By Robert Chappell, Madison365   Published May 21, 2016 at 9:06 AM

It was a different world when Rita Moreno was breaking into the film business.

"It was very difficult for me," she said in an interview before the Hispanic Professional of Greater Milwaukee Five-Star Gala on Saturday, where she was the keynote speaker. "When I wasn’t working, I was afraid I’d never work again. And when I did get a job in film, I’d be thrilled for the first day, and then I’d get the script and it’d say, ‘She has a thick accent and is an ignorant native girl.’ It was very hard, and there were times when I wanted to say, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m not going to do this anymore.’ But I really, really wanted a career in film. I really believed with all my heart that one day someone who was in a position to employ me as an actor would say, ‘Wait a minute, this girl has talent, and I’m going to put her in this film.’ And it happened."

It happened in 1961, when the Puerta Rican actress landed a role as Maria in "West Side Story." The role earned her an Best Supporting Actress Oscar – the first for a Latina, and the only until Lupita Nyong’o won for "12 Years a Slave" in 2014.

Born Rosa Dolores Alverío in Puerto Rico in 1931, she acted in 21 films – including the classic "Singin’ in the Rain" – before landing her Oscar-winning role.

"I mean, I was playing a Latina, but I was playing a Latina with substance and self-respect," she said. "(Maria) became my role model because I didn’t have one, ever. Who was my role model? Elizabeth Taylor. That was it. It’s kind of heartbreaking when I talk about it now. I still get very moved by the lack of opportunities that were available to myself and the very few others who were Hispanic young actors."

Moreno, now 84, came to Milwaukee to speak to the crowd at the gala fundraiser for HPGM, which she called "a wonderful organization." She had words of advice for young people with dreams of stardom.

"I would give this advice to anybody, not just in Milwaukee," she said. "Young people who want to be actors have to understand – it’s very important that they understand – that it doesn’t just happen. You have to study. A lot of these youngsters think, ‘I have a natural talent. What about me?’ But let’s say you have to duplicate a good performance six nights a week in theater. How are you going to do that if you don’t know how to do it? Talent is not enough. I constantly badger young people about, ‘You have to study.’ Just like anything else. If you want to be a plumber, you have to study how to do that. And if you want to be an actor, you have to study how to do that too. It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m an actor.’ It’s going to get you nowhere."

She also stressed the importance of education, today more than ever. 

"My hopes for the Hispanics in Milwaukee are the same as my hopes for Hispanics everywhere," she said. "My hope is that the families of these young people will support them and will remind them of the importance of education. That has changed a great deal since I was a girl. When I was a girl, you could still get certain jobs if you didn’t have a diploma. Not anymore. You are either going to find yourself some kind of skill to see you through life, to help you support your family or you’re going to wash dishes. The choices have narrowed in a very important way. You have no idea how many young people still say to me, ‘I want to be a movie star.’ This is what I hear too much from Latino kids and from black kids. I try to straighten them out. I tell them it doesn’t happen that way."

She’s also embraced her status as a role model for young people as well as very influential professionals — even Supreme Court Justices.

"Apparently I have become the role model. It’s kinda lovely," she said. "It’s a beautiful turnaround. It’s mostly because the people my age are the parents telling their kids, ‘I want you to know the story of this woman. She’s an inspiration to many of us, and we’re very proud of her and there’s a reason she’s gotten where she’s gotten.’ Perseverance, sticking to your guns, trying very hard to gain the respect of the population at large. The only way to do that really is to respect yourself. That’s easy for me to say, I know. But it’s the only way."

Moreno recalled getting a surprising phone call from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, also of Puerta Rican descent. "When she became Supreme Court Justice, I was out of my mind," Moreno said. "And then, I really cried when she called me up. I didn’t know her, but she said, ‘I would like you to do my book.’ The voice for the audio book. And I said, ‘Really?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I can’t think of anyone else. I said, ‘I’m so proud,’ and she said, ‘You were my role model!’

Sotomayor’s success is just one example Moreno cites as evidence that Hispanics "offer more than frijoles."

"We have so much to bring to the table in this country, and I fear that not enough people know that," she said. "It isn’t enough to say, ‘Oh, Jennifer Lopez, isn’t she marvelous?’ No, that’s not good enough. There are other people who are not Jennifer Lopez who are scientists, who are attorneys, who right now as we speak have accomplished great things."