Nelia Zafón was born and raised in Puerto Rico. In 1964, at the age of seventeen, she told her mother that she wanted to move to New York City to be a Broadway dancer. Despite her mother’s objections, Nelia felt she was destined to be “the next Rita Moreno,” and she left. After sleeping in Grand Central Terminal for three nights, Nelia met a “chica de compañia”—an escort—named Josie, who offered her a place to stay. Josie was living in Queens, in the apartment of one of her friends who was off in the Vietnam war. Nelia moved in rent-free. After a time, word arrived that Josie’s friend has died, and the girls stayed in the apartment.
Nelia worked in a restaurant and put all her money toward dance classes. She went to every audition she could—at one for Man of La Mancha, she asked a casting director if it was okay for her to audition for a Spanish role even though she was Puertorriquena—he asked her what the difference was. Nelia tried for years and years to land a role, but was unable to. She left the apartment in Queens and found a place of her own. She continued going on auditions, but laments the fact that “Americans can only handle one person from anywhere,” and “the world already had its Rita Moreno.”
Despite working tremendously hard, Nelia’s dreams of being a famous dancer like her idol, Rita Moreno, were squashed when she realized that racism was rampant in America. Nelia was never seen as an individual, and her culture was never understood or appreciated. More than that, she realized that because there already was a Rita Moreno, there was no room for her—America didn’t want a plurality of Latina voices, they only needed one token.
After finding out that taxes for new businesses were low in Delaware, Nelia saved money and moved out to Wilmington. There, she started a theater company of her own—a theater she still runs in the present. She delights in giving roles to young actors, and though she never became a “big star,” she still feels proud when she visits home in Puerto Rico. She is dating a younger man—a gringo attorney—and at fifty-three years old she is still excited by the “possibility” that her life holds.
The devastating realization that her dream would not come true might have sent her spiraling into feelings of anger, regret, and futility, but instead it pushed her to carve out a new, uncharted space for herself. In opening her little theater in Delaware, Nelia has found a new dream for herself—and, like Fito’s, her new dream revolves around the creation of a community and a safe space for people like her. Nelia remains an optimist, having discovered that though the American dream is not what she thought it was, there is, after all, a place for her.