In life, many of us seek to be an inspiration and we all seek to be inspired.
Many of us manage to get through each day without an inspirational force in our daily life.
For kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder or any kind of learning disability, they need constant motivation to keep going. But unlike some of us who can succeed without inspiration, these kids need to regularly feel inspired to succeed.
Autism Spectrum Disorder describes a life-long neurological disorder that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people and the world around them. Autism can affect behavior, feelings, social interactions, and one’s verbal communication.
This inhibition of communication skills should never be mistaken for a person with ASD not needing to feel inspiration to reach their goals and to see good in the world.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I decided to share my inspirational figure…the one and only Rita Moreno! I share this with the kids I work with at the iCan Dream Center because her story of empowerment as a Latina woman who overcame immense barriers imposed on her by society is a story the youth at the iCan Dream Center can absolutely relate to!
The Amazing Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno was once the biggest actress, dancer, and singer in Hollywood. Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1931, she would later move to New York City four years later with her family, becoming a lover of music and dance, from salsa to tap to ballet. Falling in love with Broadway, she became a child star at age 13 working in major films. Unfortunately, she was only cast in stereotypical minority roles that were sometimes humiliating. This became an issue for much of her career, as it was for the majority of people of color in entertainment.
It wasn’t until 1961 where she landed the film that forever immortalized her and changed the game in a big way!
West Side Story
It was her role in West Side Story that changed the course of Moreno’s life and the lives of other entertainers marginalized by the barriers the film industry placed around people of color.
In this film, Moreno played a leading role for the first time in her career and one suited to her as an individual since her character was of Puerto Rican descent. Maybe equally powerful is that the film allowed Moreno to highlight Puerto Ricans in positive and powerful imagery for the first time. This led to her first Oscar win of her career being the first woman of Latin descent to win the award and only the second Latin-American in history to win the award. From that point on, Moreno refused to settle for anything less than leading roles and refused to play the stereotypical roles that had offended people of color for so long.
In an interview with Good Morning America in 2020, Moreno discussed what it was like being a Pureto Rican kid in American. “When you start calling a little kid a spic and a garlic mouth, I did not know what that meant, but I knew that it meant there was something wrong with ME. Because certain people just didn’t like me on sight.” Moreno went on to say that by not giving up on her dream to star in films, Puerto Rico began to call her “la pionera,” the pioneer. That term inspired Moreno to keep moving.
Moreno Is No Different Than All Of Us At the iCan Dream Center
Now, what would all this have to do with a bunch of kids who have ASD? To me, this story shows us that an icon like Rita Moreno is really no different than us.
All of our youth are facing an uphill climb. They need our inspiration and our motivation to lead them to their dreams of living successful lives in spite of the category of disability that brought them to the iCan Dream Center.
When I showed the kids who Rita Moreno is, they were motivated by her story, especially the Latino students who had never heard of her. They learned that some of their idols would not exist if it was not for Rita, who opened the doors for entertainers like Selena, Jennifer Lopez, Rosie Perez, George Lopez, Freddie Prince, and many more. It gave our students the perspective that struggles can be overcome and they can rise above the struggles of their learning challenges. The key is to give hope to those who face marginalization and Rita did that for many people, including me! The inspiration Rita Moreno gives me helps me to motivate youth to work harder and always have faith.
So with that being said, I want you to ask yourself two questions: Who inspires you? Who are you inspiring? For me, her name is Rita. And their names are the students at the iCan Dream Center.
Happy Women’s History Month!