Chita Rivera, born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, died at 91 on January 30, 2024, after a life of creativity, accomplishment, and activism.
Rivera was a Tony-winning actress, known for iconic roles in West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, and Sweet Charity. As a singer, actress, and dancer, she riveted audiences in more than 20 Broadway shows, as well as in films including Mayflower Madam and tik,tik…Boom. Her television credits tanged from Will and Grace to Dora the Explorer. She also costarred in a 1970s situation comedy, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and was a frequent performer on TV variety shows.
Rivera received two Tony Best Actress awards and was nominated for eight more. In 2002, she was the first Hispanic woman to be a Kennedy Center Honoree. In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Rivera was born in Washington, D.C. Her father, Pedro Julio Figueroa del Rivero, played clarinet and saxophone in the U.S. Navy band. He was from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, according to Census records, and died in Washington, D.C., when Rivera was just seven years old. Her mother, Katherine Anderson, was a government clerk.
Rivera studied ballet from childhood, and earned a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. Her first Broadway performance was in Call me Madam in 1951. She continued to perform in musical theater, and in 1957 was cast as Anita in West Side Story. Her first Tony nomination came in 1960.
Rivera’s success continued throughout her life. Her final TV appearance was in 2023.
Rivera was a trailblazer for Latinas in the performing arts. President Biden remembered her for this quality. “She built a dazzling career, starring in iconic and strong female roles in classics from West Side Story, Bye Bye, Birdie, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, paving the way for generations of Latina artists,” he said. “Her dazzling charm will live on in the soul of our nation.”
Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) also spoke on this aspect of Rivera’s life, saying, “Chita Rivera was a pioneer and a Broadway legend who took pride in her Puerto Rican heritage and helped pave the way for other Latino artists.”
She was also known as a champion of LGBTQ+ rights and HIV advocacy. She is remembered with gratitude by nonprofits like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Image courtesy of the New York Public Library