She may be turning 98 on February 21, but Ana Vilia Vélez Rieckhoff, better known as Anita Vélez-Mitchell, is still busy making a difference. The entertainer and writer is helping preserve our community’s vibrant history by sharing her rich colorful life stories with the Centro Archives as one of Centro’s 100 Puerto Ricans who are video recording their oral histories.
Born in Vieques, Puerto Rico to an Austrian mother, Lucila Rieckehoff, in 1916, she came to New York in 1929 and started on a long and illustrious career. From her days serving as a movie house usherette and as an extra in the Carlos Gardel’s American films to her roles in TV commercials and her dancing, acting and directing jobs, as well and composing music and writing, she conquered the public with her efforts, talent and charismatic persona.
Throughout her career she worked with some of the brightest names in show business. In the early 1950s, she commissioned musician Tito Puente to write a mambo for her San Juan Caribe Hilton debut with her own Anita Velez Dancers. The result was theMambo-Ma-Coco. They toured the Caribbean, Canadian and U.S. Hilton Hotel chains. She later worked with the illustrious director George Abbott, the actor, choreographer, director and producer Herbert Ross and famed bandleader Xavier Cougat. In her varied career, she also performed for the Ringling Brothers Circus, did some vaudeville and worked with Columbia Concert Tours.
Anita Vélez-Mitchell has said the character of Anita in West Side Story was actually named for her, but when she and her friend Chita Rivera went to the auditions, Rivera got the role. Vélez-Mitchell did end up getting her chance to play the part later on with a touring company and returned to West Side Story in 1972 as a dance coach in the Lincoln Center revival.
Her thirst for creative outlets led her to write, produce and direct numerous plays as well as write stories, poetry and essays. She received the coveted Julia de Burgos prize for her bilingual book-length poem, Primavida: Calendario de Amor. She wrote the bilingual children’s play ANewyorican Tail (Danisarte Festival), Dust Off and Perils of Chenca (Spanish Repertory Theatre) and Ripples of the Mind (Museo del Barrio). And with her creative and artistic family, she has collaborated in the poetry anthology Woven Voices: Three Generations of Puertorriquena Poets Look at Their American Lives (2012).
As a freelance journalist, Vélez-Mitchell interviewed personalities such as Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, French mime Marcel Marceau, Spanish painter Salvador Dali, poet Pablo Neruda, and Mexican composer Carlos Chavez.
Her latest creation, a collaborative effort for a libretto of a musical drama entitled Temple of the Souls (http://www.templeofthesouls.com/), premièred a few years ago. Anita’s interest in her pre-Columbian native culture provided the background for the tragic love story between the daughter of a conquistador and a Taino young man.
Velez-Mitchell has also contributed to and supported many local organizations and institutions that promote and preserve her national cultural heritage, including La Casa de la Herencia Puertorriqueña, Instituto de Puerto Rico and the Association of Puerto Rican Writers. Her active involvement in political, cultural and animal advocacy initiatives brought her to the United Nations forum on Vieques in 2001, 2004 and 2006, and to national conferences of Animal Rights.
In 2000 she was the subject of a documentary, Anita Vélez: Dancing through Life, which follows her early career in theater. Directed and produced by her daughter, Jane Vélez-Mitchell, it won awards at the New York and Los Angeles Film Festivals. As late as 2002 Vélez-Mitchell costarred in the film Voice of an Angel, which won Best U.S.A. Short Film from the Silver Image and Los Angeles Film Festivals.
Centro salutes Vélez-Mitchell for her many contributions and especially for entrusting our Archives with her papers. With her donation, she is helping to build and diversify Centro’s Archives collections as part of our ongoing 100 Puerto Ricans Preserving Our History campaign. We wish her the best in the coming years in continuing her insatiable search for self-expression.
Alberto Hernández is Centro’s Associate Director of Library and Archives.