Rita Moreno looks for a better TV image of Hispanics

Don't call Rita Moreno a ''fiery Latino.''

This actress-singer-dancer is proud of her heritage, but she's on the warpath against Hispanic stereotypes of any kind. And she is annoyed that 20th Century-Fox's first press release about her new television show, 9 to 5 (ABC, Tuesdays, starting Sept. 28, 9:30-10 p.m.), referred to the character she plays as ''a fiery Latino.''

''I'm a person. There's not going to be any of that fiery Latino stuff anymore,'' she says over an orange juice breakfast at the Parker Meridien Hotel here. ''For too many years I was Hollywood's resident Latin inferno.'' Miss Moreno and her husband of 17 years, Dr. Leonard Gordon, have moved to California , but they try to keep one foot in New York by holding on to their old West Side apartment, which they now sublet.

Does Miss Moreno, born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico, believe that Hispanics have not been properly portrayed in American television?

''Of course not. We're still going around stealing hubcaps and being janitors and all that kind of thing. And we are also all lumped together as Latins or Hispanics, when actually we are Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Spaniards, etc.

''That's why I love the character I play in the series. Her name is Violet, not Lolita, or what have you,'' she says.

But didn't Miss Moreno win a Tony award for playing Googie Gomez in ''The Ritz''? And wasn't that a stereotypical Latino role?

''Yes, but there was a difference. Googie combined just about all the Hispanic stereotypes in one person. I adored her. It was like thumbing my nose at all the people who had written those dumb Hispanic roles in the past. Googie Gomez was a real survivor. She had no talent. She was a singer-dancer who couldn't sing or dance. But as far as she was concerned, Barbra Streisand stole her act.'' Miss Moreno falls naturally into her comic exaggerated Puerto Rican accent. ''If eet hadn't been for that, I woo be an estar today.''

Although she is self-assured enough to joke about her background, she takes very seriously the problems of ethnic minorities. During the week of Sept. 12, National Public Radio is celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Week, and Miss Moreno is the host of a five-part profile of Hispanic America, ''Reflections of La Raza.''

''But just because I care about my people doesn't mean I can't keep my sense of humor about them, too. Some of the funniest black humor, for instance, comes in poking fun at themselves. They are saying, 'Hey, look at me. I'm staying alive. I'm staying viable no matter what happens. I'm a survivor.' ''

Does Miss Moreno ever visit Puerto Rico?

''Often. In fact, I went back about three months ago to be made woman of the year. I was honored by the governor. I went to my hometown, a little place called Humacao, where they gave me the key to the city. The pride those people felt for me really overwhelmed me. I wish everybody had a place to go where they could feel that kind of national pride in themselves. It's quite a feeling to have people tell you that you represent them. It makes me want to take care of my reputation so as not to tarnish the image of my people in any way.''

Suddenly she realizes that she has been completely serious for a few moments - in contrast to the comic routines she had been breaking into during the interview so far. She says animatedly, ''Hey, I'm being too solemn about it.''

Has the situation become any better for Hispanic actors in recent years?

''It's a little better. But there's a long way still to go. Who is there in TV besides myself, Erik Estrada, and Ricardo Montalban? You can count us on the fingers of one hand. I think it is important to establish for all ethnic types, not just my own, the idea that we can play any role. If the script calls for a lawyer or an accountant, there should not be a parenthesis in the script saying 'black' or 'Oriental' or 'Latino.' The feeling should be to get any actor who is good, no matter what his ethnic background.

''By the way, when is the last time you saw an Oriental on TV other than as a butler or on 'M*A*S*H'? Those people really have it the worst of anybody. Oriental actors barely ever work. And that's wrong.''

Miss Moreno is certain that the producers of ''9 to 5'' will not be influenced by the old stereotypes. ''Of course my character, Violet, is Hispanic - she's got to have my kind of temperament. She's as Latin as I am sometimes. But she is the character most of the time, a widow training new employees as she fights to get ahead herself. That's universal for Latins as well as everybody else.

''Jane Fonda is one of the producers, and you know you can depend upon her to make certain that there are no stereotypes, either ethnic or feminist. Jane is very actively involved and I'm happy about that, because I think she is a woman of great discernment. Her thoughts are invaluable to the ultimate success of the show.''

Does that mean there will be as much of a feminist slant to the series as there was in the movie on which it is based?

She shakes her head. ''I think it's too early for anything with heavy words like 'feminist.' I think the issues will come with time. For the first season, at least, we are simply going to have to establish who the women are, what they're doing there, how they're coping with life. The big issues will come later.''

Miss Moreno, who won the Oscar for her role as Anita (''that was really me'') in ''West Side Story'' in 1960, looks as youthful and as fresh as she did then. ''I look good because I am happy,'' she says, and her eyes sparkle with vitality.

Is there anything the interviewer has forgotten to ask?

''Yes,'' she says. ''Maybe it's too immodest, but I want you to know that I am the only female performer ever to have won the four major awards - Oscar (for ''West Side Story''), Tony (for ''The Ritz''), Emmy (for ''The Rockford Files'') , and Grammy (for ''The Electric Company'').

''My photo is in the Guinness Book of Records,'' she says, chuckling good-humoredly. ''I'm right there in the book, with Kermit the Frog.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.