Chita in the Wild

One of America’s true artistic legends, the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and boundary-breaking entertainer opens up on her inspiring past and enduring legacy.

Theater was never quite the same after Chita Rivera. The first Hispanic woman in history to receive a Kennedy Center Honors Award, Rivera stands as one of the most celebrated performers in the annals of American entertainment. In 2009, President Obama awarded Rivera, who made history with her groundbreaking role of Anita in the Broadway production of West Side Story, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We caught up with the Rockland resident in anticipation of her November 20 performance at Connecticut’s Ridgefield Playhouse, to get a better sense of the legendary performer.

For Rivera, her love of the stage began early—very early. “I guess I was born to dance,” she says with a laugh. “I was a tomboy and very athletic. It was my mother who put me in ballet school because I was jumping all over the furniture and broke the cocktail table. My mother was very wise to try to tame some of this energy.”

Once talent scouts sent by famed choreographer George Balanchine spotted Rivera at her Washington D.C. ballet school, things took off quickly. Rivera stole the spotlight with boundary-pushing roles in Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, and West Side Story. She went on to receive two Tony Awards for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, along with eight additional Tony nominations. 

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Yet, even with all these tremendous accolades—not to mention a stint spent living in LA—New York remains exceptionally close to Rivera’s heart. “I owe New York everything,” she shares. “New York just opened its arms to me and educated me. I saw a T-shirt years ago that said: ‘If you can’t find it in New York, you cant find it anywhere,’ and I agree with that. If it ain’t here, it ain’t nowhere!”

As for her Ridgefield show, Rivera says that the mood during her November performance will be that of a home-
coming. “It’s going to be like an old friend who says, ‘So, what’s happening?’” she notes. “This is how I feel; this is what I’m like; this what I’ve learned; this is what I’ve laughed at—this is me!”

Yet, despite all her ebullience and energy, even at the age of 83, when asked about the legacy of her inspiring life and career, Chita suddenly grows quiet, and a subtle tenderness enters her voice.

”I’m a lucky gal, and I know I’ve worked hard,” remarks Rivera. “It’s a great blessing to have been appreciated, but everything you do comes with a responsibility, and you owe it back to humanity to say ‘thank you’ and to keep trying to do it right.”


 

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