When Rita Met 'Anita' (and the romance lasts to this day)
Celebrated as an inspiration to many Latinas, actress Rita Moreno says her character in West Side Story remains her role model.
At 89, the Puerto Rican actress couldn't be any more at the top of her game. The new version of West Side Story expected to premiere later this year, in which Rita Moreno will play Valentina, the peacemaking and slightly tough widow of Doc, the man whose store served as neutral ground in a gang war.
In addition, the actress has become an executive producer to correct the big "mistake" of the 1961 film. That is, being a film about the Nuyorican experience and what it was like to be a migrant in the United States, the only Puerto Rican in the cast was Moreno herself.
Thanks to the role of Anita, Rita won the Oscar for "Best Supporting Actress;" although, as the actress recently recalled on the occasion of the premiere of the documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It at Sundance, it was not the only most valuable thing that the character gave her.
As Moreno recounted in her memoir, published in 2013, her 70-year professional career was not always glorious. In fact, it took her quite some time and psychotherapy sessions to accept that Hollywood — the factory of dreams and prejudices — had pigeonholed her into "brown maiden" roles.
"They would cast me as any character with dark skin. I could play a Polynesian, an East Indian princess, anything," she told Variety. Those roles included as a Native American and, of course, the mythical Latina spitfire.
"I always had to have an accent, even though I spoke better English than many of the people who hired me," she added.
She wished someone would really see her, beyond her race or nationality, as the good actress she was. Her chance finally came when playing another Puerto Rican.
Beyond Maria and Tony, the protagonists of the story of love and rivalries that West Side Story tells, Anita figures as the voice of conscience of her friend. Someone proud of her origin who reminds the dreamy Maria what she came to America for and how she must adapt and comply with the rules without ceasing to enjoy or take pride in her roots.
Embodying her in the 1961 movie was the first time Moreno played a character who stood up for herself:
"Oddly enough, the character of Anita became my role model after all those years," she recalled for Variety and more recently in a talk with the Washington Post. "A young Hispanic woman with dignity, self-respect and enormous strength."
While her success at the Oscars didn't open too many doors for her in the years that followed, with occasional work in television and theater, there would later be a fantastic irony in contrasting the film's title and her own past history in Hollywood:
The Puerto Rican was finally chosen to play Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, the first role in which ethnicity was no longer a requirement.
Since then, she and Anita have become unstoppable.