As Latinas continue to reach new heights in Hollywood — like Sofia Vergara, the highest-paid TV actress, Gina Rodriguez’s Golden Globe win, and Eva Longoria and America Ferrera producing multiple shows — there was a time when they were nearly nonexistent in the industry.
It was during that time that actress Rita Moreno rose to stardom. A young Puerto Rican girl with no role models reflective of her culture or industry aspirations navigated her way through a craft reserved for women nothing like her. After seven decades in Hollywood, Moreno looks back at her journey with tears of joy for succeeding amid racism and sexism at its purest forms.
So what helped to change the landscape in Hollywood? According to Moreno, it came down to two people.
“It came down to a couple named Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Not only in their efforts to have people hear their music, but to crossover,” she says before boasting about their Broadway play On Your Feet!.
The Estefans' story of perseverance was deeply relatable “because we all have our immigrant stories.” And Moreno's began when her teenage mother moved from Puerto Rico to New York City when she was just a baby. By the time Moreno was a teenager she began her acting career despite how naive and inexperienced she was in the larger-than-life world she was entering.
In her earliest roles she was cast as stereotypically promiscuous and dimwitted American-Indian and Hispanic women or “dusky maidens” as Moreno describes.
"Now, it’s changed so much. I don’t think anyone would dare to write a stereotypical character like that, but when I was 17 years old — which is when I went to Hollywood — that’s what you played.”
Aside from being cast as uneducated Hispanic and American-Indian girls who could barely speak English, Moreno’s characters also “had very little morality because they were always going with a white man who was doing it to her in some secret hideout.”
While she played the parts to the best of her ability, Moreno confesses, “I hated it. It was so humiliating because that’s not what I had in mind when I went to Hollywood.”
When asked why she put up with it, she says, “The answer’s very simple: There was nothing else. I just figured that one day, someday, someone would say, ‘This girl has talent and I’m going to help her.'"
Fast-forward to today, and Moreno — who will turn 84 on December 11 — has been honored countless times for her achievements in Hollywood, including being among the elite to obtain EGOT status (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards).
Now she will receive the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award for her career-spanning successes that currently includes her first Spanish-language album, Una Vez Mas, which was produced by Emilio Estefan and has been deemed “Grammy-worthy” by critics, a guest-starring role on Jane the Virgin, an appearance in the HBO documentary The Latin Explosion: A New America, and a voiceover role in the Sprout animated series Nina’s World that she’s so proud of.
So do the accolades ever get old?
“Hell no!” she exclaims. “Old? That? Oh, no. No, no, no. Never. It’s wonderful to be recognized.”
All in all, when Moreno reflects on her overarching career and the new heights she continues to reach, she can’t help but smile.
“I’m having this astonishing renaissance in my career,” she says. “I have no complaints. I am such a happy Puerto Rican.”
The Latin Explosion: A New America will air on November 16th at 9PM EST on HBO and HBO Latino.