Her father was from Puerto Rico; he played clarinet and saxophone for the Navy band. Chita's mother, Katherine Figueroa, who was of mostly Scottish descent, went to work for The Pentagon when she was widowed when Chita was seven years old; Chita's mother died in 1983.
Watch Chita Rivera sing and dance to the song "Pretty for Me," in 1968, from Music on TV, via youtube.com. In 1944, Chita's mother enrolled her in the Jones-Hayward School of Ballet. Later, when Chita was 15, a teacher from George Balanchine's School of American Ballet visited their studio and Chita 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-Hayward School. Chita's audition was successful and she was accepted into the school and given a scholarship by George Balanchine. Among her new teachers were Allegra Kent and Maria Tallchief.
In 1952, Chita 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 further roles in other Broadway productions, such as Guys and Dolls and Can-Can.
Besides her ballet instructors, Chita considered that she learned a lot from Leonard Bernstein, and especially from the late Gwen Verdon, with whom she participated in the Broadway production of Chicago.
In 1957, Chita was cast in the role which was destined to make her a Broadway star - the firebrand "Anita" in the Broadway premiere of West Side Story. Years later the role of Anita was to bring fame and an Oscar to another Puerto Rican, Rita Moreno, in the film version. Rivera starred in a national tour of Can-Can and played the role of Nicky in the movie version of Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine.
On December 1, 1957, Rivera 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 1986, Rivera was in a severe accident when her car collided with a taxi on West 86th Street in Manhattan. Injuries sustained included the breaking of her left leg in 12 places, requiring 18 screws and two braces to mend. After rehabilitation, Rivera continued to perform on stage.
Rivera is regarded by many theatre aficionados as a "living legend" and indeed "In Theatre" magazine has suggested in an interview by George Horsfall: " You must be tired of the term "legend", but let's get it out of the way. You have long been considered a Broadway legend."" Rivera replied "Oh, God!" and laughed.
Rivera received two Tony Awards and seven additional nominations. She received her first Tony in 1984 for her role in The Rink and her second for Best Leading Actress in a Musical in 1993 for her role in Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Rivera guest-starred alongside Michele Lee in a February 2005 episode of Will & Grace.
On December 11, 2005, The Dancer's Life, a retrospective of her career, opened on Broadway. She received her seventh Tony nomination for her self-portrayal.