I’ve always viewed Rita Moreno as an iconic Puerto Rican actress who paved the way for so many Latinx artists that I admire. After watching the documentary of her life, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, I saw her as more than just an actress — I saw her as a mental health advocate.
The documentary, directed by Mariem Pérez Riera and produced by Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda, gives an intimate and vulnerable portrayal of the struggles Moreno had to overcome in her 70-year career of being an actress and how she became the first Puerto Rican to ever become an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) award winner. The documentary also stars George Chakiris, Justina Machado, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman and more.
During the documentary, 89-year-old Moreno not only opens up about the misogyny and racism she endured, but she also candidly speaks about her battle with depression, suicide, sexual assault and the importance of taking care of her mental health.
The Latinx icon was discovered by MGM producer Louis B. Mayer after she auditioned for him in New York City. Because Mayer told Moreno that she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor,” he had her sign an acting contract. Not long after signing the contract, Moreno said she was propelled into roles in movies where she played embarrassing “Island girl” roles — supporting ethnic characters in movies that don’t provide any substance. Throughout the movie, Moreno talks about how she hated those roles.
After winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in West Side Story, Moreno said that she had a tough time finding roles despite her success. In an interview with BuzzFeed, she spoke about how this impacted her mental health.
“It broke my heart. Absolutely broke my heart. I was offered some gang-type movies on a much lesser scale. I remember taking my Golden Globe and my Oscar and just saying, ‘I'm never gonna do those kinds of parts again. I just won't.’ And I showed them. I didn't work in a movie for seven years. I was offered some [roles], but it was those kind of movies and I knew I couldn't do that to myself. Playing those kinds of roles did dreadful things to my self-esteem. It was the thing that eventually sent me into psychotherapy. It's a good thing I got help because I don't think I could've done anything without it,” she said.
Moreno also credited actor Marlon Brando, with whom she was in an emotionally abusive relationship with for eight years, with the idea of going to therapy. The two stars became a couple in 1954 and throughout their relationship, Brando cheated on her. When she became pregnant with his child, he forced her to have an abortion. Her distressing love affair with Brando led to her attempting to take her own life.
“When I tried to do away with myself, I wanted to do it because I couldn’t take the pain anymore of the relationship I had with Marlon Brando,” Moreno said. “It was humiliating and I was letting him step all over me. And I hated myself so much — it was a very strange reason.”
Moreno’s openness about mental health is something that is not really common in the Latinx community. Research from The National Alliance on Mental Illness(NAMI) found that approximately 34 percent of Hispanic/Latinx adults who have a mental illness receive treatment each year, compared to the U.S. average of 45 percent.
When I first started going to therapy, I had to seek help by myself because my parents never sought help for their own mental health struggles. It took me a long time to figure out that going to therapy is normal. Despite the stigma surrounding mental health in the Latinx community, Moreno sought help and told BuzzFeed that she was never ashamed to talk about therapy.
“It wasn't difficult even then for me. I believe in [talking about mental health] so much. Therapy is something that really saw me through some horrible times in my life, particularly things having to do with prejudice and bias. I don't think I could've done it on my own. I didn't know enough. I didn't know who I was. At the time, I thought I was somebody who was unworthy. But some instinct said, ‘No, I think you're better than that. You need help,’” she said.
Listening to Moreno talk about how taking care of her mental health during the documentary was comforting. I grew up in a Latinx household where therapy was not normalized, so watching Moreno, an older Puerto Rican, talk about how therapy can be helpful, was reassuring. Even while talking about her success in Hollywood, she made sure to talk about her struggles with mental health and helped normalize the ongoing stigma of seeking therapy.