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Latino Actors Changing Hollywood

John Leguizamo, Rita Moreno, Self Tanning Product

Since the first cameras rolled, Latinos have helped shape one of the 20th Century’s most enduring art forms. John Leguizamo probably summed up today’s acting Latino best when he was quoted as saying, “As Latin artists, we have a responsibility to open doors for others. And if the doors don’t open, we have a responsibility to crowbar our way in.

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

Portraits of Hispanics as lazy, criminal, or good for work only 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, though, and are taking giant strides to change the stereotypes that Hollywood has perpetuated for decades.

Hollywood’s First Bad Guy

Who hasn’t seen some of the first roles Hispanics played? Stereotypical drunken males, and seductress females who almost always fell in love with an Anglo co-star. In the first days of Latin Influence within Hollywood, there was no role for Hispanic actresses outside of romance or sex. In Luis Reyes and Peter Rubie’s book, “Hispanics in Hollywood”, famous Latino actress, singer and dancer Rita Moreno is quoted as saying, “We played the roles we were given, no matter how demanding they might have been.

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The earliest silent movies were often overblown melodramas pitting “good guys” vs. “bad guys”. Without a doubt, Mexicans were most often cast as villains, and were often referred to “greasers”; a name derived from the grime Mexicans accumulated while laboring as boat loaders. However, as the Hollywood stereotype of Latinos as “dark, dumb, and violent” increased, so did threats of boycotts to U.S. films by Latin-American countries. President Woodrow Wilson actually went public, imploring Hollywood to “please be a little kinder to the Mexicans.

A handful of Latino actors made a name for themselves in these early days, though. Dolores del Rio, Jose Ferrer, and Desi Arnaz were a few of them. One of the most well-known and most often overlooked as a Latino actress was Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Cansino. Hayworth was one of the original Latino actors to give under Hollywood pressure and died her hair, changed her name, and even underwent electrolysis to look more “white.

El Futuro

Today, Latino stars like Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, Edward James Olmos, Jennifer Lopez, and the fast-talking, charismatic John Leguizamo light up Hollywood. While more Latinos are succeeding in Hollywood, no small few others feel the need to conform to their Anglo peers; take for instance one Ramon Estevez, a modern actor of notable fame. Don’t recognize the name? Perhaps you will know this actor better as Martin Sheen.

For more than a century now, gifted artists have struggled to bring a measure of reality to their screen images, and transcend the clichéd roles that often determine how other Americans, and the world, will view Latinos. Today’s generation of talent stands on the foundation built by the first Latinos in Hollywood.

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With the more recent introduction of films that cast Latinos in average, everyday roles, the future is looking much brighter for Latino actors. Think of movies like Spy Kids, in which the lead male actor was Antonio Banderas, a heroic father. Just a few years ago, Banderas’ role would undoubtedly have been held by someone with a more Caucasian look.

“The human experience is the human experience, no matter what color, race, religion, whatever you are. It’s the same damn thing, with different packaging. All the leading roles are opening up. You don’t have to be a drug dealer or gang member, or the villain of a movie, or die in the first 30 seconds. You can last the whole movie.” – John Leguizamo


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