Actress and activist Rita Moreno is a living legend who, at the age of 86, is still tirelessly speaking her mind and advocating for women, immigrants, and her fellow Puerto Ricans. She herself has experienced racism firsthand, after moving from Puerto Rico to New York City in the mid-1930s at age 5.
"You Feel Very Inferior"
"What happens is that when you're a child and you are told in so many words that you don't have value and that you don't have worth, as a child you're a very tender creature. You accept that," Moreno told POPSUGAR. "You don't know why people don't like you, but they don't."
Moreno said the discrimination took a real toll. "As you grow up thinking that you're an unworthy person, you have a lot of problems," she said. "You become defensive, you feel very inferior to everyone. Ultimately that sent me into psychotherapy many years later, which is the best thing I could have done, because it really helped me quite a bit."
On May 2, Moreno, the first Latina EGOT winner — meaning she's won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award — added another accolade to her name. Moreno was one of dozens of people who received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, given to those who embody diversity and tolerance in American life. Previous winners include Elie Wiesel, Malala Yousafzai, and former Vice President Joe Biden.
"It never occurred to me that I would even been considered for something like this," Moreno told PopSugar ahead of the ceremony on Saturday.
An award celebrating America's immigrant past and present comes at a difficult time. It's impossible not to be moved when stepping from the ferry into the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and former baggage room. Under a spotlight in the middle of the room, there's a battered leather trunk, once bound for Newark and marked with Old World names. Newly-arrived immigrants on the island, pulled together from every corner of the earth, stare with wide eyes from photos on the wall and dare you to feel the terror and excitement of this unknown land they found themselves in.
Today, reading their faces takes on a particular resonance. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) recently removed the phrase "nation of immigrants" from its mission statement. Hundreds of children have been taken from their parents' arms at the U.S. border since last October. There is a stark, painful disconnect here that is hard to ignore when 40 percent of Americans can trace their lineage back to this place.
The ceremony took place in Ellis Island's Great Hall, under American flags hung high along the walls and stars projected onto the tiled ceiling. A group of men burst into a spontaneous rendition of "God Bless America," and, later, a man robustly clapped at the mention of "Ireland" by one of the speakers. In this Great Hall, the first stop and passage for 12 million immigrants when they reached American shores, Moreno stepped on stage. Her words echoed "The New Colossus," the plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty, which has represented the promise of a fresh start for millions.
"Yearning masses will always huddle on the border of hope," she said.
"My Jaw Literally Dropped"
Moreno is an outspoken activist, particularly when it comes to her homeland. Puerto Rico continues to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and as many as 23,000 homes are still without power eight months later. Moreno visited Puerto Rico late last year. She described President Donald Trump's behavior and lack of action for the island "disgraceful" and "sin vergüenza," or "shameless." Trump, she said, "has single-handedly made this country into a little republic."
"What really made me even more angry and upset is that the governor of Puerto Rico [Ricardo Rossello] didn't say anything," said Moreno. "I will never, as long as I live, forget President Trump's words: 'Katrina, now that was a disaster.' My jaw literally dropped and I fully expected the governor to say something, and he didn't. I know he was standing between a rock and a hard place because he needed help, but he needed to say something."
"People here need to know that we, here, are not doing much of anything. We had promised a certain amount of funds, which have not been forthcoming," said Moreno. "I think we're going to have to beg and wheedle in order to get any kind of funds to Puerto Rico, and I don't think even then they will have enough."
"That's My Truth"
As she continues to be a voice for Puerto Rico, Moreno is also looking to the future, specifically the highly-anticipated Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story. Moreno won an Oscar in 1962 for her portrayal of Anita in the film, but said she doesn't know enough young actors to suggest who should reprise the role. She's confident, however, that Spielberg will "cast it very carefully."
Beyond her advocacy for Puerto Rico and immigrants, Moreno's also made headlines this year for rewearing the dress she wore to the 1962 Oscars — and won a statue in — to this year's ceremony. And last week, she shared intimate details about her relationships with Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley with talk show host Wendy Williams. (Brando, she said, was better in bed.)
"I got a very nasty reply on Twitter from a guy who said, 'How dare she talk about Elvis that way?'" said Moreno. "It's true, though? That's my truth."
Last October, Moreno joined the ever-expanding chorus of women in the entertainment industry who have spoken out about her experience of sexual harassment, and their treatment at the hands of Hollywood's most powerful men.
Moreno currently appears in One Day At A Time on Netflix, which was recently renewed for a third season. In the updated version of the 1975 series, she plays Lydia Riera, a mouthy, confident grandmother to a Cuban-American family, including her Army veteran daughter who grapples with PTSD. Moreno was conscious about not making her character a stereotype, noting that the entertainment industry still has "a ways to go" when casting roles for Latina actresses.
"Lydia is shameless. Lydia's a braggart, Lydia is vain, Lydia has a big mouth. That's what's so much fun about her," Moreno said. "She's also a very sexual woman. I love that about her. That was done at my request. I'm 86, but everything hasn't turned to dust down there."