’s brother, Francisco. Once there, Moreno began taking dance classes and quickly immersed herself in the film industry.
Moreno’s first professional job came at age 11 when she was hired to record Spanish-language versions of American films. Only a couple of years later, Moreno made her Broadway debut in Skydrift, playing the character of Angelina. This performance put her on the map, and she began receiving offers from Hollywood agents.
After her first on-screen role in So Young, So Bad, Moreno signed a seven-year contract with MGM Studios. From there, it wasn’t a straight shot to fame; Moreno was mostly offered smaller roles in feature films. These include The Toast of New Orleans, Singin’ in the Rain, and The King and I. She was often asked to portray “exotic” roles – many of which were stereotypical or overtly sexualized.
However, her “big break” came in 1961, when she was cast as Anita in the film adaptation of the musical West Side Story. For this role, Moreno won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – becoming the first Latin American woman to win an Academy Award.
Despite her success, Moreno wasn’t offered challenging or dynamic roles following her big win, and thus, she decided to take a step back from Hollywood. She acted in summer theatre and smaller projects for the next several years.
In the 1970s, Moreno returned triumphantly to the entertainment industry with roles in popular films such as The Night of the Following Day, Carnal Knowledge, and Marlowe. She also starred as a main cast member of the PBS children’s television series The Electric Company from 1971 to 1977; this role helped her to win a Grammy in 1972 for The Electric Company Album.
Moreno also returned to the stage; she appeared in the musical The Ritz and subsequently earned the 1975 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress. In 1977, she appeared on The Muppet Show and earned a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. Shortly after, she won yet another Primetime Emmy for her role on the television show The Rockford Files.
After Moreno voiced the role of Carmen Sandiego on the Fox cartoon series Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? She starred in the HBO series OZ and the Netflix series One Day at a Time. Most recently, Moreno played in and executive-produced the Steven Spielberg–directed adaptation of West Side Story. In it, Moreno plays a newly created character, Valentina.
Moreno has won many awards and accolades in her 70+ years in the industry. Most notably, she is among the few artists to have won all four major annual American entertainment awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (EGOT). She is also one of only 23 people who have achieved the Triple Crown of Acting: individual competitive Academy, Emmy, and Tony awards for acting.
Three U.S. presidents have recognized Rita for her talents and contributions to the theatre world. She was invited to perform at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993; she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2004 and the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2009.
In 2015, she was awarded a Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award for contributing to American culture through performing arts. She was also awarded the Peabody Career Achievement Award in 2019.
In her honor, the Rita Moreno Awards are sponsored by Broadway San Jose and Children’s Musical Theater San Jose. The competition recognizes outstanding achievement in high school musical theatre north of Santa Barbara. The lead actor and actress winners attend the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, where they perform in front of industry experts and compete for scholarship opportunities.
Feeling inspired? Here are a few Latinx-supporting non-profits and theatres to support!
The Hispanic Institute is a nonprofit organization that provides an effective education forum for an informed and empowered Hispanic America. As a leading Hispanic organization, the Hispanic Institute manages several ongoing projects, including studying Hispanic economic contributions, media monitoring, consumer fraud protection, citizenship education, and technology and telecommunication research.
The Latino Victory Fund is a progressive political action committee working to increase Latino representation at every level of government. From school boards to the Senate and White House, Latino Victory identifies, recruits, and develops candidates for public office while building a permanent base of Latino donors to support them. Latino Victory is developing a pipeline of Latino leaders who will fight for the issues that matter, and its work is intended to elevate and advance values important to their communities.
Established in 1998, Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB) features the diverse voices of the Latino community in public media throughout the United States. A registered nonprofit organization, LPB is “the leader of the development, production, acquisition, and distribution of non-commercial educational and cultural media that is representative of Latino people, or addresses issues of particular interest to Latino Americans.”
The Latino Theater Company’s (LTC) mission at The Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), is to provide a world-class arts center for those pursuing artistic excellence, a laboratory where both tradition and innovation are honored and honed, a place where the convergence of people, cultures, and ideas contribute to the future.
The Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) is a national movement that uses a commons-based approach to transform the narrative of the American theatre, amplify the visibility of Latinx performance-making, and champion equity through advocacy, art-making, convening, and scholarship. The LTC is a flagship program of HowlRound.