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Chita Rivera, "West Side Story" star and Latina trailblazer, dies at 91

Tributes pour in for Chita Rivera
A look back at Chita Rivera's illustrious career 02:57

Broadway icon Chita Rivera, best known for her role as Anita in the original 1957 Broadway cast of "West Side Story," has died at age 91. Rivera died Tuesday in New York after a brief illness, her daughter said in a statement provided to CBS News.

Rivera, a trailblazer for other Latinas aspiring to the Broadway stage, was honored with 10 Tony nominations and won twice. In 2018, she received a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre. 

Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera arrives at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 10, 2018, in New York.  Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Born in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 23, 1933, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Montestuco Florentina Carnemacaral del Fuente was one of five siblings. Her father died when she was 7 years old and her mother was left to raise the children on her own. 

Rivera trained as a dancer from a young age and won a scholarship to the prestigious School of American Ballet at 16. She also began dancing at Manhattan's Palladium nightclub, where she later told CBS "Sunday Morning," "I discovered the rhythm. I discovered the beat. I discovered my heartbeat. I was becoming attuned to my sex appeal. And the rhythm was hot."

In her 2023 book, "Chita: A Memoir," Rivera described herself as two people: Chita and Dolores. She said Dolores has a darker side, but "I believe that Dolores is responsible for me having a career. She's the guts. She's the courage."

Rivera harnessed that drive to catapult herself onto the Broadway stage at her time when few Latinas won roles, rising to stardom with her performance in "West Side Story" and going on to star in other hit shows including "Bye Bye Birdie," "Guys and Dolls," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman." 

CHITA RIVERA in "West Side Story"
Chita Rivera, an original cast member in the Broadway musical production of "West Side Story," in November 1957. AP Photo

Rivera was the first Latina to be awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 2002, which is given to artists for their lifetime contributions in the field of the performing arts. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama for her work as an "agent of change." 

Broadway legend Chita Rivera 07:23

On the set of "West Side Story," she met fellow dancer fellow dancer Tony Mordente; they married and had one daughter, Lisa. Rivera is survived by her daughter Lisa Mordente and three of her siblings Julio, Armando and Lola del Rivero, the statement said.

As news broke of Rivera's death, condolences and tributes to the Broadway legend poured in on social media. 

Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 film version of "West Side Story," said she was taken by Rivera the first time she met her and considered it was an honor to be mistaken for being her. 

"Chita Rivera is eternal," Moreno wrote on Instagram. "I remember seeing her for the first time in Mr. Wonderful and exclaiming, 'Oh my god, who IS that'? When I found out that this astonishing creature was one of my people, I crowed with pride."

"Over the years, we were sometimes mistaken for each other which I always viewed as a badge of honor," she continued. "She was the essence of Broadway. As I write this, I am raising a glass to this remarkable woman and friend. Chita, amiga, Salud!"

President Biden said Rivera was "an all-time-great of American musical theater, a pioneer and perfectionist whose magnetic performances in scores of Broadway productions brought joy to millions and captured the grit and grace of America." 

"A mesmerizing dancer, singer, and actor, Chita's work was more than entertainment – it reflects part of who we are as Americans and as human beings, and it has helped shape how we see each other and our world," Mr. Biden said in a statement, sending his well wishes to Rivera's daughter and siblings.

Actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth said she'd always looked up to Rivera. "There was only you," she tweeted. "Then everyone else. I looked up to you and always will admire you as a talent and mostly as a person! A kick butt woman you were. All the rest of us just wanna be you. RIP CHITA"

Joel Grey's 72nd Birthday Party at Michael's
Kristin Chenoweth, Liz Smith, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera and Bebe Neuwirth at Grey's birthday party in 2004. Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

New York Governor Kathy Hochul praised Rivera's trailblazing career. 

"From the Bronx to Broadway, the legendary Chita Rivera lit up every room she was in," Hochul wrote. "She shattered countless glass ceilings, brought joy to theaters across America, and paved a path for the next generation of performers. I send my heartfelt condolences to her family." 

Actor Jason Alexander, who starred opposite Rivera in the 1984 musical "The Rink," said she was one of the best colleagues he'd ever worked alongside. 

"This extraordinary woman, the incomparable," he tweeted. "Chita Rivera was one of the greatest spirits and colleagues I've ever known. She set the bar in every way. I will cherish her always. Dance in heaven, my friend. #ripChitaRivera."

Actress Mia Farrow also eulogized Rivera on social media, calling her "authentic" and "magnificent."

"Chita Rivera was an authentic Broadway icon - a dazzling actress, singer and dancer," she tweeted. "No one who was fortunate enough to have seen any of her performances, will ever forget the experience. She gave us so much. Thank you to the magnificent, irreplaceable Chita Rivera."

A Look Back: Chita Rivera with Dana Tyler 04:44
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