Sitting on a couch in a Midtown hotel one recent morning, legs angled at a position only a lifelong dancer could achieve, Moreno was vivacious despite having been on an interview blitz (the documentary had just screened at the Tribeca Film Festival). Her gray hair was flecked with silver tinsel, like a disco ball crown, and she wore a striped dress that she had knotted low at the center, giving it an uneven, gam-level hem.
Growing up, her mother, Rosa, an accomplished seamstress, made all her clothes, and then her dance costumes. They were a conjoined but complicated pair: They came to New York from Juncos, P.R., when Rita — then known as Rosita Alverío — was 5, abandoning both the girl’s father and the younger brother she doted on, Francisco. Moreno never saw him again: her first heartbreak. And she never had the courage to ask her mother why she left Francisco behind. “As strong as she was, I had a feeling that was her Achilles, and that she couldn’t bear to talk about it,” Moreno said. (As an adult, she hired investigators to find him, to no avail.)
Landing in New York so early in the wave of Puerto Rican migration, Moreno, who spoke no English, was baptized by the prejudice that has trailed her throughout her life. Even Anita, who she calls a role model, was painted — literally — wrong, in makeup the color of “mud,” Moreno said, alongside the other Puerto Rican characters in “West Side Story.” When she protested the uniformity, the makeup artist suggested she was racist, she said.
She was still being offered stereotypical parts into her 60s, she said. And even in the last few years, at a high-caliber professional occasion she would not name, she said that she experienced discrimination. “It’s something where I was just diminished, and it wasn’t even conscious on their part,” she said. “That’s what made it worse.”
“I literally went home and wept for three days,” she added. “There are scars that heal perfectly well, and there are scars that still have a very thin skin.”