We love seeing talented Latina actresses shine bright and show off their talent on stage, especially on one of the most prestigious stages of all: Broadway. While Latinx representation remains low, we’ve seen Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lindsay Mendez, Ana Villafañe, and Eva Noblezada receive critical acclaim for their work on the stage. One of the most illustrious was Chita Rivera, the actress, singer, and dancer of Puerto Rican descent who was considered the great first Broadway triple threat. This week, her daughter Lisa Mordente announced that Rivera died, just a week after her 91st birthday. Best known for her work in musicals like West Side Story and Chicago, she will be remembered for her decades-long career, her invaluable contributions to the stage, and her pioneering works blazing a trail for other Latinas in theatre.
“It is with great sadness that Lisa Mordente, the daughter of Chita Rivera, announces the death of her beloved mother who died peacefully in New York after a brief illness,” said Rivera’s friend and publicist Merle Frimark.
Born in Washington D.C., Rivera was the daughter of a Puerto Rican father and a Scottish and Irish mother, and grew up with her four siblings. After once attending mass, she was inspired to pursue a career in theater and attended George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. From there, she starred in musical productions like Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, and Mr. Wonderful. But it wasn’t until 1957 when she was cast as Anita in West Side Story that she truly became a star. She originated many roles on Broadway including Rose in Bye Bye Birdie and Velma Kelly in Chicago, both of which earned her Tony award nominations. She ultimately won her Tonys for Best Actress in a Musical for her work in Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Rink, and won a Tony for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre in 2018. She continued to perform on Broadway up until 2015, as well as smaller shows with her daughter and her three-piece instrument trio.
Rivera received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2002, the first Latina to do so, and seven years later was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. In 2013, she served as grand marshal in New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. As a proud Latina pioneer in her industry, she understood what it meant to play the iconic role of Anita on WSS which would later be adapted into films with the role being played by fellow Puerto Rican actresses Rita Moreno and Ariana DeBose.
“Hearing ‘America’ was just mind-boggling, with that rhythm,” Rivera told NPR in 2007 for the 50th anniversary of West Side Story. “I just couldn’t wait to do it. It was such a challenge. And, being Latin, you know, it was a welcoming sound.”
Following the announcement of her death, Moreno posted an homage to the icon writing:
“Chita Rivera is eternal. I remember seeing her for the first time in Mr. Wonderful and exclaiming, “Oh my god, who IS that”? When I found out that this astonishing creature was one of my people, I crowed with pride. Over the years, we were sometimes mistaken for each other which I always viewed as a badge of honor. She was the essence of Broadway. As I write this, I am raising a glass to this remarkable woman and friend. Chita, amiga, Salud!”
Rivera’s funeral will be private and a memorial service will be announced.