The Unsinkable Rita Moreno Gets Her Dues in New Documentary

By Giselle Balido

January 19, 2021

‘Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’ is an unflinching, intimate portrait of the living legend. As Moreno herself tells us, it doesn’t pull any punches.

She belongs to one of the most exclusive clubs in Hollywood: a small tribe known as EGOT, the acronym given to performers who win an Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Emmy, the industry’s highest accolades. 

The Boricua diva is the only Latina to have won all four. And more could be in her future. Because at the ripe young age of 89, the Puerto Rican actress, dancer, and singer is sazoná with the adobo of her island, and continues to enchant on and off the screen.

Moreno most recently played the Cuban abuela on Netflix’s Latino-flavored reboot of the mid-seventies TV series “One Day at a Time,” and will appear in a special role in Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited remake of “West Side Story,” the 1961 film that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Leaving Paradise

Born Rosita Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico, which in her 2013 memoir she calls “paradise,” at age 5 Rita Moreno left a childhood she recalls as “idyllic” to emigrate with her mother to The Bronx, New York. Dancing, singing, and acting helped her escape her harsh new reality.

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She made her Broadway debut at thirteen, and was discovered by Louis B. Mayer of MGM.  Yet she found herself repeatedly typecast as what she calls the “utility ethnic,” whether as a Polynesian, Native American, or Egyptian. And yet, despite the limitations imposed on her by the entertainment business, Moreno not only managed to thrive, but became an emblem of the “sí se puede” attitude that sustains her to this day.

Now PBS, Thirteen’s “American Masters,” Norman Lear’s Act III Productions, Maramara and Executive Producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, offer a unique, intimate portrait of Moreno in a documentary that explores her journey. Apart from her childhood and artistic accomplishments, “Rita Moreno: Just a girl Who Decided to Go for It” delves into racism, sexism, sexual abuse, and a toxic romantic relationship with Marlon Brando. As Moreno herself admits, it doesn’t pull any punches.

“I Grew Up Thinking I Had No Value”

“Once I agreed to participate in the documentary, I knew I had to be truthful and forthright otherwise, what was the point?” Moreno told The Americano.

But the scrutiny proved challenging.

“Easier said than done,” she admitted. “The camera is not your friend or your judge. It is a recording device. It will record a trembling lip, a subtle or boldfaced lie without prejudice.”

But, as has been her custom throughout her life, she didn’t back away from the challenge. “So it’s best, I concluded, to share the best and worst of me and be done with it.”

When asked why she went ahead with it, despite its bittersweetness, Moreno once again proved her mettle. “What was most important to me was sharing my life as a Puerto Rican woman with my Latin community and all that implies.”

Here’s “all that implies”: Growing up, she said, she found it very hard to love herself in a racist society. 

“I didn’t have role models then. There were none then—none,” Moreno said. “I grew up thinking that I had no value, that I had no worth.”

Now she wants su gente to know that they do have worth, and that “learning to look in the mirror and see what’s really there is an advantage, not a deficit.”

In fact, looking back on her life has filled her with a renewed sense of pride and purpose.

“I found the arc of my life and career absolutely astonishing and moving. How could I have projected such confidence while feeling so inadequate?” she said.

When asked where she found the strength to persevere, Moreno doesn’t doubt for a second. 

“Did my mom pass on those genes? Yes!” she said adding that despite “the struggles, the unending racial affronts, the repeated falls and endless recoveries, I’m still standing.”

This is the indomitable spirit that inspired executive producer Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

The Queen. Period.

“Rita is La Reina. Punto. Full stop,” said Miranda, the acclaimed genius behind the Broadway musicals “Hamilton” and “In the Heights.” “Her life, talent and career is a masterclass in the American dream. It is about time that she takes her rightful place amongst her peers on American Masters.”

Still, in the midst of the accolades, Moreno’s mind returns to the past and to the beginning, to the woman she credits for her strength and her pantalones. 

“How I wish my Puerto Rican mother were alive to see this: her child’s story being celebrated,” she said. “It is not something she or I could ever have imagined. I’m astonished. I’m humbled.”

Where to Watch

“American Masters” is available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video app, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. PBS station members can view episodes via Passport. Contact your local PBS station for details. 



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