In her acceptance speech, DeBose, 31, described herself as “an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate.”
After nodding to her mother in the audience and thanking her for her support, DeBose capped her speech with a reference to a famous line from the West Side Story song “Somewhere”: “So to anybody who has ever questioned your identity — ever, ever, ever — or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us.”
Even DeBose’s nomination made history. She and Rita Moreno, who won the Best Supporting Actress honor for her portrayal of Anita in the original 1961 film, are the first women and first actors of color to be nominated — and win — for playing the same character.
“I see it as a historical moment,” DeBose said to reporters backstage after her acceptance, noting that hers and Moreno’s Anitas, “while they share a name, they are different women.”
“I set out to create a woman who stood on her own two feet,” she continued. “And while there are 60 years of legacy between our Anitas, my Anita is not dependent on it. She celebrates what was, and what is, what can be and how we move forward.” Noting that she could see Moreno in the audience, “sort of willing me to say what I wanted to say,” DeBose added, “The other layer is: I’m an openly queer woman of color, and not for nothing, that’s fricking awesome, you guys. I’m the second Latina to win an acting award, an Afro-Latina. I’m the only queer woman of color. I think that just proves that there’s space, there’s space for us, and it’s a beautiful moment to be seen, and I’m really honored by that.”
On a personal note, DeBose said that on the red carpet, she and Moreno shared a warm moment, with the iconic actor saying, “You’re in for the ride of your life — and I’m rooting for you.”
“It’s that type of support, generationally, between actresses … it’s everything,” DeBose said with emotion. “The industry has changed so much, and, quite frankly, [Moreno’s] existence has opened many doors for many women in this industry, many Latinas. It makes me really happy to be able to stand beside her, because she’s not alone anymore … When you’re the first of something, it’s lonely. At least that’s what I’ve learned, sometimes. It’s a privilege and it’s an honor to be the person who gets to stand beside her.”
DeBose scored her trophy in a fiercely competitive field that included fellow nominees Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter), Judi Dench (Belfast), Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), and Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard).