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‘West Side Story’ Broadway actress, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient dies at 91

Rebecca Barnabi
theater
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Multiple Tony award winner and Broadway actress Chita Rivera died today, seven days after turning 91.

Rivera was born in Washington, D.C. and began ballet in 1944.

She is credited with creating the role of “Anita,” a Puerto Rican in the Broadway production of “West Side Story” in 1957.

The first Hispanic woman to receive the Kennedy Center Honor in 2002, as reported by Reuters, Rivera was also the 2009 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

She obtained her first musical performance with a touring company as a teenager.

In 1986, Rivera’s life and career were interrupted by a car accident in New York where she was appearing in “Jerry’s Girls.” Suffering a compound leg fracture, doctors inserted many pins.

“Just like the movies, they told me I would never dance again,” she told Variety in 2005. “And just like the movies, here I am I don’t know how many performances later.”

She was nominated for 10 Tony awards, won two awards and received a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in 2018, at which time her career had lasted for 70 years. Playwright Terrence McNally described her as “a walking history book of the golden age of American musical theater.”

Movie audiences saw her in 1969’s “Sweet Charity” with Shirley MacLaine and in “Chicago” in 2002.

An autobiography, “Chita: A Memoir,” was released last year.

Rivera died after a brief illness, and is survived by her daughter, Lisa Mordente.

“You really never know what the next day brings you,” Rivera told AARP in 2011. “I have a very young outlook. I don’t think you know how much you can do until you try.”

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.