Mention Rita Moreno’s name, and the letters EGOT are often used to summarize her many accomplishments. And yes, being one of the first two women — and the first Hispanic person — to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award is an easy enough indication of industry praise and distinction. It just leaves out the hard part.
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Moreno remembers always wanting to be a performer. Coming to the mainland U.S. from Puerto Rico when she was 6, she was ready to dance into America’s hearts, but America wasn’t quite ready. In her own words, she was passive as a young woman, following the guidance of anyone telling her what to do. “I was only seen in one way and having to always speak with an accent,” she once said. Those early stereotypical roles typecast her in such a way that a Life magazine cover story was titled, “Rita Moreno: An Actress’s Catalog of Sex and Innocence.”
But something changed when she played the first of her true career-defining roles: her Oscar-winning turn as Anita in the 1961 modern Romeo-and-Juliet musical West Side Story. Anita became, as she would later say, “my role model. [The film] changed my life.”
Moreno embraced Anita’s brazen self-confidence and then ran with it. After several noted Broadway performances, a Tony came in 1975 for Moreno’s outrageous role in The Ritz. By this time she’d already proven her incredible versatility through years as a regular on the PBS children’s series The Electric Company, for which she would win her Grammy and the first or her two Emmys—the other coming from a performance on the drama series The Rockford Files.
All of which underscores what is arguably the most important role of Moreno’s career — that of role model. As Gina Rodriguez — who plays the title character on Jane the Virgin and is Moreno’s granddaughter on the series — so succinctly put it when helping honor Moreno at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, as a child, before seeing Moreno perform, she had never seen Puerto Ricans represented on screen, and had even questioned how long Puerto Ricans existed. But then, as Rodriguez said at the Honors: “I met you on screen and I just loved you, your bright smile, your persona, an independent voice that burst through every performance and I wanted to be just like ‘Rita.’ You gave me hope; you gave me a reason to fight and to speak.”
Now a main cast member of Netflix’s popular reboot of One Day At a Time, Moreno is also set to co-star in the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular musical In the Heights and is working with Steven Spielberg on a remake of West Side Story. Reflecting on her many awards, she once said, “I always have to remind myself that that isn’t what makes me a valuable person; it just makes me a lucky person.” Moreno’s luck is our great fortune.
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