Rows of black plastic chairs filled a small area between walls of bookshelves at Books & Books in the Gables Friday night. On display behind the smart podium sat a row of books with a black and white photo of a beautiful young woman on the cover: Rita Moreno: A Memoir. Moreno was waiting in the hallway behind heavy velvet curtains, and when she finally appeared, she commanded the attention of every single person in the room.
Loud applause carried Moreno to the podium as she waved and blew kisses to the intimately sized crowd. Moreno is petite, but at 81-years-old, she's as fiery as ever. With her gray hair spiked up and wearing a skin-tight orange-red dress, Moreno could have fooled anyone that she was still in her 60s.
She began the evening by reading the entire first chapter of her biography because, as she explained, it does an excellent job at letting the reader know what the whole book will be about. Her story of immigrating to a strange new land at such a young age is something relatable, she feels, among a crowd here in Miami. And she was right.
From the tender age of 5, Moreno states in her book how she knew "I've got to pretend I'm someone I'm not." Her struggle with identity - is she Rita or Rosita? - and her personal journey to embracing her Latina roots are a big part of her memoir.
Plainly put, Rita Moreno: A Memoir is a story of how she found herself.
Before she moved on to a question and answer session, Moreno decided to read one more excerpt from the book, this time in Spanish. However, for someone who now embraces her Hispanic heritage, she only read a paragraph (as opposed to a whole chapter) in Spanish. She attributed it to there being those in the audience who wouldn't understand the language. Very politically correct of her.
Almost as quickly as she began, Moreno opened the floor to questions and spent the rest of the evening sharing in a conversation with the audience. Some people chose to share stories from their past - not really related to Moreno herself - and others encouraged her to share her own stories from the glory days.
Back in the 1950s, when Moreno was beginning her film career (she began at a much younger age in theater in New York City), there weren't many Latina roles, and the ones that did exist were degrading and demeaning. Early on, she was typecast as a Latina Elizabeth Taylor, but Moreno recalls wanting to be Taylor, not just a Latina knock-off. One day, she said, she realized that "it was not only okay to be Latina, or to be someone who was not white, but that I could bring, in my field, riches from my culture to this country."
One of her most memorable career moments, both personally and universally, is her role in West Side Story (1961) as Anita. The role not only won her an Oscar and a Golden Globe, but also cemented her place in Hollywood. Moreno recalls not having a proper role model to look up to in the industry, so after West Side Story, Anita became her role model: "Anita is strong. Anita has pride. Anita is smart. And she has a sense of dignity. I didn't have that for years, and years, and she eventually became my role model."
Of course, someone was bound to ask about her reaction to winning the Academy Award over 50 years ago, and of course, Moreno responded like a pro. She said how she was "amazed" and "had no idea" she was going to win, and after making silly faces and making the crowd erupt with laughter - "You didn't know I was like this, did you?" - she shared a sincere story from Oscar night. A friend of hers was living in el barrio during that time, and told her how on Oscar night, everyone had the television sets tuned in watching the ceremony. The neighborhood is typically a noisy place, but when the the list of names in the Best Supporting Actress category were being read, "it went absolutely dead silent." When her name was called as the winner, "the place erupted in smoke. They started yelling out the windows, ise la comió! What they were really saying was, we did it."
One final audience member asked Moreno about her latest project, which turns out to be a documentary. She will be appearing as part of PBS' new six-hour mini-series called Latino American, which she said "chronicles the story of how we got here, how it happened - not just Puerto Ricans, but all Latinos in this country. It's amazing." The series premieres sometime this fall on PBS.
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Promptly one hour after beginning, Moreno effortlessly transitioned her talk to the book-signing portion of the night. Listeners who had filled the halls trying to get a glimpse of the starlet moved aside and began forming a line. Moreno had a table, complete with a glass of wine, set up in a room across the courtyard. The line circled the entire venue and groups tag teamed who would make the line and who would go purchase the book as quickly as possible.
Moreno signed each book with a smile on her face, and posed for a photo with whomever wanted one. As if the evening wasn't intimate enough, she would encourage people to bring their faces in close for their photo-op, and remind them to turn the flash on.
The night was full of good laughs mixed with good reads. For news on upcoming author events at Books & Books, visit booksandbooks.com.