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Chita Rivera, Trailblazing Latina and Star of “West Side Story,” Passes Away at 91

Chita Rivera, Trailblazing Latina and Star of "West Side Story," Passes Away at 91
Credits: ABC News

The passing of Broadway luminary Chita Rivera, celebrated for her iconic role as Anita in the original 1957 Broadway production of “West Side Story,” marks the end of an era in the theatrical world. At 91, Rivera, a trailblazer for aspiring Latinas in the Broadway realm, bid farewell after a brief illness, as confirmed by her daughter in a statement to CBS News.

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Montestuco Florentina Carnemacaral del Fuente on January 23, 1933, in Washington, D.C., Rivera grew up facing adversity after losing her father at the tender age of 7, leaving her mother to raise five children single-handedly.

Despite the challenges, Rivera’s passion for dance ignited early, earning her a scholarship to the renowned School of American Ballet at 16. She honed her craft at Manhattan’s Palladium nightclub, a pivotal venue where she discovered the rhythm, beat, and sex appeal, as reflected in a CBS “Sunday Morning” interview.

Chita Rivera, Trailblazing Latina and Star of "West Side Story," Passes Away at 91

Chita Rivera, the Broadway Legend (Credits: CitizenSide)

In her 2023 memoir, “Chita: A Memoir,” Rivera unveiled her dual identity, portraying herself as two distinct personas: Chita and Dolores. She attributed her successful career to Dolores, acknowledging her as the source of courage and determination that propelled her to Broadway stardom.

At a time when opportunities for Latinas were scarce, Rivera defied the odds, achieving fame through standout performances in “West Side Story,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Chicago,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Rivera’s contributions to the arts were recognized with 10 Tony nominations, and she secured two wins. Her illustrious career was further honored with a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre in 2018.

The trailblazing artist became the first Latina to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002, acknowledging her lifetime contributions to the performing arts. In 2009, then-President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, lauding her as an “agent of change.”

Behind the scenes, Rivera’s personal life intertwined with her professional journey. On the set of “West Side Story,” she met fellow dancer Tony Mordente, whom she married, resulting in one daughter, Lisa. Rivera leaves behind her daughter, Lisa Mordente, and three surviving siblings: Julio, Armando, and Lola del Rivero.

As news of Rivera’s passing reverberated, tributes and condolences from peers and admirers flooded social media. Rita Moreno, who portrayed Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story,” praised Rivera’s eternal legacy and recalled the honor of being mistaken for her.

Fellow actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth admired Rivera’s talent and character. Governor Kathy Hochul of New York celebrated Rivera’s groundbreaking career and the joy she brought to theaters across America.

Actor Jason Alexander, who shared the stage with Rivera in the 1984 musical “The Rink,” remembered her as an extraordinary woman and unparalleled colleague. Mia Farrow paid homage to Rivera, describing her as authentic and magnificent, an icon whose performances left an indelible mark on the Broadway stage.

Chita Rivera’s departure marks the end of an era, but her legacy as a Broadway pioneer, fearless performer, and trailblazer for diversity will continue to resonate in the hearts and minds of those who witnessed her extraordinary contributions to the world of theater.

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