I have always admired Chita Rivera, the legendary Broadway star who, to me, was more than an actress, singer, and dancer. She was a trailblazer, a humanitarian, and a role model for Latinas.
Chita was the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she won two Tony Awards for her roles in “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”. She was also a ten-time Tony nominee, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, and a Broadway legend who inspired generations of Latinas to pursue their dreams and to embrace our heritage and culture.
Chita Rivera Ancestry and Early Life
Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson on January 23, 1933, in Washington, D.C. Her father, Pedro Julio Figueroa del Rivero was a clarinetist and saxophonist for the U.S. Navy, and her mother, Katherine Anderson, was a government clerk. Her father was Puerto Rican and her mother was of Scottish, Irish, and African-American descent. Rivera was one of five children.
Rivera’s love for performing started at a young age when she would put on shows with her brother in their basement. She took voice, piano, and ballet classes, and dance became her favorite activity.
Her Breakthrough and Stardom
Chita got her first big gig in 1952 when she joined the tour of “Call Me Madam”. She then came back to New York and took over a lead role in “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway. She also did “Can-Can”, “Shoestring Revue”, “Seventh Heaven”, and “Mr. Wonderful”. But her real breakthrough was in 1957, when she played Anita in “West Side Story”. She was awesome as the sassy and spicy Puerto Rican girlfriend of the gang leader Bernardo. Everyone loved her, and she got her first Tony nomination.
She kept killing it on Broadway, doing shows like “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Chicago”, where she originated the role of Verna. Chita also did movies, like Sweet Charity and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and TV, like The Judy Garland Show and The Carol Burnett Show. She also had her own cabaret show, where she showed off her singing and dancing chops.
In 1984, Chita Rivera won her first Tony Award for playing Anna, a roller-skating waitress, in “The Rink”. She also won a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for that role. In 1986, she had a bad car accident that broke her leg, but she didn’t let that stop her. She came back stronger than ever in 1993, when she played Aurora, a sexy movie star, in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”. She won her second Tony Award, and another Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award, for that role.
Chita Rivera kept working on Broadway, getting more Tony nominations for shows like Nine and The Visit. She also got a lot of honors and awards, like the Kennedy Center Honor in 2002, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, and the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018. She also wrote her autobiography, Chita: A Memoir, in 2023.
Later in her life, Chita reflected on her life and achievements in an interview with The Associated Press.
“I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t moving or telling a story to you or singing a song. That’s the spirit of my life, and I’m really so lucky to be able to do what I love, even at this time in my life.”
Honoring Chita Rivera
Chita was always amazing, always evolving, always inspiring. She also supported many causes, such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Actors Fund, and AmFAR. Chita was a humanitarian and a philanthropist. She was more than just a performer. She was a leader.
Chita Rivera passed away on January 30, 2024, at the age of 91. I feel a sense of gratitude for the example she set for women, Latinos, and everyone who loves what they do, and do it with passion. She was a trailblazer and a role model for Latinas in the entertainment industry. She broke barriers and stereotypes with her talent and versatility. Chita opened doors for other Latina performers to follow. She was proud of her heritage and culture, and she celebrated it in her art. She was a legend of the stage.
I want to honor Chita Rivera by continuing to follow my passion for what I do and by sharing her story with others. Her example is one I feel is worth following, and I hope you can also be inspired by her example. She was a Latina legend, and will always be remembered.