Kennedy Center Honoree Rita Moreno on trailblazing legacy

Rita Moreno plays Anita in a scene from "West Side Story" in 1961.

AP

This piece originally aired on December 1, 2015. The 38th annual Kennedy Center Honors will be awarded Sunday evening and broadcast on CBS on December 29th. Over the next few weeks we will introduce you to each of the 2015 honorees, all of whom are being recognized for a lifetime of artistic achievement.

Rita Moreno is one of only 12 performers to have achieved an EGOT by winning the grand slam of show business awards - an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony. Generations remember her for her unforgettable turn as Anita in the 1961 classic West Side Story. But she has had a thriving acting career for the better part of six decades and has been a trailblazer for Latinos in entertainment -- a legacy she is most proud of.

To fully appreciate the barrier-breaking career of Rita Moreno, you only need to spend a few minutes with her in the Bronx neighborhood she first called home, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

"Oh my God, I need to get out of here and give you a hug! Oh my goodness, what an honor!" Jeannette Bocanegra said, stopping her car after spotting Moreno.

Here, the Puerto Rican transplant-turned-Hollywood starlet is still thrilling fans.

"Did you live around here?" Bocanegra asked.

"Yeah! I lived here when I was a little girl," Moreno responded, smiling.

Moreno moved to the Bronx at five years old, traveling from Puerto Rico to New York on a ship with her newly-divorced mother.

Though revered now, Moreno's earliest memories in America weren't so positive, her journey not as welcoming.

"I ran into racist stuff quickly," Moreno said. "Even when I didn't understand what the word 'spic' meant. But I could see the hatred in the face of these young kids, you know, white kids. ...And I grew up feeling very, very inferior to just about everybody in the world."

Dance lessons provided an escape when she was just six. A natural performer, she was entertaining in nightclubs by age nine. At 13, she earned her first part on Broadway.

"I wanted to be a movie star, first of all. I wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor," Moreno said.

Moreno styled herself to look like the popular film actress, in large part because Taylor's dark hair resembled her own.

"She was the only role model I had," Moreno said. "There were none. There was nobody in the movies who resembled me in any way."

After a talent agent spotted her at a dance recital, she landed a contract with MGM Studios and moved to Hollywood.

But it didn't take long before Moreno found herself being typecast.

"I played American Indians. I played Polynesians," Moreno said.

"Every one of them without exception were usually characters who had absolutely no education, who could barely speak English, who had thick accents," she added.

"My name is Tuptim. I already speak English," she said with an accent in the 1956 "The King and I."

"It was limiting and it was humiliating and it was hurtful," Moreno recalled.

She said it was "absolutely" a compromise.

"But I always felt that somehow, someday, someone would see me and say, 'That girl has talent and I'm going to do something for her,'" Moreno said.

Her "someday" came at age 26 when she was tapped to play Anita in West Side Story.

She had finally found a role model.

"The first time I had ever played a young Hispanic woman who had a sense of dignity, who had a sense of self-respect," Moreno recalled.

She won an Oscar for that performance. Visiting the playground where many of the movie's scenes were shot, Moreno remembered the significance of her win.

"It's hard to find words for it because, as everybody who wins an Oscar will tell you, it takes almost a month or so to really believe it," Moreno said. "My winning the Oscar had a huge effect on the Hispanic community."

Ironically, winning an Oscar did not widen the road to great film roles, so Moreno shifted her focus to the stage and small screen.

She won a Grammy for her singing on the children's television show "The Electric Company" and earned two Emmys for appearances on "The Muppet Show" and "The Rockford Files."

And she won a Tony for her performance as Googie Gomez in the Broadway production of "The Ritz," a role she reprised in the film version.

"I'm a person who perseveres. You know, you fall down, you get up. And you keep, as they say, dust yourself off and keep moving in that direction," Moreno said.

Now at 83 years old, with more than 40 films and just as many television shows under her belt, Moreno is not only getting respect -- she's in demand. She recently appeared in CW's "Jane the Virgin."

"I am now called 'la pionera,' the pioneer, which I think is kind of charming," Moreno said.

It's been nearly eight decades since that 5-year-old girl lived in an overcrowded tenement in the Bronx, and in that time, Moreno has become the role model she never had.

"What is most rewarding for you?" Miller asked Moreno.

"Most rewarding really is just being here -- now. And having all these wonderful things happening to me," she responded. "Particularly, since...I'm one of the honorees for the Kennedy Center Honors...And what's important about that kind of honor and recognition is that it's for a lifetime of work."

She said she's pinching herself "all the time."

"I just feel so fortunate and privileged. And more than ever, I feel very Latina," Moreno said.

Moreno is showing no signs of slowing down. In addition to acting, she just recorded her first Spanish language album with Grammy-winning producer Emilio Estefan. The album contains for the first time in Spanish, the song "Somewhere" from West Side Story.