By Sarah Mosqueda
Rita Moreno is not a quitter.
“I think what is important to me is never giving up,” the 90-year-old Puerto Rican actress, dancer, singer and activist said in a recent phone interview, “Things do change and times do change, and the people who weren’t listening to me and what I stand for let’s say, 20 years ago, are listening more.”
Moreno’s determination plays a large role in her successful and expansive career. During Hispanic Network Magazine’s 30 years, Moreno has graced our cover more than once. She is a legend, with accolades that include EGOT status, with Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards to her name.
While she is proud of her recognition, she stills sees room for improvement in terms of substantial Latinx representation within the entertainment industry. It is a challenge that has been present throughout her entire career.
“I see strides, and I don’t see enough,” Moreno said. “I think we are definitely underrepresented.”
As a young actress at MGM Studios in the 1950s, she was stuck playing ethnically ambiguous female roles she refers to as “dusky maidens.”
West Side Story in 1961 was a turning point for Moreno, who became the first Latina to win an Academy Award for acting for her role as Anita.
Moreno has been vocal through the years of how badly she wanted the role and the chance to play a Hispanic character with substance. She has also spoken candidly about the little difference the Oscar made in the roles she was offered after the win.
“It’s like, ‘How does it feel to have all those awards that no other Latino has?’” Moreno said, “Well, it feels wonderful, but it doesn’t get me the work. It has never gotten me the work.”
After her Oscar win, Moreno did Broadway and television but didn’t make another motion picture for seven years.
For most of the 1970s, Moreno was a main cast member on the PBS educational children’s program, The Electric Company, and won a Grammy for the show’s children’s album.
She won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for The Ritz in 1975. Moreno won her first Emmy Award in 1977 for her appearance on The Muppet Show, and received a second Emmy the following year for The Rockford Files.
In her 2021 documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, Moreno shares that as a young actress starting out, she looked up to Elizabeth Taylor simply because there were no role models for a young Puerto Rican girl. There was no one on screen who looked like her.
Ironically, Moreno’s time on the stage and screens both big and small, mean many of today’s Latinx stars grew up looking up to her.
In Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, Eva Longoria reflects on watching Moreno in The Electric Company and recognizing her as someone that looked like her. In Jennifer Lopez’s own documentary, Half-Time, she specifically names Moreno as her inspiration for aspiring to dance, act and sing.
Another Latinx entertainer who grew up watching Moreno is Ariana DeBose.
DeBose took on Moreno’s most famous role in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation of West Side Story, which Moreno also starred in and served as an executive producer for. In 2022, DeBose received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Anita. She is the first Afro-Latina, the first openly queer actor of color and the first openly queer woman to win the award. It’s a recognition that may not have been possible without Moreno’s own groundbreaking win.
“First of all, I am so happy for her, and I am happy for the Hispanic community,” Moreno said of DeBose, “She is Afro-Latina and that opens another door, which is fantastic. She is obviously very aware of the exclusion that we suffer from.”
Moreno places a lot of hope on the younger generation to lend their voice to changing things for the Latinx community.
“I am very hopeful that she will bring the attention of the younger people whose ear and interest we definitely don’t have,” said Moreno.
Moreno knows how to speak up too.
She has talked openly about her experiences with sexual assault, abortion and suicide and has long been an advocated for women’s rights. Her early social activism began at the March on Washington, where she was present during Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famous “I Have a Dream” speech and stretches today, when she again recounted her own abortion story in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. In 2004, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
“It is a question of never, ever giving up on what you have to say that is important to helping our community,” said Moreno.
Speaking up takes courage, but Moreno admits she has never had trouble being loud.
“I am a raucous person, and that is the Latina part of me. I am noisy, I laugh too loud,” Moreno said, “But that is who I am. I love that part of me.”
From 2017 to 2020, Moreno took on the role of Lydia, in One Day at a Time, the sitcom inspired by Norman Lear’s 1975 series of the same name. The reboot focused on Penelope, a newly single Army veteran, and her Cuban-American family. As Lydia, Moreno embraced the best parts of Latin culture, without slipping into stereotypes, and demonstrated what is possible when we are able to lovingly tell our own stories.
“I have a deep love for my people,” Moreno said, “I love who we are, and I love what we represent, because we represent deep values. I love our food; I love our music; I am never unaware of the Latin-ness of all of that.”
There is plenty of new Moreno content coming out later this year too.
This summer she will be filming a Christmas movie for Lifetime in Nashville, and she is also joining Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Tom Brady for football-themed road-trip movie, 80 for Brady.
Moreno also has a role in Vin Diesel’s upcoming Fast and Furious movie, Fast X, as Grandma Toretto, Dom Toretto’s abuela.
“I had an absolutely fabulous time,” Moreno said of the filming, which took place in London. “We were freezing; we’re talking 50 degrees. But I loved it, I had a great time.”
Moreno said she had such a good time she might even make an appearance in the next film.
“I may do one more, so that would be insane,” Moreno said, “I mean, I am 90 years old and look at me!”
As always, she just won’t quit.