Born the daughter of a government clerk mother of Scottish and Italian descent and a Puerto Rican clarinetist and saxophonist father. She was seven years old when her mother was widowed and went to work for The Pentagon. In 1944, her mother enrolled her in the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet (now the Jones Haywood School of Dance). Later, when she was 15, a teacher from George Balanchine's School of American Ballet visited their studio and she was one of two students picked to audition in New York City; she was accompanied to the audition by Doris Jones, one of the people who ran the Jones-Haywood School. Her audition was successful and she was accepted into the school and given a scholarship.
In 1952, she accompanied a friend to the audition for a Broadway production of Call Me Madam and ended up winning the role herself. She followed this by landing roles in other Broadway productions such as Guys and Dolls and Can-Can. In 1957, she was cast in the role which was destined to make her a Broadway star, the firebrand Anita in West Side Story. (The role would bring fame and an Oscar to another Puerto Rican, Rita Moreno, in the 1961 film version). Rivera starred in a national tour of Can-Can and played the role of Nicky in the film adaptation of Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine.
On December 1, 1957, she married dancer Tony Mordente. Her performance was so important for the success of the show that the London production of West Side Story was postponed until she gave birth to the couple's daughter Lisa. In 1975 she appeared as Velma Kelly in the original cast of the musical Chicago.
In 1984 she starred in the musical The Rink with Liza Minnelli and won her first Tony award for her role as Anna. In 1986, she was in a severe accident when her car collided with a taxi in Manhattan. Injuries sustained included the breaking of her left leg in twelve places, requiring eighteen screws and two braces to mend. After rehabilitation, she continued to perform on stage. Miraculously revitalized, in 1988, she endeavored in a restaurant venture in partnership with the novelist, Daniel Simone. The eatery, located on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue, was named after her, Chita's. It soon became a significant attraction for the after-theater crowds and remained open until 1994.She appeared in a filmed for the television version of the musical Pippin in 1981, as Fastrada. In 1993, she received a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Aurora in the Tony-award winning musical Kiss of the Spider Woman (written by Kander and Ebb).
She starred in the Goodman Theatre production of the Kander and Ebb musical The Visit as Claire Zachanassian in 2001. In 2008 she appeared in a revised production of the musical at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, co-starring George Hearn. In 2003, Rivera returned to Broadway in the 2003 revival of Nine (opposite Antonio Banderas) as Liliane La Fleur, and received her eighth career Tony Award nomination (Best Featured Actress in a Musical) and fourth Drama Desk Award nomination (Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical). She later appeared on the revival's cast album.
On television, she guest-starred on "The Judy Garland Show" and in an episode of "Will & Grace," and in December of that year, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, a retrospective of her career, opened on Broadway. She received yet another Tony nomination for her self-portrayal. She also had a cameo in the 2002 movie version of Chicago and guest-starred on a 2008 episode of The Disney Channel's "Johnny and the Sprites" as Queen of All Magical Beings. In 2009, she released a new album titled, And Now I Swing to rave reviews.
Chita Rivera with Judy Garland and Louis Nye on "The Judy Garland Show"
Chita Rivera in a performance from 1982 at the Kennedy Center in her hometown of Washington, District of Columbia, U.S.A.
Chita Rivera and the company of The Kiss of the Spider Woman at the 1993 Tony Awards
Chita Rivera in clips from Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life