Back in July, the Kennedy Center announced that Rita Moreno, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved with her family to The Bronx when she was 6, will be one of this year’s recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors which is given to those in the performing arts that have greatly contributed to American culture.
Moreno is no stranger to awards having been the 3rd artist to receive the coveted EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards and the first Latino to do so back in 1977, the same year Helen Hayes became the 2nd artist and first female in achieving the same.
Although Rita Moreno’s official birth certificates say she was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, she was actually from the small, mountain village of Juncos where my mother and her family hail from.
In her self-titled memoir, Moreno opens up the novel by saying:
“My journey begins on December 11, 1931, in Juncos, Puerto Rico. Humacao “claims” me now because I became famous…but sorry, Humacao, I am not from you—I was only born in a hospital there. From Humacao, swaddled, I was carried by my mother—my pretty dark-haired mother, Rosa Maria, who was then only seventeen—back to her village, back to Juncos.
Juncos blooms like a flower in my memory; Juncos is color, scent. And Juncos is music: my mother and other women singing, laughing. No one was ever alone in Juncos.
Why did we ever leave Juncos?
“Because we had nothing there,” my mother said.
Of course, to a five-year old, we had everything in Juncos. What would the unknown America offer that I did not already have?”
At the age of five in 1936, Moreno and her mother arrived in New York City and landed in The Bronx; Mohegan Avenue in between Crotona Park and The Bronx Zoo to be exact, according to her memoir.
In many ways, Moreno and her family were pioneers of sorts, for you see, she arrived during the first wave of migration from Puerto Rico to the mainland and ended up in a small but growing “barrio” or neighborhood, of Puerto Ricans in our borough—long before the massive post WWII migration which brought hundreds of thousands from the island to our great city.
When one reads the many interviews and accounts of Rita Moreno’s life, it all seems like a fairytale. In an article in AARP, they wrote about Moreno’s life by saying:
“In the Bronx, Moreno learned to defend herself from street gangs and to speak English like a native. At 6, she began to take lessons from a famous Spanish dancer, Rita Hayworth’s uncle, Paco Cansino. At 9 she debuted with Cansino at a club in New York. Once she experienced the applause and stage lights, she knew she had found her destiny. At 13 she was acting on Broadway, and at 16 she moved with her mother and brother (a child from her mother’s remarriage) to Hollywood to work in the movie industry studio system. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer dubbed her a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.“
Moreno also is an alumni of Casita Maria, an organization born in El Barrio aka East Harlem which eventually moved to our borough in 1961 and has played an important role in many Bronxites lives both world renowned and otherwise.
By 1947 she was already living in Hollywood which would lead her onto a trajectory that landed her in the role as Anita in West Side Story which was played by Chita Rivera on Broadway. This was the role which lead to her Oscar but it wasn’t all roses from there.
Moreno recalls declining many roles because they were too stereotypical and demeaning to latinos and women alike.
Her personal life was rollercoaster just like her personal career with an 8 year relationship with Marlon Brando and even a very brief affair with Elvis himself.
In 1998 she came back home to The Bronx, although it wasn’t the first time back in our borough, as she was being inducted into The Bronx Walk of Fame by then borough President Fernando Ferrer.
We’re very proud to count Rita Moreno as one of the many Bronxites who have made us so proud and are looking forward to December 6th of this year when she receives The Kennedy Center Honors. Despite all of the awards she has received, it is about time she is truly recognized for all that she has contributed to American culture which spans most of her 83 years alive.