Rita Moreno is one of USA TODAY's Women of the Century. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we've assembled a list of 100 women who've made a substantial impact on our country or our lives over the past 100 years. Read about them all at usatoday.com/WomenoftheCentury.
When Rita Moreno first saw the Statue of Liberty, she thought the icon was holding a giant ice cream cone.
"And my mama said, 'No, no, that's the torch that she holds so that everybody in the world can see where this wonderful country is, where people can be what they want to be,' " Moreno said.
Moreno was 5 years old, moving to New York from Puerto Rico. Her mother had been in New York for the past few months, working in a sweatshop to save enough money to retrieve her daughter.
Her mother's journey meant divorcing her husband, who Moreno says was unfaithful, but also leaving Moreno's little brother, Francisco. Her mother told her he was too little to come, but they'd go back for him. Moreno never saw him again. As an adult, she said, "I looked for him and looked for him." She later learned he had passed away.
"We moved to New York because in my mother's view, America was the land of opportunity," she said.
"It's easy to be derisive now and say, 'Oh, yeah, yeah.' But in fact, that's what it certainly represented then, especially. The lady has been wounded many, many times since then."
Today, at "nearly 89," Moreno recounts the smallest details.
"It was the first time I'd ever worn a coat, boots, gloves. And on the way to the room (in the Bronx where we were staying), I was astonished that there were no leaves on the trees."
That was her first big shock. The second was entering kindergarten.
"I was left alone to fend for myself in a room full of children that spoke no Spanish at all, because this was before the Puerto Rican diaspora. It was horribly scary."
She had a decision to make, one she would continue to make throughout her career.
"Do you have a choice to be courageous? I guess you do. The choices are very narrow. You can either sink or swim, and I obviously chose to swim."
In Puerto Rico, her grandfather would put on records and she would bop all over the living room. She was with her mom in the New York apartment of a friend, who was a dancer, and she began dancing around the tiny apartment. The friend asked if she could take Moreno to her dance teacher.
"And that's where it all began."
"It" is one of the most celebrated and honored careers in arts and entertainment. Moreno is best known for playing Anita in "West Side Story," a role that won her an Oscar, making her the first Latina to win the award. She went on to add an Emmy, Grammy and Tony.
Question: Can you talk about who paved the way for you?
Rita Moreno: I am so glad you asked that. It's a very important question with someone like myself who comes from another country, I'll tell you who paved the way for me. Nobody. Nobody. They didn't give a s---. And I don't even say that bitterly, it's the way it was. Nobody cared. I was a little Hispanic girl. That's it. And the fact that I danced well or didn't dance well, didn't really matter a whit.
I'll tell you who my mentor was later in life, Elizabeth Taylor, by watching her in the movies. And I figured, well, we're more or less the same age. She's going to be my role model. I didn't even know that term.
Who do you pave the way for?
At the moment, (I'm helping) someone from Uganda with their education. I (help fund) a clinic that helps people who are not insured. I feed people (through) food banks. I've always felt that if you're hungry, you can't think straight. I had to make decisions on how I could use my money. I'm not Jane Fonda, and I'm not Barbra Streisand. I can't afford what they can afford.
Has there ever been a time in your life when you were hungry?
No, we always managed. We were really poor. We were on home relief, which is what welfare was called then. We went to buy clothes at this huge warehouse where they had tables and tables of clothing. That's how I dressed, unless my mother was sewing for me. But we never, never went hungry. There's always rice and beans, which I love to this day. There are always plantains, which are cheap. There are vegetables. If it was really bad, it would be rice with a fried egg over it.
You've talked about the pain of being typecast in Hollywood.
Let me tell you the most awful professional experience I ever had in my life. My agent called one day and said, "I'm sending you a script. It's a wonderful featured role."
It was colorful. It was funny. It was just all kinds of marvelous things. So we set the date for the audition. And it was for a director who was very famous. I get into the room and there is this famous Mr. Director with his minions.
I said, "I think I have this scene." It was about three or four scenes. "I think I have this character down and I can't wait to do it for you." And I showed him the script and the scene where I had underlined my part. And there was this terrible pause and he's looking at the script and he says, "Oh, um, is that the role you were working on?" And I said, "What is the role (you wanted me in)?" And he said, "It's the part of the Mexican whorehouse madam, would you read for it?"
I just got so pale. I felt so humiliated. So crushed. Another Mexican lady with an accent. And he wanted me to try out for it. Read for it. Me. I had already won an Oscar. I won a Tony. I won a bunch of awards.
I finally said to him, "No, I'm sorry. I, I don't do Mexican whorehouse madams." I could barely contain the tremble in my voice. I don't know where I got the courage. I took my coat up, put on my shoulder bag and then slowly walked out of the room. I got in my car and cried for an hour. And I've never forgotten it. And this is one of the very few times I can tell that story. So God I'm finally over it.
Tell me about the March on Washington. You were there. What did that mean to you?
It's one of the proudest moments of my life. Maybe the proudest, it plays a bigger part than the Oscar.
Harry Belafonte, whom I knew, had a meeting at somebody's house in Bel Air. And he said Martin Luther King is going to do a talk and a demonstration in Washington, D.C. And he said, "I told Martin that I would like to invite some Hollywood people, deliberately Hollywood people, because I want him to understand that it isn't all just about movies, and false eyelashes and makeup." I remember James Garner was there. Sammy Davis Jr. was there, all kinds of folk.
So we were literally sitting in folding chairs (at the Lincoln Memorial) not 10 or 15 feet from Dr. King, who was going to speak. And he was standing there. And I remember turning around and looking at that sea, I get goosebumps, that sea of faces, people who were there to show their support and how important it was to them. I was there. Thank you, Harry Belafonte.
You've also talked about the current protests and that they're a good thing because they are exposing the problems in our country. Do you see a solution?
I think Americans listen very badly. I’m talking about listening in a very different way than we are used to. It's difficult to listen in such a nuanced way, that despite your prejudices you will hear what is being said, not what you think someone is trying to say.
But we have to learn to do a whole lot better. And I think we are. This is what's so exciting about these movements. There's two things going on at once and the other is about women. They're interlocked and it's so exciting, and I'm so glad that at almost 89, I've lived to see this happen.
What is your definition of courage?
Courage is being definitely afraid of something and going on with it anyway. And that's my story, being deathly afraid and saying, but I've got to do this. I'm obliged to do this. I must do this. I must be responsible. I've been afraid so many times in my life. Oh my God. I am such a scaredy cat about so many things.
I think you're brave, for what it's worth.
I do, too. I do, too. But at the same time, I'm scared of everything.
So is there a guiding principle or a mantra that you tell yourself?
No, I don't have mantras. (If I did), it would be, "Oh, shut up. Come on, get on with it." (Laughs)
What advice would you give your younger self, that 5-year-old just starting off in the classroom, the 13-year-old working on Broadway?
I would say you have value. You are very special, because everyone is special. You are unique, and what is unique about you is that you have great qualities as a person. I would encourage myself to just keep going forward.
I think that I would have been, and I really believe this, I believe that I would have been a more successful movie star or actress than I ever was, and I believe it's because of my Hispanic name. Because I'm hardly exotic looking. But that name, Rita Moreno, has been, in a way, a curse.
And I wouldn't change it for the world.
Nicole Carroll is the editor in chief of USA TODAY. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 19th Amendment: Rita Moreno talks career, Oscar, March on Washington