"What's interesting about Anita is she became for me — while I was playing her and afterward — she became my role model. She had feelings of pride about herself, she had self-respect, and that was something that really I had not experienced for a very, very long time."
On February 21, the actor and singer Rita Moreno came to Notre Dame for "Rita Moreno: Latina Legend of Stage and Screen," an in-depth Q&A with Jason Ruiz, an associate professor in the Department of American Studies. It was repeated throughout the night that Moreno is a role model to thousands of young Latina creatives, but, as this quote shows, the legend grew up in a very different time for Latinas in the arts.
She told Ruiz just before this quote that, when she was breaking into show business in the 1950s and 1960s, there was truly no one in Hollywood who looked like her. Successful Latina performers to look up to, she said, simply didn't exist. When she was cast as Anita in the 1962 film West Side Story, the part didn't just transform her career (earning her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and catapulting her to fame) — it provided her, at long last, with a role model: the character herself.
Over the course of the hour-long conversation, Moreno spoke of both the struggles of being a Puerto Rican woman in Hollywood and the accolades and joys that the iconic roles she's played since Anita have brought to her life. Ruiz and Moreno discussed the actor's latest venture, a Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time, and her next one: Executive producing a remake of West Side Story directed by, in Moreno's words, "Steve" Spielberg.
The 87-year-old actor also showed off her quick-as-ever wit. She joked that she should really be called a "KEGOT" rather than an "EGOT" since she's won not just the coveted Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award combination but also the Kennedy Center Honors, and, when she paused to blow her nose near the end of the night, she cracked what has to be one of the first jokes ever on a Notre Dame stage about recreational cocaine use.
The headstrong character of Anita is certainly as good a role model today as she was when Moreno encountered her in the 1960s — but, by the time this evening was over, I have a feeling that many of the young men and women in the sold-out crowd left with a slightly different on-stage hero: Rita Moreno herself.
Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine.