Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner and 2002 Kennedy Center honoree, is among 16 recipients of the 2009 Medal of Freedom, including actor Sidney Poitier, who are honored for their contributions to cultural endeavors, as well as U.S. national interests, world peace and various public and private endeavors. "These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," President Obama said in a statement. "Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way. Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive. It is my great honor to award them the Medal of Freedom."
Rivera earned Tony Awards for her work in the Kander and Ebb-Terrence McNally musicals The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman. She originated the role of Anita in the 1957 premiere of West Side Story and has appeared in the Broadway productions of Chicago, Bye Bye Birdie, Jerry's Girls, Merlin, Bajour, Can-Can and Nine, as well as her autobiographical show The Dancer's Life. Rivera originated the role of Claire Zachanassian in the Kander-Ebb-McNally musical The Visit at the Signature Theatre in 2008.
Also honored with the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom will be Nancy Goodman Brinker, Pedro Jose Greer, Jr, Stephen Hawking Jack Kemp, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Billie Jean King, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Joe Medicine Crow-High Bird, Harvey Milk, Sandra Day O'Connor, Mary Robinson, Janet Davison Rowley, MD, Desmond Tutu and Muhammad Yunus.