Brokeback Blogs, Part 3 - Thoughts On Latino Hollywood

Posted by Gomez Comes Alive!, July 30, 2007 02:04am | Post a Comment
During the 80’s and early 90’s, there was an effort by Hollywood to make movies about Latinos but rarely did you see Latinos actually played by Latinos. During my back injury I watched a slew of movies from that era, including Scarface and Carlito’s Way. In Scarface, Al Pacino played a Cuban refugee with F. Murray Abraham as a Cuban as well. In Carlito’s Way, Pacino played a Puerto Rican. In each role Pacino had a terrible accent. I also watched Altered States with Thaao Penghlis, a Greek actor from Australia, playing the role of Prof. Eduardo Eccheverria, a professor from Mexico. In the movie, Thaao doesn’t try to hide his Aussie accent. I guess Hollywood figured his dark skin would suffice. To top it off, I watched Lou Diamond Phillips play Ritchie Valens in La Bamba and Angel Guzman, a former Chicano gang member turned math wiz in Stand And Deliver. Phillips is everything but Chicano. He, according to his bio, is American of Scotch-Irish, Hawaiian, Cherokee, Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese descent.

During that time period, it seemed like no effort was made to use Latinos in staring roles, even if the movie was about Latinos, unless you were James Edward Olmos. Olmos played most of the big roles during that era. He played Jaime Escalante in Stand And Deliver, Abraham Quintanilla in Selena, police Lieutenant Martin Castillo in the television series Miami Vice and starred and directed the prison gang classic American Me. This led to the classic joke by La Cucaracha’s satirist Lalo Alcaraz,
“He’s in Olmos every movie!”

The only other Latino actor that worked as much as Olmos during that time was actress Lupe Ontiveros. Lupe was a graduate from Texas Woman's University in Denton Texas who relocated to Los Angeles and got into acting by accident. She claims to have played the role of a maid over 300 times in her career between her stints in movies, television and theatre. She portrays a maid in El Norte, Goonies, Charlie’s Angels and Fame, just to name a few. One of the only roles where she didn’t play a maid or a woman with a heavy accent was in the movie Chuck And Buck, made by Puerto Rican filmmaker Miguel Arteta, in which she plays a Beverly Hills executive. Even the pseudo-ultra hip Sex and the City had her as a maid. Perhaps there was liberation for rich, straight white females, but not for the Latinas.

Lupe is not ashamed of her roles as maids. She is proud to represent some of the strongest women in society, without whom most families would be crippled. Recently she was asked to narrate the excellent documentary, Maid In America, a film that follows the lives of several women who work as nannies in the Los Angeles area.

She is often critical of Hollywood, not out of bitterness of her own career, but rather regarding the hypocrisy of a Hollywood that always says they are on the verge of change but never actually do. In an article she had in the L.A. Weekly she told the interviewer,

"You (the media) just go around in circles! You're always saying, 'We're trying, we're trying, and we really are.' But you're not really trying. You're chasing the image of the immigrant that you have in your mind. And you're never going to catch up with it, because you don't have sense enough to stop and say, 'No.'”

I don’t expect Hollywood to say no. In the recent years better roles for Latinos have appeared not because there are more or better Latino actors. It’s because there are more Latino writers, executives and directors who aren’t afraid to say no. As films have become better for Latinos in Hollywood, it continues to be harder for other groups, especially Asian and Middle Eastern actors. Hopefully persons of color who have gotten their foot in the Hollywood door will not forget their own struggles and help those who are now being subjugated by same negative stereotypes they once were.

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James Edward Olmos (1), Lupe Ontiveros (1), Maid In America (1)