'West Side Story' star Rita Moreno speaks at CU Boulder about mental health journey, career

Sep. 21—Rita Moreno longed to see someone in film who looked like her.

But when she never found that person, she decided to become the representation in Hollywood for Puerto Ricans and people of other ethnicities in America. What Moreno didn't realize was that for a Puerto Rican woman like her, there was more to it than just being a movie star.

"I was very naïve," Moreno said. "It didn't work that way. It involved a great deal of pain and disappointments and hurts and being very defensive about who I was for a very, very long time."

After years of being called derogatory names while walking to school as a child, Moreno loathed who she was or who she thought she was, she said. It wasn't until her boyfriend at the time, Marlon Brando, suggested that she start psychotherapy, that she finally found herself.

"It took me eight years on and off to really understand that I was a good person," Moreno said.

Award-winning actress, singer, dancer and "West Side Story" star Moreno spoke at the University of Colorado Boulder on Tuesday night on a range of topics, including the start of her acting career, her skincare routine, her mom and her roles in both the new and old versions of the musical "West Side Story."

Tuesday night was the CU Boulder Cultural Events Board's first speaker event of the school year and was also Moreno's first time speaking at CU Boulder, according to a CU Boulder spokesperson.

After years of psychotherapy, Moreno, 90, said she reflects on it as the best thing she ever did for herself.

"When you're as wounded as I was — and I was really, really wounded — I don't know that you ever really get healed, but I think what happens is that you learn how to deal with your hurts," she said.

Decades ago when Moreno played "Anita" in the 1961 version of "West Side Story," the makeup they made her wear was really dark — way darker than her natural skin tone, she said.

"I said (to the makeup artist), 'I hate this makeup. It streaks, and this isn't my color anyway, and I'm Puerto Rican,'" Moreno said.

But when Moreno asked why she had to wear makeup darker than her natural skin tone, the makeup artist looked at her and asked, "What, are you racist?"

"I was really shocked, Moreno said. "I tell you I was without words, because I was so shocked at that kind of response, which shows you that he knew nothing."

But the most recent version of the musical, with Moreno serving as an executive producer, couldn't have been more different, Moreno said.

She said Tony Kushner, who wrote the movie's screenplay, and Steven Spielberg, who directed and co-produced the movie, traveled to Puerto Rico when they were working on the movie and met with officials at the University of Puerto Rico. They wanted to learn about the island and not do what was done during the filming of the earlier version of the musical, Moreno said.

"(They said) 'We want to find out what we can do to correct things,' and they did that," she said.

Toward the end of Moreno's visit on campus Tuesday, she spoke about her mother, who she said was her greatest influence in life.

Although her mom worked two jobs — sometimes three — Moreno never knew her to be afraid of anything, she said.

"I don't think I ever saw my mom cry because that's something she kept from me," Moreno said. "She was remarkable. I miss her so much now."