I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with award winning Puerto Rican film director Mariem Pérez Riera during Denver Film’s Women and Film Festival.
Born to famous comedian, Silvero Pérez, and singer and painter, Roxana Riera, Mariem Pérez Riera was no stranger to the limelight. But it wasn’t until she was 9 years old, that she realized she didn’t want to be in the limelight as much as she wanted to help create it. Perez made waves in the industry with her first documentary, “Lo Pequeño Se Hace Grande”, in 2002 before going on to edit several films including “Talento Del Barrio” starring Daddy Yankee. But her biggest wave yet is soon to hit the big screen.
Her newest project, “Rita Moreno: A Girl Who Just Decided To Go For It,” opens in theaters on June 18th and will make Pérez Riera the first Puerto Rican woman to write, edit and direct a PBS’s American Masters Series, according to the Weekly Journal.
“A Girl Who Just Decided To Go For It” follows trailblazing icon Rita Moreno and her story as a Latina in Hollywood. With 70+ years of experience under her belt and numerous awards, Moreno has lived through the good, the bad and the ugly in the industry. While she may have been the first Latina to win an Academy Award, she was also subject to sexism, toxic relationships and playing deeming roles despite her talent. Perez gives viewers a glimpse into Moreno’s life and why she’s inspired so many along the way, including herself.
In the past, you’ve directed documentaries that were also a bit controversial, specifically “Cuando Lo Pequeño Se Hace Grande” about the US Navy base in Vieques. Will your new film about Rita Moreno have the same level of controversy? Why?
I think it could be controversial, but more than that it’s about bringing awareness to social issues. We talk about what it means to be a woman, period. And especially what it means to be a woman in the United States and in Hollywood while also being a Latina. I think the main theme of this movie is how hard it is to be a woman.
What was it like to interview people like Eva Longoria and Morgan Freeman and finding out so much more about Rita Moreno?
It wasn’t until I sat with Rita and I interviewed her the first time that I realized this documentary had to be so much more than just about her life. It had to be about her life as a woman because it’s amazing how many hardships she had and kept going for it regardless. And I think the fact that she talked so much about the importance of therapy is also critical. I’m glad that she talked about it because in a way she became my therapist every time I interviewed her. To me, it’s very inspiring to know that she is open to these topics especially at a time when they were considered taboo. And I think that’s what makes her such an amazing woman because she’s very self-aware, she always wants to be better and she’s able to recognize her weaknesses while still being a strong woman.
While watching the documentary, I took some notes and I wanted to take the time to highlight some scenes. In one scene, she admitted that she had stage fright even at this age. She called it the “Curse of Rosita.”. Can you tell me about that?
Rosita is her. That’s the little girl that she has inside of her. That’s her fears, that’s her insecurities. And we all have that and we all have those experiences that changed us in a way, for better or for worse. But it’s because she can recognize it, thanks to therapy, that she’s able to see when that little girl or those insecurities are bursting in her. And she’s able to say, “Wait, no, I have this under control.” So I learned a lot from listening to her experience. I think I’m a better person this year, thanks to Rita and going to therapy I can now calm my own insecurities as well.
A scene that really struck me as a woman, mother and daughter was when she was at an industry party and she said the Mexican gardeners saved her. She said those were the first gentlemen she had seen all day. What did you think when you heard that?
That line was important to include because Latinos are always perceived as bad people and in this case it was the total opposite. So to me it was important to show that the Mexican gardeners were in fact the only men doing the correct thing. While all the other men that were at that Hollywood party were the ones who weren’t respecting her. So to me, that’s important as a Puerto Rican and as part of the Latinx community to show that these negative perceptions of Latinos are not true.
A line from Rita that struck me was: “Proving your worth is exhausting.” What came to mind when she said that to you?
When you make a documentary, you have to always try to relate to the experiences in order to make it your own because that’s where the passion translates. That resonated with me a lot. From making this documentary to trying to work in Hollywood, I always feel that way. You have to prove all the time that you’re capable. You always have to explain that your ideas are good. I may have an accent, but what I’m trying to portray visually is a good idea. It’s definitely exhausting trying to prove yourself. It was exhausting for her. And it’s been exhausting for me.
Another line that stayed with me was: “Wear your nationality as a flag.” How did you take that?
It’s important because I think Rita is who she is because she never shied away from who she really is. She was never shy to defend her ideals and I think that’s what she’s saying with that line. We have to be ourselves, we have to show our true colors, we have to be loud if that’s our nature. Even if we’re in a place where everybody is quiet, we need to be who we are because that’s the only way we’re showing our passion. Our passion is our art and we shouldn’t be shy about that.
Rita’s one of 16 people in the world to have an EGOT ( Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). Do you think she’s treated as equally as the other 15 on the list?
Not so much with the EGOT recognition, but in other instances she very much still has to fight to be recognized on the same level as others. And that has to do with being a woman and being Latina. Even Brent Miller, when he decided that he wanted to make this documentary, he couldn’t believe that nobody had made a film on her before. Hopefully, after this documentary comes out, she is able to be recognized even more.
When it comes to those four awards, did she ever tell you which one meant the most to her?
I’ve never asked her that, but I can tell that it’s her Oscar award. She carries it with her and brings it to California when she’s in her apartment in Culver city. That’s the one that she brings with her.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.