The Miami Herald
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rita Moreno overcame Hispanic stereotypes to achieve stardom


When Rosa Dolores Alverío was 5, she and her mother left Puerto Rico and moved to Spanish Harlem, where they shared a tenement apartment with an aunt and too many other relatives.

''We were very poor,'' she says. "My mother and I shared a bed. I'll never forget it. It was a very old iron bed with a very sagging mattress. Whenever you turned on the lights in the kitchen, hundreds of cockroaches scattered. I have never been afraid of them because of that. I lived with them.''

It would be years before MGM would make Rosa Dolores lose the name in favor of the catchier Rita Moreno, but even back then in her bleak environment, the little girl who helped her mother make paper roses to sell to Woolworth already had tunnel vision about becoming a movie star. By the time she was 11, she was dubbing American films into Spanish.

"I was 17 when they asked me to change my name. Moreno was my stepfather's last name. And I wasn't happy about Rita. Although it's pretty if you pronounce the T. I was in England for a while, and they always called me Ri-ta.''

Fast forward to 1961, after countless career struggles, when 28-year-old Moreno became the first Hispanic to win an Oscar -- best supporting actress for her role as Anita in West Side Story. Her mother sat right behind her at the show, overcome with pride.

Moreno became a household name. But winning the Oscar did more than cement her fame. It gave her the sense of self-worth she had lacked, a boost which, fortunately or not, left her with the courage to say no to the ''demeaning'' roles she was offered.

''Ha, ha. I showed them. I didn't make another movie for seven years after winning the Oscar,'' says Moreno, 76, who was in town to host an Aetna-sponsored reception at the United Way Center for Excellence in Early Education.

Along the way she nabbed all the big awards -- Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy. 'People said, 'Winning the Oscar is a jinx.' No it isn't. It's just that I was being offered all this terrible stuff, and I thought, 'No, I don't have to do that stuff anymore,' '' Moreno says over achiote chicken and couscous at the Coral Gables Hyatt.

"What is interesting to me is having the vision so early and yet feeling so inferior to everybody else in the business for years and years because I believed I had to be subservient to anybody who wasn't Latino. Before West Side Story I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After West Side Story, it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories.''


There is no doubt Moreno helped open the door for Hispanic entertainers. And she gives props to the youngsters for breaking ground.

"I respect Jennifer Lopez. She made herself into a brand. And Salma Hayek is amazing. She's an incredible actress and a great producer. The fact that she was able to put this movie together, Frida, is astonishing. She also happens to be drop-dead gorgeous.''

In 2007, Moreno appeared in an episode of Ugly Betty, for which Hayek is an executive producer. At the end of taping, she gave Betty star America Ferrera a special gift.

'I had never done this before, but I gave her a photo of me holding the Oscar and wrote something like, `Just hold on to your vision. Don't let anyone distract you.' She is wonderful.''

But for all of her motherly admiration, ''I envy Salma and Jennifer, who have had such a wide world of opportunity compared to me. But envy is a waste of time. It's better to celebrate them,'' says Moreno, who speaks a faultless, grammar-teacher's English and says she never had even a trace of the Spanish accent she used in West Side Story and other TV and film projects.

"Hell, no. That wasn't my real accent. I learned to speak English very early. That Latin accent was a put-on.''

She is as American as she is Puerto Rican, she says. Although English comes easier than Spanish, she still clings to her native culture. She's bummed when she can't get the Hyatt to come up with platanos to go with her chicken, and she says no to key lime pie and cheesecake, because if she's going add the calories today, the sacrifice is going to be for flan, which the restaurant is out of.

Moreno looks stunning for her age, but before you can even entertain asking her any indelicate questions, she warns you not to go there.

'There are some people who rudely ask me if I've had plastic surgery. What a rude question, don't you think? If I did have plastic surgery, would I tell them? But the one thing I say is, 'Look at my chicken neck.' If I would have had plastic surgery, I'd have a beautiful, smooth neck.''

Moreno had four stepfathers after her mother divorced her father in Puerto Rico. And that sort of instability, she says, is part of the reason she married, in 1965, a "nice Jewish doctor, which is redundant.

''He is the most devoted family man who has ever lived,'' she says about retired cardiologist Lenny Gordon, still at her side. "As a father, as a grandfather -- he is just an unmatchable, fabulous man. I knew I wasn't going to marry a Latin man. Not in those days. I'm sure to some extent times have changed. But I was so scared of being betrayed in some way, or abandoned. Remember, I had five fathers. I don't want it to sound like I think all Latin men are bastards. But that was my experience. Not the Cuban stepfather. He was a sweet, sweet man. He was unusual for the time.''

Moreno and her husband had Fernanda, who loved to watch Sesame Street as a kid. Which is why Moreno said yes in 1971 when the Children's Television Workshop asked her to be a regular on a new show, The Electric Company.Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby were also in the cast. But anyone who watched the show growing up probably remembers Moreno best, especially for her opening yell: ''Hey, you guys!'' 'Any number of people said, `Don't do it. It'll look like you need the work, and you'll never do movies or television again except for children's projects.' But I had a little daughter who loved Sesame Street so I said, 'The heck with it. I'll take my chances.' The concept was so wonderful. It was so hip.''


Moreno picked up a new generation of fans.

'Just recently I was walking into this restaurant, and I hear a guy saying, `Hey, you guys!' It was this balding man with a paunch, and I said, 'I can't be that old.' ''

She so loved the Muppets on Sesame Street (the show shared studio space with The Electric Company) that she once ran into creator Jim Henson at a restaurant and got on her knees in front of him.

'I kissed his hand -- I thought he would die of embarrassment -- and I said, `Anything you want me to do on your show, I will do it. I can do all these little girl voices.' And he stopped blushing. He said, 'Really, do you mean it?' And so I wound up doing the voice for several of the puppets, working with Frank Oz. It was so marvelous.''

Later she made a guest appearance on primetime's The Muppet Show, for which she won her first Emmy in 1977. Her second was for The Rockford Files. In 1977, she received a Tony for the musical The Ritz.

Most recently, she was a regular on CBS' short-lived but acclaimed Cane. And although she says she doesn't want to take on any projects that would keep her from her grandsons, ages 8 and 10, for extended periods, she won't contemplate retirement.

``We live in Northern California, five minutes from them. They come for breakfast almost every morning, and we take them to school. We are very hands-on grandparents. But forget about retirement. They'll have to carry me out on a gurney in the middle of singing my lungs out.''