Americans for the Arts presents the
32nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Monday, March 4, 2019
For information and transcipts of past Nancy Hanks Lectures, please visit the Archive.
Rita Moreno’s journey from a child with simple beginnings in Puerto Rico to show business icon spans more than seven decades. At age 86, she remains one of the entertainment industry’s busiest stars. Her work includes 40 films; several highly-rated television shows; landmark public television programs; critically acclaimed Broadway shows; concert and lecture appearances and a best-selling memoir.
Ms. Moreno’s rise to stardom captured the experience of the many immigrants who sought better lives and opportunities in America. She was born Rosita Dolores Alverio in a small town near the Puerto Rican rain forest. At age five, she and her mother, a seamstress, moved to New York City to live with relatives in the Bronx.
The precocious child soon began dance lessons and made her Broadway debut at age 13. A talent scout spotted her and introduced her to MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a film contract.
Ms. Moreno’s movie career advanced steadily. Her early films included Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly and she was featured as Tuptim in The King and I with Yul Brynner.
She is one of only 12 artists and the only Hispanic performer to have won all of show business’ top competitive awards: an Oscar®, a Tony®, a Grammy® and an Emmy® (she won two of the latter).
Ms. Moreno earned the Oscar in 1962 for heating up the screen in her portrayal of the Latina spitfire, Anita, in West Side Story, a role which drew on memories of the racial taunts she endured as a young Puerto Rican immigrant living in the Bronx barrio. The Tony win was for her 1975 comedic triumph as Googie Gomez in Broadway’s The Ritz. The Grammy was for her 1972 performance on The Electric Company Album, based on her long-running children’s television series. The Emmys were for appearances on The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files.
After winning the Oscar, Ms. Moreno was acknowledged as a major movie star and she used her celebrity to give voice to valuable causes. She was among the Hollywood luminaries recruited by Harry Belafonte to take part in the historic 1963 March on Washington. She was seated 12 feet away from Dr. Martin Luther King when he gave his famed “I Have a Dream” speech.
Ms. Moreno has since been involved with many civic, cultural and charitable events supporting racial equality, hunger, early childhood education and higher education for minority students as well as health issues, i.e., HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
She has served on The National Endowment for the Arts committee and as a commissioner for The President’s White House Fellowships. Ms. Moreno was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush and the National Medal of the Arts by President Barack Obama. Her many other honors include the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honor for her lifetime contributions to American culture and the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Ms. Moreno added New York Times best-selling author to her list of accomplishments with her first book, Rita Moreno: A Memoir. Her friend, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, asked her to record her memoir, My Beloved World.
Rita Moreno is still sizzling. Netflix has renewed her classic “One Day at a Time” series for a third season. She also completed a 30+ city concert and lecture tour around the country, appearing as a guest artist with symphony orchestras as well as in more intimate cabaret settings. She served as Grand Marshal of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York and released her first all-Spanish language album, Una Vez Mas, produced by her good friend, Emilio Estefan.