25 years after making her powerful acting debut in Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated “Do The Right Thing,” Rosie Perez is continuing her mission of inspiring others with her revelations of overcoming abject poverty and abuse in her memoir HANDBOOK FOR AN UNPREDICTABLE LIFE: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair).
“I did not want to write this book,” Perez admits. “I was forced to do it, and after I agreed, I realized it was the best thing I’ve ever done. There were some sad memories remembering what I had to overcome, and I shed a few tears, but that was good because those tears washed away some residual pain. It was very difficult to write. I was a ward of the state and the welfare system. I had to stay focused on not being bitter. I knew education would be my way out and I was confident I would be successful.”
Growing up as a foster child in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Perez’s childhood was so traumatic it caused her to suffer from a speech impediment. Her slurred speech has become her signature, yet it has not impeded a diversified career which includes three Emmy nominations as the choreographer for “In Living Color” and an Academy Award nomination for “Fearless.” She has appeared in 23 films, starred on television and Broadway, and devoted herself to numerous charitable causes including providing arts education for underprivileged youth in New York City. She aspired to become a marine biologist, but those plans changed drastically when Lee discovered her dancing in a Los Angeles nightclub in 1988 and launched her career portraying Tina, the girlfriend of Mookie (played by Lee) in “Do The Right Thing.” The film was set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn not far from where Perez grew up. After her schizophrenic mother kicked her father out of their house at gunpoint, Perez was sent at the age of two years old to live with her aunt. Then one year later, her mother sent her to live in a Catholic home where the nuns consistently abused her.
“I could have done without the home and even Sister Renata beating the crap out of me,” Perez comments. “But it was definitely a better choice than being raised at home by my mother. That’s so sad, but true.”
Become a Harlem insider - Sign-Up for our Newsletter!
Writing her autobiography has been therapeutic, however that was not her purpose. “This book is not self serving,” Perez states. “It is for the kids so they can learn from my trials and tribulations. It is so they can know they are not alone. They can learn from my story. From abuse and poverty, from Brooklyn to Hollywood. I want kids to be able to release the pain and learn how to mature and be successful in the world.”
Despite having the odds against her, she knew she was destined for success. “I refused to allow myself to be limited,” she says. “I refused to be denied. My aunt, who was like my mother, she had three jobs working in factories in Bushwick. That work ethic was ingrained in my spirit.”
Perez escaped her tumultuous upbringing by moving to Los Angeles where she enrolled in a community college. But she could not escape the fact that she was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), an anxiety disorder caused by traumatic events in her life.
“I wanted to believe I was above what had happened to me, but when a doctor told me I have PTSD, I realized I did not have control over my emotional responses. I also realized I had to try to recover and overcome my condition.”
Perez has overcome PTSD, and she says music has always been part of her therapy. She remembers several songs allowed her to survive, especially her all-time favorite, the 1977 song “Zoom” by The Commodores. “I used to sing those lyrics everyday…’I may be just a foolish dreamer, But I don’t care, ‘Cause I know my happiness is waiting, Out there somewhere, I’m searching for that silver lining, Horizons that I’ve never seen, Oh, I’d like to take just a moment, And dream my dreams, oh dream my dream’
“That song got me through a lot of pain. I sang it to myself daily. It allowed me to escape the pain and see possibilities.”
Another song very special to Perez is The Jackson Five 1971 classic “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
“That song was so important to me because growing up, I had a crush on Michael Jackson,” she recalls. “I dreamed we would be married. I met him in 1993 when I was working as a choreographer at the Soul Train Music Awards. He twisted his ankle rehearsing so he was in a wheelchair and they rolled him in backstage. When I saw him, I had an anxiety attack. This was my idol, Michael Jackson. I was afraid to look at him and I looked away. He said, ‘l love your work.’ I froze and I walked away. I remember hearing him chuckling as I walked away.”
Perez attended the 1993 Soul Train Music Awards holding hands with Tupac Shakur who was her platonic friend, despite the rumors of romance.
“He did that for me as a friend,” she recalls. “A guy stood me up. Nobody stands me up! Pac called up to say hi and to ask if I had extra tickets. I told him what happened and he said, ‘Let’s go together. Let’s hold hands and let him see you on the screen and make him jealous.’ We had a very special friendship. We clicked, our intellect, our passion, our temperament. He was a kindred spirit. We were both nerds and silly. People don’t know he was a goofball. We never fought. We respected each other.”
Perez had gained attention as a dancer on the weekly “Soul Train” show in Los Angeles a few years earlier, and became a a top choreographer for several stars including Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown and LL Cool J. However she became frustrated with living so far away from her Brooklyn roots and planned to move back to New York to continue her education. On what was going to be her final night in LA, she went out dancing as her going away party and attended Spike Lee’s event promoting his movie “School Daze” which featured the number one song “Da Butt.” She danced in “da butt” contest and her “going away party” became her “coming out party” when Lee noticed her and eventually cast her in “Do The Right Thing.”
One year after her acting debut, Perez became the choreographer for the groundbreaking “In Living Color” television comedy show that featured several stars early in their careers including Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, and Jennifer Lopez. J-Lo was one of “The Fly Girl” dancers under Perez’s supervision, and she remembers “Jenny From The Block” did not show appreciation for the fact that she saved her job. Perez convinced creator Keenan Ivory Wayans to hire her after he was not impressed with her performance. Perez from Brooklyn and Lopez from the Bronx were both Puerto Ricans from New York City, and Perez felt a natural bond. She helped Lopez improve in rehearsals after Wayans complained that Lopez “looked fat or too clunky in her moves.”
Perez remembers, “All of the girls were coming into my office telling me how she was manipulating wardrobe, makeup, and me, all to her advantage.” Lopez constantly screamed at her, complaining she was working her too hard, but Perez stayed in her corner, and even took her to her home to eat dinner. Later when Lopez became a superstar, Perez says J-Lo continued complaining about her on a TV talk show.
In her book, Perez describes her disputes with other stars including Lee, Foxx, Diddy, Woody Harrelson, and others, and she is upset that the media only focuses on her disagreements with Lopez which she says have been widely exaggerated.
“I have great respect for Jennifer Lopez,” she says. “When I first saw her, I knew she was going to be a star. Yes, we had a tiff and it was over 20 years ago. It’s unfortunate that the tabloids try to portray it as something that is current. It’s really disgusting to me that the media tried to pit two Latinas against each other. It’s just so difficult, to make it in this industry, especially if you’re a person of color. For them to do that was really shameful. It hurts us all and those that follow in our footsteps.”
Perez is committed to providing a positive role models for those “following her footsteps,” and was proud to recently partner with Pine-Sol’s “When Life Gets Tough, Women Rise Above It Campaign.”
“It relates to my book as a way of inspiring women who have risen above great obstacles,” she states. “The campaign recognizes and celebrates the remarkable women among us.”
Rosie Perez is one of those remarkable women.
“My book is for everybody because everybody has a story and everybody can overcome obstacles,” she says. “Work on yourself and enjoy life.”
As she looks back on her childhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn, there was much pain, but there was also joy provided by songs such as another of her favorites, “Ooh Boy” from 1977 by the group Rose Royce.
“I sang that song all the time,” she says with a smile. “I remember being at the roller skating rink in Bushwick on Myrtle Avenue. That song represents the good times I had growing up in Brooklyn.”
Now she is back enjoying living in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn with her second husband Eric Haze who she married in September 2013. They both love boxing, and fittingly, they tied the knot the day after attending the Floyd Mayweather Jr./Canelo Alvarez fight in Las Vegas.
The opening line of the song is for her husband: “Ooh boy, I love you so, never ever ever gonna let you go.”
“I have my true soulmate,” she beams. “Happiness is sitting at home on the couch watching boxing or listening to music and holding hands. It took me a while to get it right, but I got it right now.”