At age 15, Gina Rodriguez says, she’d never seen a Puerto Rican represented onscreen. “When did Puerto Ricans come about?” the Jane the Virgin actress asked her mother. “I never see us on my favorite TV shows or movies. We must not have existed back then, right?”
In a tearful speech at the Kennedy Center Honors, which was filmed earlier this month broadcast Tuesday night, Rodriguez paid tribute to honoree Rita Moreno, the second Puerto Rican to ever win an Oscar. Rodriguez said watching Moreno, who appeared as Rodriguez’s character’s grandmother on Jane the Virgin this year, gave her “hope…a reason to fight and to speak up.”
After winning an Oscar in 1962 for her turn as Anita in the film adaptation of West Side Story, Moreno turned down several roles that she found demeaning. “People said, ‘Winning the Oscar is a jinx.’ No, it isn’t,” Moreno told the Miami Herald in 2008. “It’s just that I was being offered all this terrible stuff, and I thought, ‘No, I don’t have to do that stuff anymore.’” She continued:
What is interesting to me is having the vision so early and yet feeling so inferior to everybody else in the business for years and years because I believed I had to be subservient to anybody who wasn’t Latino. Before West Side Story I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles: the Conchitas and Lolitas in Westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After West Side Story, it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories.
Two generations later, Rodriguez has faced similar struggles in her career. “I found it limiting to see women of my skin color only playing very specific roles as though Latino stories are different,” she said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last year. “I felt very limited by the opportunities I had in Hollywood to play the maid, the pregnant teen, the drug addict.” Rodriguez has claimed Moreno as a role model since high school, when she first read about Moreno’s principled choices about her career path. “She had refused to play certain roles because of they way they made her feel and the way they made younger girls feel about her. I found that interesting because my parents never thought that change was possible through art,” Rodriguez said in the interview. “I could see this gorgeous, Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar winner tell me that I can do something with my art other than just the fancy dresses and the playing pretend. It’s always somebody that opens the door before you.”
When Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama for her mesmeric performance in How to Get Away With Murder, she noted the poor state of racially diverse casting in Hollywood. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said in her acceptance speech in September. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” But, though onscreen stories are getting more diverse, TV writers’ rooms are still disproportionately white, making it less likely that shows will faithfully represent the lives of people of color. Moreno and Rodriguez remind us that the types of roles written for people of color matter, too—and though Hollywood’s progress has been painfully slow, individual groundbreakers can give future generations the conviction they need to demand the best for themselves. “When you followed your dreams, Rita,” Rodriguez said in her speech, “you gave me the allowance to follow mine.”