(b. 11 December 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico), dynamic actress, singer, and dancer who in the 1960s was the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award and who also received a Grammy, a Tony, and two Emmys.
Moreno, born Rosa Delores Alverio, immigrated with her divorced single mother, Rosa María Marcano Alverio, to New York City in 1936, leaving her father, Paco Alverio, a farmer, and a brother behind. Moreno and her mother settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where her mother did piecework as a seamstress. This neighborhood was a Puerto Rican enclave and the setting of Moreno's greatest cinema triumph in the 1960s, West Side Story, a musical that satirized life in America. She studied dancing and, at the age of seven, appeared in a Greenwich Village nightclub with her teacher, Paco Cansino, the uncle of the movie star Rita Hayworth. When Moreno was eight her mother began taking her to radio auditions and talent agencies. From the time she was eleven Moreno was the Spanish-speaking voice of such performers as Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland in dubbed movies. Moreno attended Public School 132 in Brooklyn during this time. She dropped out of high school at age sixteen.
On 13 November 1945 Moreno made her Broadway debut at the Belasco Theater as Angelina, the youngest sister of an Italian soldier, in Skydrift, a World War II drama that lasted only seven performances. It was at this time she adopted her stepfather's surname, Moreno. Later, in Hollywood, her studio suggested Rita as a first name. Moreno's first film appearance was in So Young, So Bad (1950), and she played minor roles in more than two dozen films through the 1950s. She also appeared on the cover of Life magazine on 1 March 1954.
In 1961 the choreographer Jerome Robbins cast her in the film version of West Side Story. Hailed by movie critics "the finest film musical ever made" and "a cinema masterpiece," West Side Story is a drama of New York City's juvenile gang wars. It tells the story of two nice kids, a Puerto Rican girl (Maria) and a Polish boy (Tony), who meet and fall in love despite the hatred and rivalry of their respective ethnic groups. The lovers come to a tragic end, just like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Moreno played Anita, Maria's faithful friend. A year after her stellar 1956 performance in The King and I, Moreno had been asked by Robbins to try out for the lead role of Maria in the original theater production. Moreno, busy as well as intimidated, did not, and by the time the movie version was being produced her face had matured and she was better suited to the character of Anita.
When she arrived for the audition, Moreno found five other actresses vying for the role of Anita. Even though Robbins had requested that she audition for the role, Moreno was sure she would not get it. She was asked to do a scene where Anita is nearly raped in a drugstore. When she read the lines and the epithets they contained—"Ya lyin' Spic, gold tooth, garlic breath, and pierced ear"—she was transported back some twenty years to the tenements of her youth where, on her way to kindergarten, she ducked snowballs thrown with all the hatred of racial prejudice. When the reading was over she ran from the room, collapsed on a couch, and wept. She got the part.
On 9 April 1962 West Side Story swept the Academy Awards, winning ten Oscars, including one for Moreno for best supporting actress. She received glowing reviews for what one critic called "her stormy, sexy, funny, and first-rate performance." Another critic wrote, "Miss Moreno emerges as a first-rate dramatic talent. Some people claim she steals the picture." Despite her Oscar win, studios offered her only limited roles, pandering to the public's image of Moreno as a spitfire Latina. So, on 15 October 1964, Moreno returned to the stage in Lorraine Hansberry's Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.
Moreno voiced her concern for Hispanic causes in numerous public service announcements. On 9 August 1963 she participated in a march through downtown Los Angeles to protest the city's failure to integrate its school system. She also supported the civil rights campaign led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., briefly working for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1964.
In a 1965 interview Moreno spoke out about prejudice against Puerto Ricans and claimed that Puerto Ricans were a more isolated community than African Americans. She asserted that because Puerto Ricans did not want to address the color problem in America, it was difficult to involve the Puerto Rican community in civil rights issues. In the mid- 1960s there was no strong Puerto Rican presence in middle-class America. No Puerto Rican community leader had the charisma of Dr. King. In the turbulent 1960s Moreno became increasingly active in politics and civil rights issues, declaring, "Hollywood Jim Crowism must end now in all its aspects."
In 1964 Moreno met a New York cardiologist and internist named Leonard I. Gordon. On 18 June 1965 they married, and in 1967 their only child, a daughter, was born. Gordon suffered from serious congenital heart problems, so in 1970 he retired to manage Moreno's career. With the help of the actor Marlon Brando, with whom she had had a tempestuous relationship from 1953 to 1961, Moreno returned to films in The Night of the Following Day (1969). A critic for The New Yorker wrote that Moreno did "the only acting in the picture." Additional films of the period include Popi (1969), Marlowe (1969), and Carnal Knowledge (1971). Onstage, Moreno's role as Serafina in Tennessee Williams's Rose Tattoo won her the Joseph Jefferson Award from Chicago's critics on 4 April 1968.
In 1972 Moreno, along with the rest of the cast, won a Grammy for a soundtrack recording made by television's Electric Company. Opening on 20 January 1975, The Ritz, a Broadway play based on the Hispanic character Googie Gomez, whom Moreno had invented at Hollywood parties, was a hit and earned her a Tony Award. In 1977 she won an Emmy for her work as a guest artist on a television episode of the children's program The Muppets. She won another Emmy in 1978 for her portrayal of a vulnerable prostitute on The Rockford Files. Moreno is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only woman to have won all four of show business's top awards. She participates in artistic and civic organizations, such as the Third World Cinema, and continues her acting career, matching her art with a concern for others.
A biography of Moreno is Susan Suntree, Rita Moreno (1993). Biographical information about Moreno is in Current Biography Yearbook (1985); Notable Hispanic American Women (1993); Diane Telgen and Jim Kamp, Latinas! Women of Achievement (1996); and Nicolas Kanellos, ed., The Hispanic American Almanac (1996). An in-depth interview is in Harper's (Apr. 1965), and another article of interest is "Rita Moreno and Other Latin Trail-blazers," Latina Style (fall 1995).
Dorothy L. Moran