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Rita Moreno Explains Her Passion for Acting, Marlon Brando and More

Memoir is a candid look at the 81-year-old singer, actress and dancer's rise to fame

Rita Moreno Memoir Book Cover

MGM chief Louis B. Mayer dubbed the teenage Rita Moreno a "Spanish Elizabeth Taylor." — Penguin Books

Moreno likened her uprooting to being in the movie The Wizard of Oz, which starts in black and white and suddenly changes to brilliant color.

But for her, the experience was the other way around.

The colors, tropical warmth and family were all left behind in Puerto Rico, including her little brother, Francisco, who was inexplicably abandoned by their mother.

That most saddened Moreno, who never saw her brother again.

In the Bronx, Moreno learned to defend herself from street gangs and to speak English like a native. At 6, she began to take lessons from a famous Spanish dancer, Rita Hayworth's uncle, Paco Cansino. At 9 she debuted with Cansino at a club in New York. Once she experienced the applause and stage lights, she knew she had found her destiny. At 13 she was acting on Broadway, and at 16 she moved with her mother and brother (a child from her mother's remarriage) to Hollywood to work in the movie industry studio system. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer dubbed her a "Spanish Elizabeth Taylor."

It is the recounting of her time in Hollywood where the book touches on the most fascinating, but also most tragic, parts of Moreno's life: her humiliation at making a living acting only in "ethnic" roles, because Hollywood only saw her as such; the body makeup she wore to lighten her olive skin; and the repeated episodes of sexual harassment, including being raped by an agent when she was barely in her teens.

One of the biggest milestones in her career, the best supporting actress Oscar she won in 1962 for her role as Anita in West Side Story, didn't do much to lessen her insecurity. While pregnant, she worried that her daughter would inherit her family's African genes and have dark skin. However, today Moreno can tell her story without any hesitation, and tell it well. At 81, she has nothing left to prove.

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RITA MORENO'S EARLY STRUGGLES: See how the acclaimed actress overcome adversity to become a Hollywood legend.

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