Actor Ariana DeBose has made history as the first Afro Latina and first openly queer woman of color to win an Academy Award for acting.
“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.
“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.
Set in the 1950s, “West Side Story” centers on the rivalry between two teenage street gangs — the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang — as their communities faced displacement during New York City’s urban renewal period. Their rivalry intensifies when Tony, a Jet, falls in love with Maria, the young sister of Sharks leader Bernardo.
Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s friend, is Puerto Rican like the rest of the Sharks. She stands out for her assertiveness and captivating dance skills.
DeBose, a triple-threat performer of Puerto Rican descent, shows off her versatile skills in “America” — leading an epic ensemble around the streets of New York’s San Juan Hill in the iconic musical number.
Her performance then takes a poignant turn in the intensely emotional number “A Boy Like That” alongside Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, the lead female character, in the film.
“Ultimately what you see on the screen is such a beautiful exploration of a deep female relationship,” DeBose previously told NBC News. “It is ugly. It is loud. It is highly emotional. Quite frankly, it’s volatile, and then just downright heartbreaking because there is so much love there.”
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With her Oscar win, DeBose and legendary actor Rita Moreno, who originated the role in the 1961 film version of the acclaimed Broadway musical, are now part of a small group of pairs of actors who’ve won an Academy Award for playing the same character.
When Moreno won her acting Oscar for her portrayal of Anita 60 years ago, she made history as the first Latina to win the honor.
DeBose and Moreno, who also returned for Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake as an executive producer and as the character Valentina, are the first women and performers of color to join the rare club.
“She means a lot to me,” DeBose said of Moreno in a previous NBC News joint interview. “She means a lot to the Puerto Rican community. She means a lot to the Latino community and to the entertainment industry at large.”
In reinterpreting Moreno’s Anita for a new generation, DeBose continued breaking new ground this awards season.
In winning the Screen Actors Guild’s best supporting actress award last month, she became the first Latina to win a film award from the guild and the first queer woman of color to be recognized in an acting category.
Her critically acclaimed performance also earned DeBose her first Golden Globe as well as a BAFTA Award.