On April 9, 1962, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno becomes the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar, for her role of Anita in West Side Story (1961).
Moreno, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1931 and grew up in Long Island, New York, began acting at a young age, landing her first Broadway role at the age of 13. Later in life, Moreno recalled her early career as a time when the only roles available to her were stereotypes: “The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns … it was humiliating, embarrassing stuff.” Nonetheless, she was successful, appearing in a supporting role in the The King and I, which won five Academy Awards in 1956.
A few years later, she was cast in the role of her lifetime: Anita in the film remake of the musical West Side Story. While many of the actors, including leads Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, did not perform their own singing parts, Moreno recorded most of Anita’s songs herself. One such song was “America,” a piece with heavy Latin influences in which characters both celebrate the experience of Puerto Rican immigrants and decry their adopted country’s racism.
West Side Story was an enormous success, winning ten Oscars including Best Picture. As she accepted her award for Best Supporting Actress, a bewildered Moreno kept her acceptance speech concise: “I can’t believe it. Good Lord! I leave you with that.”
Despite this triumph, Moreno remained disenchanted with Hollywood and did not work on another film until 1968’s The Night of the Following Day. She returned to regular film and television work and in 1975 won a Tony Award, again for Best Supporting Actress, for her role in The Ritz. For most of the ’70s, Moreno was a member of the main cast of the popular children’s show The Electric Company. Her appearance on another children’s program, The Muppet Show, earned her her Emmy and, with it, the coveted EGOT—an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award—in 1977.