Earlier today the American Film Institute honored EGOT GOAT (EGOAT?) Rita Moreno with an honorary doctorate of fine arts. She took this opportunity to discuss what it was like to be a Latina actress in Hollywood in the '50s and '60s.
Hollywood's propensity to reduce a culture to its most stereotypical traits, with actors of color positioned as either antagonists to white heroes or lackey, has come a long way. But unfortunately, actors of color are still facing rather humiliating situations, either as offensive stereotypes or minor characters while white actors take the roles of minorities. And Rita Moreno isn't about to let you forget that this problematic casting has deep roots in show business.
After Eva Longoria presented Moreno with her fancy new degree, the 84-year-old Puerto Rican-born actress, who is best known for her role as Anita in the iconic West Side Story film, explained how Hollywood made the most of her ethnicity. Via The Hollywood Reporter:
“I was cast to play every ethnic part the studios needed," she said, citing parts where she was asked to play Indian, Native American and Arabian characters. "With them came what I had to call the 'Universal Ethnic Accent' because I had no idea what an Indian princess should sound like."
For those of you at home, a Universal Ethnic Accent, is like the Transatlantic accent, but with some, um cilantro on there, like rolled R's and hyperextended vowels "like theees." It doesn't really matter what culture is being referenced—it's just the accent of brownness.
This isn’t the first time Moreno has addressed Hollywood’s harmful and downright lazy tokenism and how even an Oscar doesn’t guarantee racial recognition. In a 2008 interview with The Miami Herald, she explained, “Before West Side Story I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After West Side Story, it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories.''
Moreno played a Tahitian in Pagan Love Song (1950), a Native American in The Yellow Tomahawk (1954), a Filipina in Cry of Battle (1963), and of course the Burmese character Tuptim in 1956's The King and I (naturally, the King of then-Siam was played by a white dude). Not to mention all the stereotypical “fiery Latina” roles she had to endure before her big break in West Side Story.
Upon receiving the AFI award, Moreno gave some pretty sound advice for those looking for recognition for their tireless work: "l never graduated from school. All I can figure is the powers that be are granting me credits for my years of never giving up. The trick is to just live for 84 years and wear them the hell down.”