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Borderlands: Latinos Work To Change Stereotypes In Hollywood 15 (1997)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Latinos Work To Change Stereotypes In Hollywood

Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.

By Elsa E. Isais

In the 1995 Movie “The Perez Family,” Marissa Tomei had to gain 18 pounds and wear a bronzing product because the producer did not think she was dark or plump enough to play a Cuban prostitute.  In its list of movies realistically portraying Latinos, Hispanic magazine named it the worst movie of the year.

""Image caption: Drawing saying "Hollywood or Bust!" by Tony Barron

In contrast, “Mi Familia” won the magazine’s accolades for the best picture of 1995.  It starred Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits and Jennifer Lopez and has written and directed by Gregory Nava.  It portrayed several generations of a Mexican-American family not as stereotypes, but as an ordinary household with dreams and successes as well as pain and heartbreak.

Although the stereotypes of Hispanics as lazy or criminal or good enough only to work as maids and gardeners still persist, more and more Hispanics are gaining a foothold as actors, directors, writers, producers and executives in the television and film industry, trying to change the stereotypes that Hollywood has perpetuated for decades.  

Many of the first roles Hispanics played were the stereotypical drunken male and the seductress female who usually fell in love with an Anglo male.  Latino males lusted after or idealized white women.  Gary D. Keller in an article for Bilingual Review, says outside of romance or sex, there were no roles for Hispanic females.  

Actress, singer and dancer Rita Moreno is one of the most famous Latinos in the entertainment field.  In Luis Reyes and Peter Rubie’s book Hispanics in Hollywood, Moreno is quoted as saying, “We played the roles we were given no matter how demanding they might have been.”

 A few Latino actors made a name for themselves early in this century.  Dolores del Rio, Rita Hayworth (Margarita Canseco), Jose Ferrer, El Pasoan Gilbert Roland (Luis Antonio Damaso De Alonso) and Desi Arnaz were among the few who became well known.  

Today, 1970s comedian Richard “Cheech” Marin is a regular on “Nash Bridges,” directed “Born in East L.A.” and has appeared in numerous other movies and television shows.  Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Quinn, and Rita Moreno are among the most experienced Latino actors.

 Former El Pasoan and aspiring actress Estrella Nieto says, “It is very tough” for Hispanics to land a good role in a movie.  “I’ve only been cast as an extra in some television commercials, but the color of my skin and my last name seem to jump out at the producers before my acting abilities.”  

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At one audition, Nieto says, “I was picked without auditioning.  The producer said my skin color was a Mexican girl is supposed to look like.  To his surprise, I am not Mexican and I can’t even speak Spanish…..Most studio heads just want the stereotype.”

 But there is hope.  Last year, Hispanic magazine picked the 25 most powerful Hispanics in Hollywood, a list that included actors, writers, producers, directors, animators and others.  Writer/director Robert Rodriguez first made a name for making the film “El Mariachi” for $7,000, a miracle that earned $2 million.  He went on to write and direct “Desperado,” staring Mexican actress Salma Hayek and Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, both major Hollywood actors.  

High on Hispanic’s list is Edward James Olmos who also established himself several years ago.  He continues to act and produce movies like “Stand and Deliver,” in which he played the part of the inspiration Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante.  In “Mi Familia,” he plays the patriarch of the family and his most recent film, “Selena,” he plays her father, Abraham Quintanilla.

 Mexican director Alfonso Arau made the list for his movie “A Walk in the Clouds,” which portrays the family of a wealthy Mexican American grape grower, played by veteran actor Anthony Quinn.  Arau also made “Like Water for Chocolate,” the highest grossing foreign film in the United States.  

Gregory Nava won an Oscar nomination for foreign language film with “El Norte,” but it took him six years and the help of Francis Ford Coppola as executive producer to write and direct “Mi Familia.”  Because of this hit, Selena’s family sought him out to write and direct the film version of her story.

 Luis Valdez is often credited with opening doors for Hispanics with often credited with opening doors for Hispanics with the now classic “Zoot Suit” in 1980.  In 1987 he wrote and directed “La Bamba,” the story of 1950s singer Richie Valens (real name Ricardo Valenzuela), which made over $100 million at the box office.  

Jennifer Lopez, who played the young mother in “Mi Familia,” played the grown Selena in the movie of the same name, and starred with Robin Williams in “Jack,” in “The Money Train” with Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, and is the female lead in the current hit, “Anaconda.”  She is one of only five females on Hispanic magazine’s list of Hollywood’s most powerful, along with producer Nely Galan, writer/producer Josefina Lopez, and Cameron Diaz.  Lopez appeared this spring on the Academy Awards announcing the Oscar-nominated song “Because You Loved Me” from the movie “Up Close and Personal.”

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Producer Moctezuma Esparza first made a name for himself in the 1980s with “Gettysburg,” “The Battle of Gregorio Cortez” and “The Milagro Beanfield War,” the story  of a small town’s struggle against big developers in northern New Mexico.  Esparza produced “Selena,” which grossed $21.7 million in its first 10 days.  His next big project will be a film on the life of the United Farm Workers leader, Cesar Chavez (See related story, p. 4)  Luis Valdez is currently developing the screenplay for this project commissioned by Warner Brothers.

 El Pasoans have their foot in the door as well.  Laura Martinez Herring, the former Miss El Paso, was the first Latina who went on to win the Miss Texas and Miss USA pageants.  She attended Loretto and Radford schools in El Paso.  In a recent interview with Claudia Arroyo for the Juárez newspaper El Norte, Herring talked optimistically about the changes occurring in Hollywood.  “Everything is changing and that makes all of us Latinos who are working here happy.” 

Herring, who has appeared in television series such as “Baywatch” and “General Hospital,” now is a regular on the daytime drama “Sunset Beach,” playing Paula.  “Sunset Beach” can be seen at 10 a.m. on Channel 9 Mondays through Fridays.  

Lupe Ontiveros, another former El Paso resident, recently played Yolanda Saldivar, the convicted murder of Tejano singer Selena  in the movie version of her life.  Ontiveros graduated from El Paso High School and visits El Paso for family gatherings and to see her father, J. M. Moreno, and other relatives.

Ontiveros played the older sister, Irene Sanchez, in “Mi Familia,” and also had parts in “Bound by Honor,” “El Norte,” “Zoot Suit,” and several others over the past 27 years.  She has appeared in several television shows and is now working on a television pilot sitcom about Hispanics due to air in September.  Ontiveros is a member of the Latino Theater Lab at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum and frequently performs on stage.

Another El Paso success story is Cesar Alejandro, who appears to be on the brink of cracking into Hollywood’s big time.  Alejandro is best known for starring directing and producing made-for-video low-budget action movies in Spanish.  But he currently is making bilingual movies (English and Spanish versions) for Peliculas Alexandria (Alexandria Films), a company he and his wife formed in 1992

Alejandro’s latest film and details the vicious cycle of gang membership through generations.  It is scheduled to open soon at an El Paso theater.  It then will move on to other states like Arizona, California, Illinois, Oklahoma, New York and Florida.

Two other successful Hispanic El Pasoans in Hollywood include actress Ana Alicia and stunt man Jimmy Ortega.  Ana Alicia, who starred in the 1980s nighttime drama “Falcon Crest,”  attended Coronado High School.  She played in the movie “Halloween II,” the television detective series “Murder She Wrote” and others.  Ortega works regularly in movies and television.  

While more Latinos are succeeding in Hollywood, producer David Valdes says there is a need for better scripts portraying Hispanics.  At a 1994 screenwriter’s conference, he said, “I have seen a lot of Latino scripts come across my desk, but I have yet to see one I could justify taking to my people and producing.”  

George Hadley-Garcia in his book Hollywood Hispano best sums up the problem of trying to eliminate stereotypes of Hispanics in television and films when he says:  “Hollywood has not explored the world of Hispanics who are rich, educated, middle-class, who are gay or bisexual or who do not speak Spanish, who are 1’ 5” in height (not 5’ 1”)….These people and stories have not been written yet and probably will not be written if not by Hispanics.”

Things do see to be changing or Hispanics in Hollywood as more and more Hispanics enter and excel in the television and film industry. With recent movies like “Mi Familia” and “Selena” making a respectable showing at the box office, perhaps the corner has been turned.

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Latinos in Hollywood Sources

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