Rita Moreno talks career, Oscar, March on Washington

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 on Aug. 14.

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. 

Women of the Century: Rita Moreno says nobody paved the way for her, ‘you can sink or swim’

Actress, singer and dancer Rita Moreno is the first Latina to achieve EGOT (winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards) status.

USA TODAY

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.

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