The Puerto Rican-born winner of two Emmys®, a Grammy®, Oscar®, and Tony® (the coveted "EGOT") -- still gorgeous at age 82 -- told the National Portrait Gallery audience, "I felt very, very inferior to almost everyone. It's a life-long journey, and I still have problems with that."
Born Rosita Dolores Alverío in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1931, she emigrated to the U.S. at age five, and "The first word I learned in New York was 'spic'." She reeled off other such insults hurled at her in the Bronx barrio.
Later, in Hollywood, her stereotypecasting as "ignorant, easy, immoral, sexy, needy -- I called them 'dusky' ethnic roles -- left me very sad and depressed. I entered therapy."
The celebrated actress, dancer, and singer occasionally feels the belittling "dark presence of a child who's afraid." She added, "Lots of us become bullies."
Instead, she became a star. Her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role was Anita in the 1961 film "West Side Story".
"Anita is the epitome of ethnic roles. She had a sense of dignity, self-respect, responsibility, and was strong and loving," Moreno said. "She became my first role model, way late in my life" (age 27-28).
The NPG event celebrated that stunning exhibit; her deliciously dishy memoir "Rita Moreno" (Penguin), which she signed after the program and reception; and her pioneering life and career.
She said she was discovered by MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who exclaimed "'She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor' -- I nearly peed my pants."
Moreno's delightful sense of humor helped her deal with being stereotyped, even after her Oscar.
"I developed this thing I call the universal ethnic accent. Whether playing an Arabian girl, a Polynesian girl, they all sounded the same -- Puerto Rican!" She demonstrates lines like, "Why ju no love Carmelita no more?' It's funny now, not then."
She said "I killed myself for roles...tried to get my agents and producers to see me as someone other than a clichéd stereotype -- I spoke better English than most of those people."
Moreno inserted a controversial point. "People need to speak the language of the country they live in...I'm not very forgiving."
And why should she be. Moreno, the only Latino individual to have won all four key annual performing arts honors, also received the Screen Actors Guild's Lifetime Achievement Award last year; the National Medal of Freedom in 2009 from President Obama (click for video of her abandoned embrace); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award, in 2004 (no hug for President George W. Bush.)
"I always loved the attention -- I still do," she said at the July 9 celebration. "Some things never go away." The good, the bad, and in her case, the beauty.