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Sixty years ago, Rita Moreno became the first Latina to win an Oscar, given for the role of Anita in West Side Story. Today, Ariana DeBose won best supporting actress for the same role, becoming part of an elite club of Oscar-winners who’ve received the accolade for playing the same character. They’re the first pair of women ever to accomplish this.
DeBose, who is Black, Latina and white, is now the first openly queer woman of color to win for her acting, and the only one to be nominated.
“Even in this weary world that we live in, dreams do come true,” she said in her acceptance speech. “To anybody who has ever questioned your identity….I promise you this, there is indeed a place for us.”
DeBose originally rejected the invitation to audition for West Side Story because she was working on Broadway. When she finally agreed, she got the script only a day before the audition, she told Variety. “I will sing and dance,” she said, but couldn’t read her lines. But both Spielberg and the film’s casting director, Cindy Tolan, loved her performance so much, they asked her to come back again.
The original West Side Story film has received widespread criticism about its historical lack of diversity and misrepresentation of Puerto Ricans. In the 1961 movie, the cast meant to portray Puerto Ricans was made up of white actors, their skins darkened with makeup. Early in the production process of the remake, director Steven Spielberg said he would strive for authenticity, but critics have argued that the film cannot be salvaged and that its problems run deeper than representation.
DeBose, however, told NPR in a 2021 interview that she believes the film got it right. “It is not every day that an Afro-Latina gets to be part of the main event,” DeBose told NPR. “And [Anita’s] identity as an Afro-Latina informs the story. So it’s not really an afterthought. It’s everything about this character.”
When DeBose asked Moreno for advice in playing this role, she said to lean into whatever makes her unique — so DeBose infused the character with her personal experiences, hoping that younger women who look like her can see themselves in that character. Earlier this month, DeBose won the Critics Choice Award for her West Side Story role. In her speech, she thanked Rita Moreno for “making space” for her to thrive. “I am not in front of you, I am not behind you, I am beside you. And that is the greatest gift you could’ve ever given me,” she said.
DeBose’s win and the size of the Latinx movie audience should inspire Hollywood to tell “our stories,” according to Brenda Victoria Castillo, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
“Our community deserves recognition for all its creative contributions, not just honored for the same role 60 years later,” she said in an emailed statement.
In 2009, DeBose competed on So You Think You Can Dance and debuted on Broadway in 2011 in Bring it On: The Musical. She was nominated for a Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for her role in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.