She’s a theatrical icon and one of the most nominated performers in Tony history. But for Chita Rivera, being a role model for young Hispanic performers might be her biggest accolade.
“I think it’s vital that we know our heritage, we’re proud of our heritage, but that were are a part of the world,” she said in an interview with PIX11 News for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Born Delores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, she remembered being at an audition early in her career that stopped her in her tracks. (Her mother was Irish and Scottish, and her father was Puerto Rican.)
“Does she have an accent?” she was asked. “And I went ‘Why would I have to have–‘ And then I realized that’s what people thought.”
She said she never felt different than any other performer as she embarked on her career as a performer, though she embraced her heritage. She eventually took her club act to Puerto Rico.
After entertaining as a young performer as a place to put her infectious energy, she later won a scholarship at the School of American Ballet and trained in New York City under legendary choreographer George Balanchine.
In 1957, she was cast as Anita in the original Broadway production of West Side Story — which led to her stardom.
She’d later win two Tonys — and was nominated for eight more — on top of her Lifetime Achievement Award. She later devoted her life to humanitarian work and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
“When you have been lucky enough to do what you love and what you can do, you owe it to give it back,” she said.