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Evans: It's not the popular name it used to be, but Rita is the patron saint of lost causes

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Rita’s amazing career continues.

“One Day at a Time,” the reboot of the hit 1975-84 series that focuses on a Cuban-American family, began its fourth season on Pop TV on Tuesday. Rita Moreno plays grandmother Lydia Riera, a Cuban refugee and former dancer.

Moreno, now 88, won a best supporting actress Oscar in 1961 for “West Side Story.” She went on to win a Grammy, a Tony and two Emmys, one of only 12 artists to win all four.

Rita is a short form of Margherita or Margarita, Italian and Spanish forms of Margaret, from Greek margarites (pearl). The fame of legendary St. Margaret of Antioch, swallowed by a dragon that burst open because of her holiness, made her name common across medieval Europe.

Rita became a name in its own right through St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457). Born Margherita Lotti, Rita was married against her will at age 12 to wealthy but violently abusive Paolo Mancini. Over 18 years, her patience and prayers reformed him. After Paolo was stabbed to death in a vendetta, Rita’s example of forgiveness ended the feud. She entered a convent at Cascia, legendarily levitated into its courtyard by her patron saints.

Rita was beatified in 1626. Though not officially canonized until 1900, by then she was widely venerated in Italy, Spain and Latin America as patron saint of impossible cases and abused wives.

Before the 20th century, St. Rita’s name was largely ignored by English speakers. In the 1850 U.S. census, 234 of the 332 Ritas were born in recently annexed Spanish-speaking New Mexico.

In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name lists begin, Rita ranked 385th. Between 1910 and 1920, Rita boomed along with Italian immigration, ranking 48th in 1921.

In 1929, musical comedy film “Rio Rita,” where Rita (Bebe Daniels) is saved at the last minute from a forced marriage to the villain by her true love, Ranger Jim (John Boles), was a box-office smash. In 1930, Rita peaked at 42nd.

It looked like Rita would quickly fall off. Rita Hayworth’s career broke the fall. Hayworth (1918-87), born Margarita Cansino, became a star opposite Gene Kelly in “Cover Girl” (1944). Her sexy striptease in “Gilda” (1946) made her a “bombshell.” Her photo was attached to atomic bombs tested at Bikini Atoll. Though Hayworth was appalled, this only increased her fame, helping earn her the title “The Love Goddess.”

Rita ranked between 52nd and 60th all through the 1940s. As Hayworth’s reign as “Love Goddess” waned, the name began its inevitable retreat, finally leaving the top 1,000 in 2003.

Novelist Rita Mae Brown (1944), recording artist Rita Coolidge (1945) and comedian Rita Rudner (1953) are famous Ritas born during Hayward’s heyday. Actress and film producer Rita Wilson (1956) is newsworthy now, as she and husband Tom Hanks were among the first celebrities to announce that they had tested positive for COVID-19.

Baby boomers associate the name with the 1967 Beatles’ song “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,” inspired when policewoman Meta Davies gave Paul McCartney a parking ticket outside Abbey Road studios. McCartney said Davies “looked like a Rita to me.”

In 2018, only 184 Ritas were born in the United States. Still, it seems relevant today. Right now, the world is living one day at a time and could use a patron saint of impossible cases.


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