Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go for It

March 22nd, 2022

Rita Moreno made history at the Academy Awards in 1962 when she became the first Latina to win an Academy Award. She won that award for Best Supporting Actress for her brilliant performance in WEST SIDE STORY. This was akin to a miracle for the young Puerto Rican woman given that the Hollywood studios had largely relegated her to the embarrassing and stereotypical roles of the heavily accented, exotic sex object. The recent documentary JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT recounts her painful journey to stardom.

In an especially sobering moment, Moreno confesses, “I hated being Hispanic because I realized very early that it wasn’t a good thing.” Shocking words to hear coming from a woman revered in the Hispanic community. But this feeling of self-loathing is the inevitable consequence of her early years in the Hollywood studio system. Despite her great beauty and talent, she encountered racial prejudice, sexual abuse, limited opportunities with endless obstacles at every turn in her burgeoning career.

Feeling condemned to a career of, as she puts it, “dusky maiden roles” Moreno found redemption in in the role of Anita in the 1961 film version of WEST SIDE STORY. This problematic film became an instant classic, and overnight Moreno found herself an internationally celebrated actress whose talents encompassed singing and dancing. So, from that point on the Hollywood studios rolled out the red carpet and started offering her serious leading roles, right?


The real world may have been experiencing the Civil Rights era, second-wave Feminism and a movement toward inclusivity, but the film industry remained stubbornly resistant to change and dismissive of the talents of people of color. Moreno’s experience mirrored that of Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American ever to win an Oscar. After her win for best supporting actress for GONE WITH THE WIND, she was frustrated in her ambition to portray characters outside the subservient roles of slaves or servants. And McDaniels’ win didn’t open up windows of opportunity for other Black performers. It would be another decade before another Black person would be nominated for an Academy Award, that honor going to Ethel Waters for the 1949 film PINKY. Thereafter, another Black woman wouldn’t win an Oscar for a performance until Whoopi Goldberg won for Best Supporting Actress for the 1990 film GHOST. And so it played out with Latinx thespians, too.

In a recent interview with the NEW YORK TIMES, Moreno says, “After West Side Story, I couldn’t find work. All the Latina roles in film were so perfunctory. And I said, ‘I’m not going to do that stuff anymore with the accents.” As a result, she didn’t make a film for seven more years. She has never again won or even been nominated for another Academy Award.

Since her win sixty years ago, Latinas have been nominated in the performing categories a total of eleven times; four nominations for Best Actress and eight nominations for Best Supporting Actress. Twenty-six years passed before another Latina would be nominated for an Oscar in the acting category. This is an abysmal record considering that Latinx people make up close to twenty percent of the US population, but reflective of the reality that they have had nearly no presence or visibility on the big screen. It’s one thing to be under-represented and another thing to be invisible. Members of the Academy can’t vote for performances from members of a group who aren’t featured in any meaningful way in major films that reach a large audience.

Despite this sad history, progress is being made albeit very slowly. For the first time ever an Afro-Latina actor has been nominated in the acting category. This honor goes to Ariana DeBose for her supporting performance in the recent remake of WEST SIDE STORY. As of this writing, she’s favored to win and for my money actually deserves to. Coincidentally, her nomination is for the same role that won Moreno the Oscar sixty years ago. Does this represent progress?

Some say not, citing that WEST SIDE STORY portrays Puerto Ricans in the stereotypical and demeaning role of violent gang members, and that the enormous budget could have been better spent featuring the storytelling and directorial talents of members of this diverse community rather than wasted on a remake whose box office failure will be at least partially blamed on a lack of interest moviegoers have on seeing movies that feature lots of people of color. An interesting debate for another blog post. Let’s keep an eye on what this nod means. Will Hollywood honor the talent of the Afro-Latina Ariana DeBose with not just an Academy Award but an actual career with leading and meaningful roles? Will she be permitted to join the ranks of Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek? Or will her career follow the same trajectory as Rita Moreno?

Going forward, her progress-or lack thereof-should indicate a great deal about how sincere this industry is in regards to Latinx representation in both the quality and volume of their representation. Fingers crossed they surprise us in a good way for a change.




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