She was five years old when she arrived by boat from Puerto Rico with her seamstress mother, dropping anchor in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
Rosita Dolores Alverio may have been a small child, but in no time at all she became Rita Moreno, the star who conquered Broadway and Hollywood -- living the American dream after growing up in the Bronx.
The actress, singer and dancer is currently the only Latina among 12-strong esteemed ‘EGOT’ winners circle, those who have bagged each an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award.
At 86, she exudes vitality, grace and elegance but has never forgotten the racism and sexism she suffered for decades.
‘Discrimination, that’s my life since I was a young woman!’ she tells AFP at an interview shortly before receiving an Ellis Island medal of honor at a gala dinner honoring successful immigrants.
‘Racial bias, sexual harassment was all over the place when I was a young woman on film.’
Her incredible life includes a fiery and toxic eight-year romance with Marlon Brando that pushed her into a suicide attempt, and flings with Elvis Presley, Dennis Hopper and Anthony Quinn.
In the end she married an affable cardiologist from New York, with whom she had a daughter. Their 46-year marriage ended only with his death in 2010.
In the recent interview on Ellis Island -- in front of the Statue of Liberty and the spot where 12 million immigrants disembarked in the first half of the 20th century -- Moreno says her life is better than ever.
‘This is the best time in my life,’ she enthuses. ‘I have a book out about my life, I have an album in Spanish... I have a career that’s ongoing... I am very, very fortunate.’
Her hair now silver, Moreno easily looks a generation younger -- her face youthful, her mind quick and mischievous and still with a dancer’s poise, dressed in a pastel blue dress and white gloves.
Asked about the secret of eternal youth, she grins.
‘We carry our age very well in my family,’ she told AFP on the sidelines of the gala dinner, culminating with spectacular fireworks.
Moreno, who says she was harassed as a teenager by a former studio head, is thrilled with the #MeToo movement since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein.
‘I think it’s a movement that’s going to grow more and more and more,’ she said. After her first role on Broadway at age 13 came small ‘ethnic’ roles on film -- playing Indian, Arab and Polynesian parts, and performing in the 1952 movie ‘Singing in the Rain’ with Gene Kelly.
At 17 she signed a contract with MGM and in 1962 became the first Latina to win an Oscar for acting for her role as the sexy Anita in 1961’s ‘West Side Story’ -- which narrates the rivalry between two New York gangs and is based on a Broadway musical inspired by ‘Romeo and Juliet.’
Then... nothing. ‘After I won my Oscar nobody came to me,’ she said. ‘I was absolutely heartbroken,’ she added.
‘Apparently I had finally played the definitive Hispanic character... Nobody could see me as somebody else. It was awful.’
‘I was offered a couple of gang movies, and I thought ‘I am not going to do this again,’ and I did not do a film for seven years,’ she said.
Nevertheless she won a Grammy in 1972, a Tony in 1975 and two Emmys in 1977 and 1978. She currently plays a sensuous Cuban-born grandmother in the hit ‘One Day at a Time’ -- a Netflix remake of a TV classic.
But still, she is not always recognized. The New York Times courted a storm of controversy earlier this year by identifying her in a photo caption from the Golden Globes as ‘a guest.’
And what does she think of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy and desire to deport more than 10 million illegal immigrants?
‘I think it’s disgraceful. I think it’s obscene,’ she hit back.
‘I keep hoping that somebody is going to come along and help to change that ... in the form of another president,’ she added.
Otherwise she is anxiously awaiting Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ remake, which has already advertised for Latino actors.
‘I am very curious to see what he does with it. I am nervous about it. Listen, we did very cliched things in ‘West Side Story’ but I am sure he’s going to avoid that because times have changed,’ she said.
Otherwise there are talks, a cabaret tour and hopes of a documentary.
‘I am always busy,’ she smiles.
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