A legend among the Puerto Rican literary and theatre community, Anita Velez-Mitchelle died peacefully on July 10, 2015, at her Manhattan apartment on West 57th Street, surrounded by family and friends. The performer, poet, writer, and journalist was born in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on February 21, 1916.
Anita is the subject of the multiple award-winning documentary, “Anita Velez: Dancing Through Life,” by daughter and TV journalsit Jane Velez-Mitchell, and the upcoming documentary, “Light Years,” by Claire Panke (filmmaker of the PBS documentary, “A Chance to Grow,” with James Naughton). Her body of work is in the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY in New York City.
In 2013, Anita was honored with the ACE Extraordinary Award for Distinction and Merit, the top honor given by the Association of Latin Entertainment Critics of New York, and received the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the League of Puerto Rican Women. Her musical“Temple of the Souls,” written in collaboration with her granddaughters Lorca Peress (book writer, producer/director) and Anika Paris (book writer and co-composer with Dean Landon, arranger/orchestrator),
As a cultural arts representative, she has addressed the United Nations General Assembly over nine times to protest the U.S. Navy’s bombing maneuvers on Vieques, Puerto Rico, which has resulted in birth defects and ecological damage to the island and its phosphorescent sea.
Anita’s life-long performing career includes The Ed Sullivan Show, Carnegie Hall, Columbia Concert international tours as a solo artist. She sang with the Xavier Cougat Orchestra, and worked with Tito Puente who wrote “Mambo Macoco” for her dance company, Anita Velez Dancers, choreographed by a young Jerome Robbins. She also collaborated with choreographer Fred Kelly (Gene Kelly’s brother). In a Montreal Star review, Anita was described as having “more curves than the Laurentian Mountains.” Anita performed the role of Anita in the 1963 production of “West Side Story” and coached the Sharks gang members a decade later in the Lincoln Center revival directed by Lee Theodore. She culminated her performing career in April 2015 at the age of 99, giving a stunning video performance in the Off-Off Broadway production of “Comida de Puta,” a new play by Desi Moreno-Penson, produced by MultiStages. Anita was also featured in the two-character award-winning short film “Voice of an Angel” by Joshua Marston (director/writer of the award-winning film “Maria Full of Grace”), and in numerous TV shows, films, and commercials. She is a long-time union member of SAG-AFTRA and AEA, and the Twelfth Night Club.
As a journalist for Temas, Canales, El Diario, and other Latino and non-Latino magazines and publications, Anita has interviewed Marcel Marceau, Anaïs Nin, Alice Neel, Pablo Neruda, Salvador Dalí, Jose Ferrer, and others. She had an occasional lunch with Anaïs Nin at Horn & Hardart’s Automat on 57th St., frequented the 21 Club with Salvador Dalí, the Russian Tea Room with pilot Boris Vasilievich Sergievsky and ballerina Marina Svetlova, and hung out with UltraViolet (whose play, “U R Who U Eat,” she directed) and Julio de Diego, who painted her portrait. Anita loved life, beauty, the mambo, and all the arts. She was a vegetarian and lover of animals.
Publications and Awards include: Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriqueña Poets Look at Their American Lives, together with daughter Gloria Vando and granddaughter Anika Paris (2012, Scapegoat Press, Latino Book Award Finalist), Primavida: Calendar of Love (1986, Mairena Press), a bilingual book-length poem and winner of Puerto Rico’s coveted 1994 Julia de Burgos Poetry Prize; Loco de Amor (2006 chapbook based on a Vieques tale); numerous bilingual poems, short stories, essays, and translations in countless literary magazines and anthologies. Her play, “A Newyorican Tail,” received its premiere with Danisarte (Julia de Burgos Center, 2009); other plays have been performed over the years at Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, Henry Street Settlement, Repertorio Español, Works by Women, La MaMa ETC, Pen & Brush, and others. In 2012, she received the Taino Areito Award in Dance and Theatre for“Temple of the Souls”; other awards include the 2010 Mujeres Destacadas Award from El Diario La Prensa, NY; the Association of Puerto Rican Writers and Poets Award; University Press Award; 1993 La MaMa Inky Award presented by Ellen Stewart; Prince of Asturias Award for Belles Lettras; Partners in Education Award; Center of Ibero-American Poets and Writers Awards (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 in short story, poetry, essay, and drama); Isaac Perez Award (1994); Best Director from Applause News in 1992; “Woman of the Year” (2000, National Conference of Puerto Rican Women in the USA); a grant from the Thanks Be To Grandmother Winifred Foundation; and her forthcoming memoir Amor and More was a finalist for the Barbara Deming Fund’s 2014 mixed media award.
Anita read and performed her poetry at cultural centers, theatres, and colleges in New York,including the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, Columbia University, Boriqua College,Hunter College, Cornelia St. Cafe, Nuyorican Cafe, and La MaMa. She directed numerous plays, workshops and readings, and taught poetry and art at New York City’s Museum of Natural History, for NYU’s CAT program, and Poets-in-the-Schools in New York City. She was a member of PEN and Yale Club Poetry Group.
Anita is survived by her daughter Gloria Vando Hickok (poet, publisher and co-founder of the Kansas City Writers Place, with her recently deceased husband, William H. Hickok); daughter Jane Velez-Mitchell (Emmy-winning
Her family is holding a private cremation ceremony. A public memorial to honor Anita will be held in September (details to be announced).