Her real name is Rosa Dolores Alverio.
But her collection of showbiz awards read simply "Rita Moreno."
“You know what comes to mind when ever something really, really special and important happens to me? Puerto Rico."
- Rita Moreno
The legendary Puerto Rican actress is an American icon. She is the only Hispanic, and one of just 11 actors, to ever win all four of the major awards (Oscar, Tony, Emmy x 2, and a Grammy). And on Saturday night, the 82-year-old, best known for her 1962 Academy Award winning role as Anita in "West Side Story," will receive yet another accolade, becoming the Screen Actors Guild 50th recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award, the highest honor bestowed by the union of actors.
“I think in its own way it's more prestigious even than the Oscar,” Moreno told Fox News Latino, though she said, “that’s almost a silly thing to say. But when you get a lifetime achievement award from Screen Actors Guild, by your peers mind you, not only for a lifetime of work but a lifetime of service for the community ... that's a whole another thing.”
It’s a bold statement, but perhaps not a surprising one, when you analyze Moreno’s life and the obstacles she endured.
At the age of 5, she moved with her mother from Humacao, a small town in Puerto Rico, to the Bronx and Washington Heights neighborhoods of New York City. She started her career on Broadway at age 13 and before you know she was cast as Tuptim in the classic "The King and I," Anita in "West Side Story," the comedic Googie Gomez in Broadway’s "The Ritz," and her unforgettable performances in "The Electric Company," "The Muppet Show" and "The Rockford Files."
But Moreno paid a price for being Hollywood’s first Latina superstar — enduring name-calling and getting just stereotypical roles like Mexican maids or ethnic princesses.
“People always think of me as very strong, like Anita in 'West Side Story' and, boy let me tell you, I had my terrible, terrible times and moments of weakness just like everyone else,” Moreno said. “It was so depressing to me and demeaning to have to put on a bucksin with a feather in my head and play an American Indian girl or a Polynesian girl or an Arabian girl, an East Indian princess — it was only that. I could never speak the way I speak now. I speak just fine good English, better than a lot of actors I know.”
The stereotypical roles got so bad that at one point she contemplated becoming a secretary.
“There was a time when I said to my mother 'I don’t think I can take this anymore and I’m going to quit,' and I went to secretarial school for five days,” Moreno said, though she decided it wasn’t for her. “I go, ‘this is not for me. I hate this. I love the attention.’”
Though coming short of saying she has taken the issue of Hispanic representation in the arts as her responsibility, it seems on every stage of her life Moreno has paved the way for Hispanic and minority actors to land profound roles, while also inspiring the world with her talent.
“I need to remind people where I come from, I think it’s important to remind those, that are not only not Hispanic, but not American-born, that there are many of us with enormous talent who are striving to be what we need to be in life; and I’m not speaking of show business, I mean to be a lawyer to be a doctor to be a scientist,” she said.
Moreno has also been a civil rights activist — she told Fox News Latino passing real immigration reform, not a “watered down version,” is issue number 1 in her mind. Though, she said, Puerto Rican statehood is not something she thinks about because "they have to decide and I’m not there.”
Moreno will be given just one minute for her acceptance speech on Saturday night at the SAG Awards, and she joked that it’s a limited amount of time for anyone, especially a Puerto Rican.
“You know what comes to mind when ever something really, really special and important happens to me? Puerto Rico,” Moreno explained.
“Being a little Puerto Rican girl. My mind goes right back to my little house in Puerto Rico, in my little girl self, with a huge bow on my head and dancing for Grandpa and I’m thinking 'I just can’t believe it.' And it’s always difficult to accept it. I know this sounds immodest, but I don’t know what to do. I’m always — 'really!'? I don’t think of myself that way.”
Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL).
Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.