(Plain Press, November 2016) At the Convención Hispana 2016, hosted by the Hispanic Roundtable at Max Hayes High School on October 8th, Keynote Speaker Rita Moreno shared her life story in a lively interview. Responding to questions from Hispanic Roundtable Chairman José Feliciano, the Puerto Rican born, 84-year-old performer shared her life story with the crowd.
Moreno is one of an elite group of performers who have won the grand slam of the entertainment industry awards: The Oscar, The Emmy, The Tony and the Grammy. She won the Oscar for her role as Anita in the 1962 production of West Side Story. The Tony was awarded to Moreno for her 1975 comedic role as Googie Gomez in Broadway production of The Ritz. Her Grammy was for a 1972 performance on The Electric Company Album, based on the long –running children’s television series. She won two Emmys – one for a 1977 variety appearance on The Muppet Show and the following year for a dramatic turn on The Rockford Files.
While answering questions from Feliciano, the energetic Moreno repeatedly got up to sing or dance, or perform a comedy routine to illustrate the narrative of her life. She told of the difficulties she faced coming to New York City from Puerto Rico as a five-year-old. She said when she entered kindergarten she didn’t speak a word of English. She said she soon learned, “the only way to make your feelings known to the big people was through words, and those words had to be in English.”
Moreno said in her early years in New York City, she encountered a lot of racial prejudice and gangs of kids – not Hispanic. She was called names such as “spic” or “garlic mouth” and said she “began to feel very inferior. I grew up feeling I didn’t have value/worth.”
Recalling those days, Moreno says she used to love to go to the fire escape with a radio and a blanket to escape the noises and bad feelings. She said she resolved that she wanted to be somebody important. She then got up and broke out in a song she said was popular on the radio at the time, called Dream: “Dream when you are feeling blue, Dream that’s the thing to do …”
Moreno described how she began taking Spanish dance classes and learned the Mexican Hat Dance which she repeatedly performed at her PS132 school assembly. At that point Moreno got up and demonstrated the dance. She also described how she prepared for an interview with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Studio’s Louis Mayer by getting her seamstress mother to help her to look like Elizabeth Taylor. Moreno said she ended up with a seven-year contract with Mayer saying, “She looks like Elizabeth Taylor.”
Moreno said the roles available were really insulting, usually for a dark skinned woman that didn’t speak English, usually ignorant, couldn’t read or write and almost always the mistress of a white man.
Moreno said later signed a contract with 20th Century Fox when she was in her early 20s. She told the story of how she auditions for the role of Anita in West Side Story with the help of a friend who had played the role on Broadway – practicing the song and dance numbers ahead of time and hoping the same routines would be in the audition. She went on to win an Oscar for the performance as Anita and said she was at a loss for words when picking up the award. She recalled, “I never expected to win against Judy Garland.”
In addition to being a performer, Moreno has lent her voice to a number of causes. She described the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. on her life. She said during the 1963 March on Washington, Harry Belafonte invited a number of actors to attend. She said she sat in the Lincoln Monument, not 20 feet from Martin Luther King. She described the moment when King was speaking and Mahalia Jackson said to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Moreno said at that point, King put aside his speech and began to tell the world “I had a dream.”
Moreno said that maybe next to the birth of her daughter, that speech “was the most holy occasion in my whole life.”
Moreno talked about the paucity of good roles for many years for Latina’s in Hollywood. She said roles as Latin sex bombs in westerns made her feel worse about herself. She said the doors were closed for a very long time in Hollywood, but opened significantly for a while for Black, Latino and even Asian actors. She said the reason Hispanic/Latino actors are not nominated for more awards is they don’t get the roles. The solution she said is more Hispanic and Black directors and writers.
Moreno said she is excited about a production she just completed, a Latino remake of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time, which features a Cuban family and will appear on Netflix beginning in January of 2017.
When asked by Feliciano, how to raise substantive issues concerning the Hispanic Community without having someone saying you are whining, Moreno responded, “Don’t be afraid if someone says you are whining. Continue to make your voice heard. Be proud to be a Latino. We have brought so much of our culture, as has the black community, that’s what makes this country so great. Agitate. Agitate Agitate.”
Moreno also had a message for young people. She said, “to have some success in your life – it’s about education, education, and education.”
Speaking to those who want to go into acting Moreno said, “There is no guarantee you will have a success as a working actor. You need to learn skills that will pay for rent and acting lessons.”
At a press conference prior to the interview by Feliciano, Moreno spoke out about the importance of getting out the vote this year. She cited the importance of the election in determining the future of the Supreme Court and addressing the immigration problem. She called immigration an “enormously important issue. She spoke of the impact on the Hispanic Community of the issue being brought to the forefront by rhetoric in this election, saying, “I have never seen such emotion and such rage in the Hispanic Community.”
Moreno praised Hillary Clinton for “fighting for people of other cultures for years.” When asked about the transgressions of the Clintons when compared to those of their opponent Donald Trump, Moreno said there was no comparison. She said of Trump, “The man is saying women have no value.” She called Trump “unhinged, mentally incapacitated.”
When asked to address how Clevelanders should go about addressing the serious issues of poverty and income inequality and their impact on the ability of children to be successful in school and in life, Moreno said, “Make your unhappiness known. Hit them in their pocketbook. Too many wealthy people have too many advantages. It is time they pay their taxes.”