How Rosie Perez Found Her True Voice

Actress, choreographer and TV host Rosie Perez

Actress, choreographer and TV host Rosie Perez

In 1989, Rosa Maria Perez made her acting debut in director Spike Lee’s break-out film Do the Right Thing. In the opening credits of the movie, Rosa Perez —better known as Rosie—frenetically danced to the thundering sound of the hip-hop outfit Public Enemy in a scene that has now become iconic.

Rosie mesmerized moviegoers with her Latin home-girl charm, sensitivity and highly charged personality. Rosie met Spike Lee in a L.A. nightclub where he was holding a “butt” contest to promote his film School Daze. Disgusted by what she felt was the obvious exploitation of the women on stage —incidentally all black women— Rosie jumped on a speaker and started mocking the ladies on stage, violently shaking her derrière. She was taken off the speaker by a bouncer in the club and taken to Lee. Spike Lee was so taken by her feistiness that he asked her to be a part of Do the Right Thing, which he was casting at the time. He eventually called their meeting “fate.”

Prior to her meeting with Lee and her life being changed irrevocably, Rosie was a dancer on the show Soul Train. The obvious ability she displayed as a hip-hop dancer landed her the job as choreographer for Bobby Brown and others. Rosie had been making a name for herself in L.A. as a talented, naturally gifted choreographer who was transforming the careers of artists who were looking for a street edge. She had initially left New York where she was born and raised to live with a cousin and help look after her children. When Rosie left New York City she left behind a past filled with memories she was determined would never hinder her.

Rosie Perez was born on September 6, 1964 in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York to Puerto Rican parents. Her mother, Lydia Perez, had left her husband and moved in with Rosie’s father Ismael Serrano, her five children in tow. But their violent relationship forced Rosie’s mother to pull a gun on Serrano and he fled their home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, never to return. Rosie’s mother took her five children and returned to her husband. Not long after leaving Serrano, Rosie’s mother gave birth to her. Rosie was given to an aunt as an infant and believed her to be her mother. At the age of three, Rosie’s mother returned, taking her away from the only home she knew and placed her in an orphanageIt was at this point that Rosie’s life became an existence that was infused with abandonment, abuse and trauma.

Rosie suffered physical abuse at the hands of the nuns at the orphanage. When she left St. Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children and went to live in a group home in upstate New York, she encountered more violence. Perez’s mother was schizophrenic and would hit Rosie for no apparent reason. Rosie was unable to form a normal relationship with her. Rosie’s body had become a site where other people were able to inscribe their meaning on it. The deviant desires of others were played out on Rosie’s body. Her mother thought nothing of the attempt of one of Rosie’s relatives to rape her. In her mother’s mind, rape and sexual violence were tied up with notions of physical beauty and female attractiveness. Rosie’s mother contended that Rosie was not pretty enough for anyone to ever want to rape her. Rosie’s big, expressive brown eyes hid years of pain, neglect and a nomadic existence. Rosie didn’t have a voice.

Although subject to violence and a torturous childhood, Rosie was determined to change her life and the narrative that sought to subjugate her as a victim. Rosie has spoken about the limiting opportunities there are in Hollywood for people of color, particularly women, who come from impoverished, disenfranchised backgrounds. Her experience of being voiceless and not in control of the various situations she found herself a part of led to feelings of exploitation whilst working with Spike Lee. Rosie felt that some of the sex scenes in Do the Right Thing were too full on and she felt uncomfortable with them once she had finished filming them. The scenes became a bone of contention for them both. Rosie wanted to be represented as accurately as possible.

Rosie was approached by Keenan Ivory Wayans in 1990 to choreograph a group of young women called the Fly Girls, of which Jennifer Lopez was one, for his show In Living Color. Rosie fought Wayans to allow Jennifer Lopez a chance to dance. The Fly Girls were known for their fierce clothes and choreography which won Rosie an Emmy nomination. Rosie has always refused to allow others to dictate to her who she should be and faced criticism from her own Latino community because it was felt that she was too loud and too “Latino” for someone in her position. The fact that directors and producers eventually accepted her for who she was and celebrated her much maligned Puerto Rican-tinged Brooklyn accent made Rosie feel okay to be who she was. It was no longer about how she should mould herself to fit other people’s perceptions of who she was but about refining Rosie to suit herself.

Childhood and early teenage experiences have led Rosie to work with some of the most vulnerable in society.  In the 1990s, Rosie became involved in raising awareness for HIV/AIDS charities, particularly in the Latino communities in the United States and abroad. Her mother died from AIDS-related complications. Her activism has led her to support and create community arts programs in troubled New York neighborhoods. Of her Urban Arts Partnership, Perez says that she wanted to address the angst children were experiencing. In spite of everything, Rosie Perez was able to be the real Rosie.

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Wendy Hackshaw is a writer from London who is currently researching late-1970s New York City and the cultural and social movements that came out of that period. Her work focuses on revolutionary aspects of style, music and culture. You can follow her @deeshimmer.

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