(CNN) -- Rita Moreno is one of the rare performers to have won an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy award. But it took her nearly a lifetime to feel comfortable playing herself.
The 81-year-old Puerto Rican legend, who will be awarded a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in January, credits her ability to adapt quickly as key to her survival in life and the limelight.
She was 5 years old when she and her mother braved a perilous ocean voyage from Puerto Rico to New York, before boarding a bus to the Bronx to stay with relatives.
"My mami, Rosa Maria Marcano Alverio, was looking for a new start, a new husband," Moreno wrote in her memoir. "She was seeking love and fortune. ..."
Her mother's girlfriend suggested putting little Rosita into dance classes, and soon, she was learning Spanish dance from Rita Hayworth's uncle, who was also her dance teacher. Moreno found a home on the stage, and as her talent grew, she was able to contribute to her own, and her mother's dreams.
In her memoir, now available in Spanish, she shares her journey.
Moreno went from dancing in bars to performing for bar mitzvahs and independent movies. She was invited to a fateful "go-see" with Louis B. Mayer of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. The 16-year-old did her best to dress as her inspiration to impress the studio head. It worked.
"'She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!'" Moreno recalls Mayer saying at their meeting. "'How does a seven-year contract sound to you, young lady?'"
Rosita Dolores Alverio was born in Juncos, Puerto Rico, but Rita Moreno was hatched in Hollywood, California. An MGM studio executive christened her in honor of Hayworth.
"Your name has to go," he told her. "Too Italian."
Over a decades-long run, she survived a contentious affair with Marlon Brando, a suicide attempt and unpredictable employment to build one of the most storied careers in entertainment.
Now, as she prepares to play a grandmother on NBC's "Welcome to the Family," Moreno shared with CNN the struggle to find her own identity, when she stopped trying to be her idols and why she rejected playing George Lopez's mother on his hit TV show. An edited transcript of the conversation is below.
CNN: What incredible accomplishments: an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, a Grammy, and now the SAG Award. How does all that fit with how you perceive yourself?
Moreno: I don't know how to answer that question -- it's all pretty fabulous. You know I'm 81 now. I'm going to be 82 in December and I stand here absolutely astonished at what's happened!
Inevitably, when something very prestigious and meaningful like the SAG awards happens, I immediately go back to Puerto Rico and my little hometown and I see this little girl and I go back to being that little girl! And I'm saying, "Is it really possible?" "Is this really happening?"
I can't tell you how stunned I am. I'm thrilled to pieces. Really thrilled.
CNN: One of the things you describe in the book is playing the role of the "spitfire" and various stereotypical roles of people of color in your desire to work, but you describe your personality as being very different: "quite prudent and conservative" when you first came to Los Angeles.
Moreno: You know, I spent a good part of my life looking for an identity that was safe. And, in retrospect, we all know that that is simply not possible, it's not feasible. It doesn't work.
I didn't want to be this "Latina girl." I didn't want to be this "sexpot."
I had no role models, so I chose one: Elizabeth Taylor. But that doesn't work. And what happens as a result is you live a very muddled life with respect to identity. And when you try to do that, you lose something extremely valuable and important: and that is, self-respect. And the struggle was very painful.
CNN: When do you feel like you stopped "trying to be Elizabeth Taylor" and began embracing Rita Moreno?
Moreno: Well, you know it really didn't happen until "West Side Story." It took, unhappily, a very long time.
That happened with the Oscar, and then of course I also got the Golden Globe (for best supporting actress in "West Side Story"), which was pretty fabulous. I said to myself "I must be worth something. This is pretty terrific." And then I had the heartbreak of my life, practically, because I didn't do a movie again for seven years.
I was offered a couple of gang-type movies, and you know I wasn't going to do that anymore. Once I had that little gold man under my arm, I said to myself: "That's it. That day is over."
CNN: So "West Side Story" really affirmed your talents and you, personally. For you as an actress, what determines what roles are stereotypical and which ones are true to life?
Moreno: Well, gee, that's not a hard question to answer. I mean it's the way it's written. You're either a coffee pourer, or you play someone that's real.
(Before the George Lopez) show went on the air, (Lopez) wanted me desperately to play his mother and I just kept saying that is the most disrespectful Hispanic woman I have ever seen and I can't do that. I mean, he really courted me, he sent me bottles of wine and stuff, "I'm here because of you," that kind of thing. And, I know he meant it, he was very sincere and respectful but I just thought that she gave all of us a very bad name. I know she was funny, but I just couldn't see myself doing that part, it really bothered me.
And you know, by the way, the lady who played it was wonderful! And what a darling woman. God, what a neat gal she was. But I couldn't do that. I had been there and I had done that, in a manner of speaking, and I just couldn't do that again.
CNN: Has there been a difference in how audiences have responded to your memoir in Spanish versus English?
Moreno: It's surprising to the (English) speaking people and Hispanic people because both of them have always seen me as a very strong personality. You know the Latinos (have seen me as) el orgullo de Puerto Rico (the pride of Puerto Rico). El orgullo de los Latinos, de la comunidad Latina. And Americans have always seen me that way, too. So (my) struggle is a huge surprise to everybody. They just think you got this way overnight. And I keep telling them, you know what? It took me 81 years to reach this Rita Moreno!