Women Who Dared

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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Rita Moreno, Award-Winning Actress

December 11, 2009
by Lindsey Chapman
Latina actress Rita Moreno burst onto the scene with her roles on Broadway and her portrayal of Anita in the film “West Side Story”; she went on to win all four major entertainment awards.

Rita Moreno's Early Days

Born Rosa Dolores Alverío on Dec. 11, 1931, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Rita Moreno came from humble beginnings. She and her mother moved to Spanish Harlem when Moreno was five years old; they lived in a tenement apartment “with an aunt and too many other relatives.” She shared a bed with her mother, and discovered hundreds of cockroaches whenever she turned a light on in her kitchen.

But her circumstances didn’t hinder her. Moreno’s “tunnel vision” about an acting career began to manifest by the time she was in her teens. Moreno appeared on Broadway, quit school, and at 17, was asked by MGM to change her name to Rita Moreno in order to increase her appeal.

Moreno's Notable Accomplishments

One of Moreno’s most distinguished achievements is that she is one of a small group of performers who have won all four major show business awards: an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy. She won an Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe award, for her role in “West Side Story,” one of the projects for which she’s most recognized.

The 1960s film “West Side Story” is considered the most popular modern take on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of Capulets and Montagues, “West Side Story” offered viewers feuding white and Hispanic gangs over issues of prejudice and racial intolerance. ArtsEdge (the National Arts and Education Network) comments that the circumstances of the film “were still applicable to American audiences in the late 1950s and 1960s—just as they are for audiences today all over the world.” Moreno earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her part in the production.

During the early 1970s, Moreno was a cast member of the popular public TV children's show, "The Electric Company." She also made appearances on “The Muppet Show,” one of which earned her an Emmy Award; her performance of “Fever” alongside Animal is particularly memorable.

In 2004, Moreno, along with 12 other individuals, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor granted to civilians in the United States.

The Rest of the Story

One of Moreno’s more recent standout roles was her part in the HBO series “Oz.” Throughout the 1950s, she was typecast “as sexy one-dimensional Hispanas,” wrote Segunda Juventud magazine. She also played the harem girl Tuptim in 1956 film “The King and I.” But in “Oz,” Moreno played a nun, and the show explored the sensual desires of religious people. She enjoyed the role, in part because it garnered her new fans that were unfamiliar with “West Side Story.” Moreno continues to appear on both the big and small screen.

Rita Moreno’s daughter is jewelry designer Fernanda Fisher. Growing up as the child of an actress, Fernanda frequently traveled with her mother, and even worked with her as a dancer and backup singer. “It was thrilling,” Fernanda told The Examiner. “She was a supportive mother with a fabulous career and we traveled all over the world. It was an amazing double education.”

Even after Fernanda launched her own career and started a family, she still lived just a few blocks away from her mother. “She’s such an amazing mother,” Fernanda explained. “She gave me a gift: that I can do anything.”

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