New York City, 1936
“Hey, boy,” I scream. “Heeey, boooooy.”
I don’t know what I am saying—I speak only Spanish, just off the boat from San Juan. I am five years old in a hospital ward and I know there is another Spanish kid here, because I can hear him a few beds away from me. The orderlies are yelling at him, and I parrot what they say—“Hey, boy.”
Crying and feverish, I learn my first words in English from that boy: “Shut up.”
“Hey, boy,” I shout back. “Hey, boy, shut up.”
I have always been a quick study. Fast learner. Anything to survive.
Start back there—New York, 1936. I am not yet named Rita Moreno. I am still Rosita. Rosita Dolores Alverio. I am five years old.
When we leave Puerto Rico, it is as if we are caught in a reverse Wizard of Oz scene. We go from brilliant Technicolor to grit-gray, black-and-white. The world that was lush and hot with life, sunshine, bright flowers, birds, and whistling frogs, turns to lifeless cold ash.
After my island, New York City seems a freezing hell. Later, people ask, “Why didn’t you and your mother turn back?”
We couldn’t afford return passage. Many of us spent all the money we had saved to sail to America to start a new life with new opportunities. Others had hopes to settle, make a fortune, and then later return to the island; meanwhile, they worked in New York to send money back to their families in Puerto Rico.
When you are five years old, what is money? What is “opportunity”? My mother and I arrived in winter, and I thought, This is crazy. What have we done? But my twenty-two-year-old pretty, full-lipped, full-hipped mother had enough of Juncos, Puerto Rico, her unfaithful husband, and her old life, which did not look like paradise to her. My mami, Rosa Maria Marcano Alverio, was looking for a new start, a new husband. She was seeking love and fortune, and she would walk toward it on her homemade sandals and in her hand-sewn dress, carrying her one suitcase and the rest in shopping bags. When you have almost nothing, you can travel light.
My mami was escaping something—at five, I didn’t know what she would want to escape. But she did not want to live with Paco, my father, anymore—that much I knew—and I never saw her standing close to him or even alone in a room with him. She was in a hurry to get away from him—and is it my imagination, or do I see his arm reaching out, grabbing her to pull her back to him? And her twisting away and saying something to him, something sharp but scared too, like, “Keep away from me; don’t you touch me . . .”?
The first thing that happened when I came to America was that I got sick. Terribly sick—burning-up, shaking-cold, itching-like-crazy sick all over my body. What am I doing, five years old, alone, can’t speak English in some awful ward in some bad New York hospital? No one can understand what I am saying, except the boy who teaches me the words “shut up.”
What is the place? The hospital is named Misericordia, just to tell you right away how miserable it is. . . .
How’d I get here? I’m dying from terror almost, like the baby bird I once picked up that died in my hand. That little bird gazed up at me and gave me a look—a look I could never forget—and it was like the little bird was so scared, he just stopped breathing; his little eyes glazed. Maybe I am dying of fear too, before the sickness can get me. I don’t even know what’s wrong with me. Later, I would find out it was chicken pox, a common but, at that time, very serious childhood disease. But in the moment, I thought the same mysterious force that killed the bird was attacking me.
This could not happen in my worst nightmare. Only life can be this terrible. They come for me in the dead of night—masked men who grab me, wrap me in a sheet, tie me in all the way, and do not even let my head stick out. They twist the ends of the body sack, like a Tootsie Roll wrapper. Blind in that sack, I squirm and yell for my mother. And my mother screams and cries, like only a mother can scream, for them to let her go with her baby girl. “Don’t take my baby. Let me go with her. Madre de Dios. Mother of God.” My mami, Rosa Maria, she is just twenty-two years old. She runs down the five flights of stairs alongside the ambulance attendants; we hit every corner of every banister at every landing. Ouch, ouch, ouch.
“Mama! Mami! Mama!” But no one can go with me. I am crying from inside the sack and invent a desperate ploy: “I feel better. I’m not sick anymore. Let me out,” I cry in Spanish.
They don’t. Bagged, I am thrown in the back of the ambulance. Did they have to turn on that wailing noise? (I had never heard a siren before.) Oh, Madre de Dios, that makes it so much scarier. My heart is popping out of my chest. Maybe I am dead already, wrapped in the sheet like a corpse in a shroud? Blind in the bag, racing through the screaming city night to who knows where? The men are laughing and joking to each other in a language I don’t understand, but you don’t need to translate indifference. These guys don’t care; so what if they’ve got a five-year-old girl in a sack crying for her mami? They don’t care about me.
How can they not care? Everybody has always cared for me. I am la niña Rosita Dolores; my mami calls me Coookeee, Monkeee, Nonni, and covers me with kisses. My abuelo, Justino, he claps and smiles when I dance. “So pretty, so sweet . . .” Everybody loves me, Rosita Dolores. . . . Only now—here in New York City, in the big America—they don’t.
I don’t know the rules: that contagious people must be removed from the tenements—no exceptions. Otherwise the whole city can be infected. These are the days of epidemics, but I haven’t seen the evidence yet: the kids with withered polio legs, braces, scars from chicken pox. You never see some kids, the ones with the fever-melted brains who have to be taken care of till they are old people still in diapers. I haven’t heard about Sister Kenny yet and how she invented physical therapy for withered polio legs. I don’t know about iron lungs, or the many diseases that can spread so fast and kill everybody.
I want to go back to the one lousy room, even just to die from chicken pox on my bedbug-infested mattress with my mami, who’ll kiss me and scream she wants to die with me. That would be better. Or maybe, if I can’t do that, maybe it is better to escape from this, like the little bird that died of fright in my hand? Escape to heaven and know no more pain, no more crazy itching, and get away from these guys who are laughing and joking over my body.
So there I am at age five; I am up to, “To be or not to be?” and that is the question I don’t answer for almost thirty years—and then I get the wrong answer. You’ll see.
Burning-hot hundred-and-three-degree temperature. I itch like crazy, but I am still alive when they unbag me, and I look around their miserable Misericordia ward, with all the other dead-looking bodies, or the ones like me, all the moaning, infectious-disease people, and my one Spanish-speaking little boy: “Hey, boy.”
“Shut up, boy.”
And there, in one instant, in a bed of the infectious-disease ward, are the themes of my life: scared to death, fighting to survive, forever a foreigner in more ways than you can imagine. Right then, at age five, right there in the hospital ward, I get it. I’m on my own; I’m alone. How am I supposed to take care of myself?
This is me, the shivery little Puerto Rican girl—feeling lost in the world. Make like I am tough! Maybe, “Hey, boy,” is my first line as a make-believe “spitfire.” At that moment I get that role right: I’ve got to pretend to be somebody I’m not. Inside I am shaking so hard—is it fever or is it fear? Do the symptoms fit the feelings that are already there?
Is that when she—that dark presence that hisses only doubt and fear in my ear—first accosted me? You won’t fool anybody, the voice whispers in my ear. Who do you think you are?
I just don’t let my feelings show. Pretend to be someone I’m not.
This idea lasts through my whole life: I always play a part. For so many years, I have to be a “smoldering sexy spitfire.” Rita Moreno—funny and bold and golden as all her statuettes. The Hispanic heroine with all four gleaming prizes—Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy—big money, hot lovers, “perfect” forty-five-year marriage, with a gold medal hanging around my neck and shelves filled with award statuettes but still, inside, who is she? Who am I? Rosita Dolores Alverio? Or Rita Moreno? Rita or Rosita? Who am I?
This book is my real story. The record of my journey. The story of how I found myself. The story of who I am . . .