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Chita Rivera, Dynamic Tony Award–Winning Singer and Dancer, Dies at 91

She was best known for her role as Anita in the original Broadway production of ‘West Side Story’


spinner image actress chita rivera in west side story
Everett Collection

Chita Rivera, the iconic singer, dancer and actress who won two Tony awards and was nominated 10 times, died Tuesday. She was 91.

Her death was announced by her daughter, Lisa Mordente, who said she died in New York after a brief illness.

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Rivera was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry, breaking down barriers for Latina performers. In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor; she also became the first Hispanic American woman to receive Kennedy Center Honors in 2002.

Rivera spoke to AARP in 2023 on the publishing of her biography, Chita: A Memoir. Here are excerpts from the candid conversation.

spinner image actress chita rivera photographed for a a r p in twenty twenty three
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM CORBETT

Dolores and Chita

My full name is Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. My father was a Puerto Rican clarinetist and sax player; my Scottish-Irish mother was a government clerk. I was raised Catholic, and I’ve often said I’ve had two angels — Chita and Dolores — one on each shoulder. Chita got along with everybody. She was the performer, the people pleaser. Not Dolores. She’d tell it like it was, like Anita. She’d say, “No, this is the way it is,” or “No, we’re not gonna do this.” My daughter, Lisa, says that’s when “Mom goes Puerto Rican.”

A sad-happy childhood

Writing the book took me back to the beginning. My childhood was very secure. I was one of five, and we played and fought and laughed and ate and were part of a mixed-race neighborhood on Flagler Place in Washington, D.C. But in 1940 when I was 7, Daddy became seriously ill. We weren’t allowed in the hospital in those days because we were children. Mother used to take us, and we’d stand outside and see him at his window. And then he passed away. It was rough for my mother with five kids, but somehow she kept us all on a normal keel.

Surprise!

While I knew about my father’s Puerto Rican heritage, I uncovered a secret on my mother’s side while researching my family history for the memoir: My maternal grandparents were mulatto, mixed-race descendants of the once enslaved. I wished I’d known earlier — it might have deepened my connection with my Black friends and colleagues, especially my onetime love Sammy Davis Jr.

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The energizer Chita

I had tons of energy and two brothers to play with. We used to hang out with the neighborhood kids and ride bicycles, skate and sneak into movie theaters. There was a back alley, fences and a pear tree that I used to climb. I was very athletic and very energetic. Indoors, jumping from one sofa to another, I was destroying the furniture. Mother had to save her tables and chair, and knew I had to be channeled. She enrolled me in a local ballet school, and then at 16, I auditioned for George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. And this tall, blond, gorgeous dancer came running from the audition room screaming, “I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!” If she couldn’t, how could I? I was short, brown and nervous as hell, but my teacher told me, “Just stay in your own lane and look straight ahead.” And I got in. One step, one plié, led to another — and, ultimately, Broadway.

spinner image Chita Rivera photographed for AARP in 2023
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM CORBETT

Lucky woman

I was born at a very good time — the ’40s and ’50s were the golden age of Broadway musicals. It began for me in 1957, when I got cast as Anita, the Puerto Rican girl who sings “America” in West Side Story. It was a job but became something so much bigger, in part because that musical was ripped from the headlines. Somebody had just been killed in a playground down the street — the article was pinned to a note board as we entered the theater. This is your life, I thought. Then came big roles in Bye Bye Birdie, Bob Fosse’s Chicago and other musicals. Still, I didn’t win my first Tony until I starred in The Rink with Liza Minnelli in 1984. I’m still paying for all that jazz now. [Laughs, tapping her overworked knees.]

Dancing queen

I still prefer being called a dancer. I come from the chorus and the family that comes with being a part of the show. In rehearsal, you laid out your heart and soul from 10 to 6 daily. Dancers are very open people. What you see is what we are. We’re told what to do and we do it. And that’s the way it was with singing and acting, too, but I wouldn’t change being a dancer for anything in the world.

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The roles that got away

I would be so selfish to have wanted any other roles because I’ve had so many great ones: Anita, Velma in Chicago, the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. I’m pretty satisfied, but [laughs] there are five Tonys out there that should have been mine!

spinner image Chita Rivera photographed for AARP
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM CORBETT

The Big 9-Oh

I just had a birthday, and it was a biggie. I can’t get over the number. Ninety! My daughter, Lisa, threw me a party at a replica 1920s speakeasy in Manhattan. It was amazing — but when I spied a celebratory banner with that huge number, I shivered. That’s when my polite side, my Chita side, came out: I let them keep those decorations up.

Power of positive thinking

Since I reached this age, I’m suddenly thinking about the time I have left. Thinking, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to leave. And that’s not good. I’m usually a very positive person. So now I’m making myself do things. Before I didn’t have to make myself do things — I just did them [laughs]. I can’t dance like I used to, but I sing, I act. I consider myself such a lucky person. The body might change, but the heart remains constant.

Contributing: Thelma Adams

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