Rita Moreno talks career, Oscar, March on Washington

Rita Moreno is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Century. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we’ve assembled a list of 100 women who’ve made a substantial impact on our country or our lives over the past 100 years. Read about them all on Aug. 14.

When Rita Moreno first saw the Statue of Liberty, she thought the icon was holding a giant ice cream cone.

“And my mama said, ‘No, no, that’s the torch that she holds so that everybody in the world can see where this wonderful country is, where people can be what they want to be,’ ” Moreno said.

Moreno was 5 years old, moving to New York from Puerto Rico. Her mother had been in New York for the past few months, working in a sweatshop to save enough money to retrieve her daughter.

Her mother’s journey meant divorcing her husband, who Moreno says was unfaithful, but also leaving Moreno’s little brother, Francisco. Her mother told her he was too little to come, but they’d go back for him. Moreno never saw him again. As an adult, she said, “I looked for him and looked for him.” She later learned he had passed away.

“We moved to New York because in my mother’s view, America was the land of opportunity,” she said.  

“It’s easy to be derisive now and say, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’ But in fact, that’s what it certainly represented then, especially. The lady has been wounded many, many times since then.” 

Today, at “nearly 89,” Moreno recounts the smallest details. 

“It was the first time I’d ever worn a coat, boots, gloves. And on the way to the room (in the Bronx where we were staying), I was astonished that there were no leaves on the trees.”

That was her first big shock. The second was entering kindergarten.

“I was left alone to fend for myself in a room full of children that spoke no Spanish at all, because this was before the Puerto Rican diaspora. It was horribly scary.”

She had a decision to make, one she would continue to make throughout her career.

“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.”

In Puerto Rico, her grandfather would put on records and she would bop all over the living room. She was with her mom in the New York apartment of a friend, who was a dancer, and she began dancing around the tiny apartment. The friend asked if she could take Moreno to her dance teacher. 

“And that’s where it all began.”

“It” is one of the most celebrated and honored careers in arts and entertainment. Moreno is best known for playing Anita in “West Side Story,” a role that won her an Oscar, making her the first Latina to win the award. She went on to add an Emmy, Grammy and Tony. 

Women of the Century: Rita Moreno says nobody paved the way for her, ‘you can sink or swim’

Actress, singer and dancer Rita Moreno is the first Latina to achieve EGOT (winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards) status.


Question: Can you talk about who paved the way for you?

Rita Moreno: I am so glad you asked that. It’s a very important question with someone like myself who comes from another country, I’ll tell you who paved the way for me. Nobody. Nobody. They didn’t give a s—. And I don’t even say that bitterly, it’s the way it was. Nobody cared. I was a little Hispanic girl. That’s it. And the fact that I danced well or didn’t dance well, didn’t really matter a whit.

I’ll tell you who my mentor was later in life, Elizabeth Taylor, by watching her in the movies. And I figured, well, we’re more or less the same age. She’s going to be my role model. I didn’t even know that term.

Lead was poisoning the water in Flint, Mich. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha put her reputation on the line to prove it.

Women of the Century: Ruby Bridges was 6 when she walked into a segregated school. Now she teaches children to get past racial differences.

Rita Moreno says being at the March on Washington in 1963 was one of the proudest moments of her life.

Rita Moreno says being at the March on Washington in 1963 was one of the proudest moments of her life.
Hannah Gaber with Cameron Fisher/USA TODAY

You’ve also talked about the current protests and that they’re a good thing because they are exposing the problems in our country. Do you see a solution?

I think Americans listen very badly. I’m talking about listening in a very different way than we are used to. It’s difficult to listen in such a nuanced way, that despite your prejudices you will hear what is being said, not what you think someone is trying to say.

But we have to learn to do a whole lot better. And I think we are. This is what’s so exciting about these movements. There’s two things going on at once and the other is about women. They’re interlocked and it’s so exciting, and I’m so glad that at almost 89, I’ve lived to see this happen.

What is your definition of courage? 

Courage is being definitely afraid of something and going on with it anyway. And that’s my story, being deathly afraid and saying, but I’ve got to do this. I’m obliged to do this. I must do this. I must be responsible. I’ve been afraid so many times in my life. Oh my God. I am such a scaredy cat about so many things. 

Rita Moreno
Courage is being definitely afraid of something and going on with it anyway. And that’s my story, being deathly afraid and saying, but I’ve got to do this. I’m obliged to do this. I must do this.

I think you’re brave, for what it’s worth.

I do, too. I do, too. But at the same time, I’m scared of everything.

So is there a guiding principle or a mantra that you tell yourself?

No, I don’t have mantras. (If I did), it would be, “Oh, shut up. Come on, get on with it.” (Laughs)

What advice would you give your younger self, that 5-year-old just starting off in the classroom, the 13-year-old working on Broadway?

I would say you have value. You are very special, because everyone is special. You are unique, and what is unique about you is that you have great qualities as a person. I would encourage myself to just keep going forward.

I think that I would have been, and I really believe this, I believe that I would have been a more successful movie star or actress than I ever was, and I believe it’s because of my Hispanic name. Because I’m hardly exotic looking. But that name, Rita Moreno, has been, in a way, a curse.

And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Nicole Carroll is the editor in chief of USA TODAY. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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