Award-winning actress, dancer and singer Rita Moreno spoke at the annual “Illuminating the Path” event on Tuesday night at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.
“Illuminating the Path,” presented by the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center (PRLACC) and co-sponsored by the UConn Office for Diversity & Inclusion, El Instituto, SUBOG and USG, is the climax of a month-long series of celebrations for National Hispanic Heritage Month which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Every year, the event hosts a conversation with a renowned Latinx figure in society on their achievements to inspire students and the surrounding community.
“We wanted Rita so badly that we waited until she was available and that’s why we’re doing ‘Illuminating the Path’ in November,” Fany Hannon, the director of PRLACC, said in an interview after the talk.
Moreno was greeted by a roar of applause and cheers from an audience of roughly 200 students and staff when she walked on stage. Once Moreno and Hannon took their seats on stage, Hannon moderated the conversation with a list of questions about Moreno’s upbringing and work.
Moreno explained the story about how her mother divorced her father and left Puerto Rico for the mainland U.S. to work in a sweatshop. Once she had enough money, she returned to Puerto Rico to bring Moreno to the mainland U.S. in hopes of having a better life. When Moreno began kindergarten in New York, she was immediately bullied and called racial slurs by her peers, which led to emotional and mental scarring.
“Now and then I still get one of those [thoughts] that maybe I’m not as good as I think I am,” Moreno said.
Mental health is an important subject to Moreno and she constantly emphasized how important therapy was for her during the healing process. When asked about how she mentally takes care of herself, Moreno said that the best thing to do was to go to therapy, which she did for eight years. This was a big takeaway for many students in the audience.
“You can’t heal by yourself,” Marielis Cruz, a seventh-semester English major, said. “You should seek out that help and that service.”
An important issue in the Latinx community is the lack of representation in mainstream media. Moreno has been praised by many as being a pioneer for the Latinx community because of her several roles in film and television, such as “West Side Story,” “One Day at a Time” and “Jane the Virgin.” Moreno was the third person in history to win an EGOT, meaning she was awarded an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony award.
“Even though we have these shows … it seems like there’s a rising of [representation] but it’s still not enough,” Cruz said. “We need more of it. Just because there’s several of them coming out, it doesn’t mean that we have to stop.”
Hannon asked Moreno about how she moved forward in Hollywood, to which she replied by saying that it was difficult as a Latinx individual. She explained that while the black acting community has made a lot of progress, she feels the Hispanic community is “still standing in place.” Moreno brought up an anecdote from a previous talk where an audience member suggested that while the Hispanic community supports each other, it still separates itself based on individual nationality, whereas the black community does not.
“She [said] black people are all united together and help each other,” Sara Aldarondo, a seventh-semester environmental engineering major, said. “I would like to think that the Hispanic community does that, and maybe they do need some help, but I don’t think that you should compare the two because I still think they both have a long way to go.”
Moreno is known for her role as Anita in the 1961 adaptation of “West Side Story.” Much to the audience’s delight, she shared information about the new “West Side Story” adaptation by Steven Spielberg, which will be released on Dec. 18, 2020. Moreno said she will take on the role of Valentina, Doc’s widow who takes over the drugstore. Moreno was offered executive producer credit on the film so she was excited to announce that there will be much more Latinx representation amongst the cast than the original film had.
Throughout the night, Moreno maintained her charismatic personality on stage and constantly had the audience laughing at her many anecdotes and jokes. When she coughed, she joked by saying, “I’m sorry my nose is leaking, it’s all the cocaine.” Moreno also told the story about how she was invited to give the commencement address at the Berklee College of Music in 2016. In an effort to give a different speech from usual, she decided to rap her speech on stage to the graduating class.
“She is unapologetic but also, she is who she is in every single arena, I love that about her,” Hannon said.
Following the main portion of the event, the floor was opened up to questions from the audience. Students asked a variety of topics: From asking for advice as Latinx individuals, to asking Moreno what her favorite actor to work with or asking about her dream hookup, Moreno’s outgoing personality endeared her to the audience.
Brandon Barzola is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.