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Latinos have been a part of Hollywood since the silent movie era. But they continue to be underrepresented in front of and behind the cameras. USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report show that Latino actors only get 7% of movies.
In the early days of cinema and even today, Anglo-Saxon actors played so-called Spanish roles, sometimes in brownface. USC professor Laura Isabel Serna says Latinos were often used as background extras, competing for horses for Western imagery. Luis Reyes, author of a new book titled Long live Hollywoodsays Latino actors who got speaking roles were cast in cliched roles.
“You know the stereotypes: Oh, you’re Latino? You’ll play bandido,” Reyes says. “There was a guy who played a bandido so often that he had his own costume. It was to make a living. ‘I have black hair, I look dark. You wanted me to be a cantina girl? No problem.'”
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Hollywood stars Ramon Novarro and his second cousin Dolores del Rio got their start in silent films and were promoted as “Latin sweethearts”. Both came from influential aristocratic families in Mexico. Navarro’s family had moved to Los Angeles to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1913. He went from being an extra to starring in the 1925 silent film. Ben-Hur: A Story of Christ. Among his successes is the 1931 film Mata Hari with Greta Garbo.
Dolores del Rio was also recruited into Hollywood to be a sex symbol. Her famous friends Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich considered her the most beautiful woman in Hollywood. Del Rio starred in silent films such as step by step tops, Friends first and ramona. When talkies took over, she also enjoyed success, after proving she could sing.
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“She was seen as an exotic woman,” said Cynthia Prida Bravo, consul for cultural affairs at the Consulate General of Mexico. “She was playing the very sophisticated European woman and she was playing the native woman. She was so sure of herself. That’s why we still celebrate her almost after a hundred years.”
Serna further explains del Rio’s appeal to Hollywood. “It looks exotic, but it’s not particularly dark. I think it works for studios, as it continues to work for studios today. So it’s described as very ‘acceptable’. And she was very insistent that she didn’t want to play roles that she considered stereotypical.”
There were other tropes used then, and even now. For comedic effect, there was the “hot-tempered, quick-talking, spicy” Latina. Actress Lupe Vélez, known as Lupe “Tabasco” Vélez, starred in at least eight Mexican Spitfire films in the 1930s and 1940s.
Then there were the sultry femme fatales not presented as Hispanic. Rita Hayworth, née Margarita Carmen Cansino, whose father was Spanish, and Raquel Welch, née Jo Raquel Tejada, whose father was Bolivian.
“Everyone changed their name around that time,” Reyes explains. He adds that studios may have anglicized names to appeal to white audiences, but that doesn’t mean actors are ashamed of their heritage. And some, like del Rio, have gone back to their roots. In the 1940s, she helped launch the golden age of Mexican cinema. Among his most famous films were Maria Candelariathe first Mexican film screened at the Cannes International Film Festival, and The Abandonedsfor which she won an Ariel, the Mexican equivalent of an Oscar.
But in Hollywood, it took years for the Oscars to award its first Oscar to a Latino actor. Puerto Rican José Ferrer got it for playing an adventurer, swordsman and poet in the 1950 film Cyrano de Bergerac. Two years later, Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn won his first Oscar for Long live Zapata!
Actor Edward James Olmos thanks Oscar winners Ferrer and Quinn for paving the way for future generations to take on serious, non-Latino roles.
Still, like those before him, Olmos says he was often cast in cliched roles, but he says that didn’t mean he played them “in a stereotypical way.”
He says the MGM casting executive asked him to change his name. He did it, from Eddie Olmos to Edward James Olmos.
“I’m a Latin actor and I’m proud of it,” says Olmos. “I said no to more things than I said yes. My intention was to tell stories about me and my culture.”
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The East LA-born actor has starred in some of Chicano’s most iconic movies, including zoo costume, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Stand up and deliver and Selena. In 1997, he helped found the Los Angeles International Latin Film Festival to showcase the work of Latino and Latinx creators. He also helped start a youth film project for fourth-year college kids.
Before that, in 1962, Rita Moreno was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar for her role as Anita in the 1961 film. West Side Story.
Moreno was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York and Hollywood played a lot of what she called “Conchita Lolita” Latin roles or generic ethnicity.
“I’ve never been able to do a role without taking on some kind of accent,” she told NPR in 2011, adding that even for the Nuyorican musical West Side Story there were challenges. “We all had to wear one color makeup, very, very dark. And I remember asking the makeup artist, very annoyed, why didn’t the makeup match our different skin tones because Hispanics are so different – some of us are very clear.”
Moreno says it took years to land another good role after his Oscar. But she persevered, acting on television and on stage. And now, at 90, Rita Moreno continues to perform in Hollywood. She was in the last year West Side Story remake, where newcomer Ariana DeBose played Anita.
DeBose made history at this year’s Oscars, where she accepted her Oscar.
“You see a queer, openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina who has found her strength in life through art, and that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said onstage. .
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Actor John Leguizamo was also on stage at this year’s Oscars celebration, which included an all-Latin performance from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s animated musical film. Encanto.
“All those beautiful Latinx faces, we had a great performance tonightpeople,” he said, before reminding the audience of the legend that the Oscars statuette was modeled after Emilio “El Indio” Fernández in 1928.
For years, Leguizamo has spoken out against Hollywood’s limited opportunities for Latino actors and stories. He recently shared his outrage on social media when film producers cast white actor James Franco to play Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
“I grew up in a time when Latinos couldn’t play Latinos in movies, where Charlton Heston played a Mexican, where Pacino played a Cuban and a Puerto Rican,” Leguizamo said on Instagram. “They told you to change your name. Stay out of the sun, that only white Latinos or transient Latinos will get jobs. I’ve been told so many times that you can’t have two Latinos in the movie, otherwise people think it’s a Latin movie, you know how, whatever. So no, no appropriation of our stories? No, no more of that. I’m done with that.
This story is part of our five-part Latinos in Hollywood series, which pays tribute to some film industry legends and pioneers and examines how some Latinx actors, songwriters and directors get or create more opportunities.