Many successful people must overcome daunting roadblocks to reach their personal and career goals, and Rosie Perez is one of them. This gifted actress from Bushwick, New York, had a very traumatic upbringing and weathered more major crises in adulthood.
Despite all that, nothing—including PTSD, anxiety, and dysthymia (a form of depression)—stopped Rosie from ascending to the pinnacle of her profession. She’s a former Soul Train dancer and three-time Emmy nominated choreographer who worked with stars like LL Cool J, Bobby Brown, Diana Ross, and the Fly Girls on In Living Color. She earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for her role in Fearless (1993).
As Perez wrote with poignant brevity in her memoir, “I have survived.” Rosie Perez encountered tragedy, countless hardships, and painful situations throughout her life. She ultimately found her footing and thrived because of her self-reliance, courage, and unquenchable spirit.
Here’s the remarkable inside story of how this petite powerhouse did it.
An Unstable Mother Made For A Tumultuous Childhood
Perez’s parents cheated on their spouses with each other. Rosie’s mother was mentally ill and was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Her father left her mother while she was pregnant with Perez after she pulled a gun on him.
With that kind of violence, instability, and upheaval as the backdrop for her youth, Perez had to be strong to survive. Still, she always felt rejected by her mother. In an interview with Aljazeera America in May 2014 to discuss her memoir, Handbook for An Unpredictable Life, Perez said, “From the day I could remember her, I felt rejected by her.”
She Was Raised For A While By A Loving Aunt
There was a source of genuine caring and affection in Perez’s life, although it wasn’t her mother. It was her cherished Aunt Tia, who loved Perez from the time she was born and was happy to raise her. For the first three years of her life, Perez thought Tia actually was her mother.
“I think that those three years with my aunt helped me understand that there is good love out there,” Perez said in her memoir. “I was loved.”
Perez’s mother eventually showed up and demanded her back. A few days later, she dropped Perez off at a Catholic children’s home in Peekskill, New York. When it dawned on young Perez that she would be there indefinitely among a group of what seemed to her like forbidding strangers, her “heart really started to break.”
Thus another chapter in Perez’s life began, one that, according to her, was often fraught with nightmarish cruelty.
Her Time At The Children’s Home Was Traumatic
Being abandoned by her mother was hard enough. Some of the nuns were harsh and abusive, Perez said later. One nun, Sister Renata (names in Perez’s book were changed to safeguard people’s privacy), seemed to have it out for her. She regularly hit Perez in the face and once slammed Perez’s head into a metal locker.
Perez was naughty on one particular occasion, so the punishment she received was to stand facing that locker, with Sister Renata vigilantly watching to make sure she complied. “After a few minutes, which felt more like an hour, my eyes started to close shut,” Perez wrote. “… Bam! Sister Renata banged my head into the metal locker.”
Perez fell in with another little girl who was four and a half, whom she referred to as Cindy. Many years later, Perez said of her, “She was my best friend, my confidante, my little angel.”
Perez’s time at the children’s home did not feel quite so alone with her pal Cindy around—yet she was understandably scared, confused, and eager to leave. “This just can’t be,” Perez said she thought to herself. “Why is this happening to me? I want to go home!”
One day, Perez and Cindy had an ugly run-in with Sister Renata. They had to team up to scrub the whole bathroom for punishment: floor, sinks, toilet stalls, and shower stalls.
Like the irrepressible youngsters they were, they discovered a bottle of cough syrup and took some swigs from it to savor the alcohol content. The girls then turned on a radio and horsed around gleefully to the tunes of the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Supremes.
At that point, Sister Renata marched in. Outraged by the girls’ rule-breaking and giddy antics, she hit them both on the hands hard enough to draw blood. She also shoved a bar of soap in Perez’s mouth.
Her Mother Was Also Physically Abusive
When Perez was eight years old, she was moved to a group home with her half-siblings. She was able to visit her mother at home, but she often hit Perez and once allegedly forced her to shoplift light bulbs at gunpoint, according to the Daily News.
Despite the mistreatment, Perez still yearned for her mother’s acceptance. She described her intense desire for some kind of real connection with her mother, a sense of connection that forever eluded her.
“You want your parent to love you. You want your parent to want you. Then after a while, after they beat you down so much, you want them even more,” Perez said.
That precious mother-daughter bond that Perez hoped for never materialized, however. Her mother later died of AIDS-related complications.
During this troubled time, Perez’s flair for choreography bubbled to the top. Her path to prominence wasn’t easy, though.
She exhorted other female choreographers and dancers in the business to insist upon getting paid, leading some people to criticize her for being “mean and greedy,” she told Elle in 2014. She bluntly refuted that and said, “I’m being business.”
Perez once said that the way women were regarded in the dance world at the time was wretched. “The misogyny was disgusting. The way they perceived women, treated women was appalling, and probably is still appalling. But I refused to be denied.”
Perez cleverly found a way to put her experience to work for herself. “I knew how to choreograph because I was part of the cheerleading squad in upstate New York,” she said.
It opened a door for her into the world of entertainment. That door would never close for Perez again.
Rosie Was Sexually Abused By Her Half-Brother
Unfortunately, there was more anguish and heartache awaiting Perez, this time from a family member. Her half-brother allegedly attacked her twice while she was visiting her mother. Perez’s mother refused to believe her when she told her about it and said she wasn’t pretty enough for him to attack her.
“You think he would pick you out when you’re the ugliest,” Perez’s mother told her, according to the Daily News. “He can pick any of your sisters who are prettier than you.”
How excruciating it must have been for Perez to get that brutal, heartless reaction from her own mother, the very person who should have been her staunchest ally and protector.
She Learned To Box As A Way Of Coping With The Violence She Faced
Perez is tough and scrappy, judging by some of the comments in her book and from interviews she has given. Rather than passively accepting all the unwarranted hard knocks she got, she wanted to push back and assert herself.
Perez decided to learn how to box so she could literally use her fists to pummel anybody who messed with her. She has used those physical skills throughout her career, from Do the Right Thing (1989) to Birds of Prey (2020).
Perez has a distinct philosophy about boxing. “Boxing is about pushing through your fears,” she said, according to IMDb. “It’s more about fighting yourself. Floyd Mayweather could get punched—like [a] clean shot down the middle to his face—and he wouldn’t flinch. And I understand what he’s doing.”
On another occasion, Perez said boxing “is a metaphor for life. Boxing, the sweet science, is to hit and not get hit.” One analyst even dubbed her “the First Lady of Boxing” because of her passion for the sport, according to The New York Times.
She decided to move to California after a girl at her school in Queens threatened to cut her face with a razor. According to the Daily News, the other student tried to cut a dimple right off Perez’s face.
Perez had had enough. She headed to the west coast to find her future.
Hollywood Studios Tried To Whitewash Her
Today, concepts such as diversity, equality, and inclusiveness are being embraced as societal norms in more and more workplaces, universities, and various professions across the country. Years ago, however, those standards were sometimes scoffed at or ignored altogether.
When Perez was a newcomer to show business, industry professionals were opposed to diversity. It was an entrenched barrier that they were consciously or unwittingly perpetuating.
True to form, Perez refused to compromise her authenticity, principles, and individuality. She railed against being pigeonholed due to her ethnicity and hoped that other Latino actors would do the same.
She told People in 2018, “I think it’s really really important for Latin actors and actresses to go out for roles that are not specifically designed for a Latino character. Just go out there and let them know that we come in all different shapes and sizes….”
Perez refused to accept roles that stereotype Latina women, even if it meant losing jobs. “Hollywood’s racist,” she declared to CNN in 2014. “I knew something else would come along that I was OK with. Sometimes you pay a price by not working as much, but I felt good about myself in the morning.”
Perez’s part in the film White Men Can’t Jump (1992) marked a significant turning point in her career. It nearly did not happen for her, though.
As Perez explained it in her book, “The studio, as I was told, had a problem that I was Puerto Rican; they were worried about the interracial aspect.” The movie’s producers were skittish about portraying an interracial relationship.
Luckily, her co-stars, Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, interceded in her behalf. She appreciated their willingness to go out on a limb for her. “…[T]hat’s the only way things change—when everyone joins the fight and you’re not the only one rushing up the hill.”
She Was Injured Filming An Episode Of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Perez sustained nerve damage along with serious neck and back injuries after she was shaken hard by an extra during a stunt for a 2009 episode of the popular police drama. She had to get 2 surgeries and had to miss work.
Daily News reported that Perez contended in her complaint that she was “grabbed, yanked, wrenched, and manhandled.” She filed a lawsuit against the show’s producers. It was settled in February 2012 for an undisclosed amount.
Her Friend Was Assaulted By Harvey Weinstein
Perez testified at Harvey Weinstein’s trial in 2020 that her friend, actress Annabella Sciorra, called her in 1993 to tell her that she had been raped by Weinstein. She didn’t say at that time who did it. Sciorra later told Perez that Weinstein was harassing her.
Perez said to Sciorra, according to AP News, “Please go to the police.” She said that Sciorra replied, “I can’t—he’d destroy me.”
Weinstein denied having “nonconsensual sex.” When questioned by his lawyer about why she did not report the alleged incident to law enforcement herself, Perez said that she “was being respectful” of Sciorra.
Therapy Has Helped Her Manage The PTSD From Her Tragic Past
Perez told TIME in 2014 that being diagnosed with PTSD after everything she had been through “felt like a weight was lifted” from her. Even so, she did not begin therapy until adulthood, partly because she said there was a stigma attached to mental health difficulties and treatment by some in the Latino community
She saw past it. Perez said, “I’ve heard racist remarks that refer to getting psychotherapy help as ‘being white’…Therapy is not a ‘white thing.’ It’s a clinical thing.”
Despite her forward-thinking attitude, Perez learned the hard way to be on her guard when talking about mental illness. She shared with Shondaland in 2020 that she once confided to a producer about her mental health issues.
“They went back and told everybody—it was humiliating. I was chastised for reacting, which made me look even more insane in their eyes.”
Rosie Has Become A Mental Health Advocate For People Of Color
Perez used herself as an example of the progress that can be made when someone reaches out for help with a mental health problem. She wanted to encourage people—especially people of color—to understand that there is absolutely no shame in seeking assistance from a therapist or other qualified mental health professional.
“As people of color, sometimes we don’t get the mental help we need,” Perez said, according to Amsterdam News. “We might go to a church or something, but that’s not enough. I wanted to be the best me I could be, so I went and got help. That’s what it’s really about.”
She also wants people to know that it’s especially important to keep looking for the right therapist and not settle for someone who is not the best fit for them.
Rosie Perez isn’t embittered, she’s empowered. She slogged through crushing adversity from an early age but she never gave up on herself. There were a few kind people in Rosie’s corner who never quit on her, either—her trusted Aunt Tia, her childhood buddy Cindy, and Grace, a nun who reassured her that she would make it.
She had grit and sturdiness, coupled with a defiant insistence on staying true to herself. That is why Perez earned fame and respect in a Hollywood where demeaning stereotypes were still an obstacle for many Latino actors.
She steadfastly refused to meekly knuckle under. She urged others like her not to quietly accept the status quo as well.
Just like the strongest steel is forged in the hottest flames, Perez’s character was shaped in part by many negative forces. Today, she compassionately reaches out to others who are in pain. She has emerged from all her struggles whole, healed, and more resilient than ever.