By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By 1975, she was pursuing theater in earnest, almost always with an activist edge. She helped start the Latino Theater Company, acted in plays with the Latino theater collective Nosotros, and eventually found her way to a role at the Mark Taper Forum, as the mother in Luis Valdez‘s Zoot Suit, with which she went on to a successful run on Broadway. She had not yet left her job as a social worker in Compton at the South-Central Los Angeles Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled.
“We created a Latino ensemble,” she says, “because we wanted to put our own messages on the stage, messages we knew were not going to be heard without us.” Writers such as Evelina Fernandez, writer of the independent film Luminarias, and Valdez himself came out of that effort. “I’ve never left those issues, those concerns, never left . . . how can I say what it is I haven‘t left? I’m not going to say my barrio, because I‘ve never lived in a barrio. I hate that word to begin with, it has such a negative connotation to it. But I’ve never left my town behind, never abandoned my community.” She still lives in the same house in which she raised her three children, in Pico Rivera -- “the Beverly Hills of Chicanos,” she explains, and says that no measure of lucre or fame could lure her to Bel-Air. “That‘s not living. That’s just existing behind high walls.”
Among Latinos, Ontiveros is probably best known for playing Selena‘s killer in the movie about the murdered singer, but she will have their attention again when the bilingual HBO feature Real Women Have Curves premieres in April. In the film, based on the play by Josefina Lopez, she co-stars as the immigrant mother of an academically gifted and rebellious daughter -- a role so unrelentingly bitter that only a comedian of her caliber could play it lovingly, and with humor. For the performance, she and her young co-star, America Ferrera, shared a Best Dramatic Actress award at “Gringolandia,” better known in the Anglo world as the Sundance Film Festival.
Miguel Arleta remembers sharing a table with Ontiveros and his agent, a woman from William Morris, at an awards dinner. “When I introduced them, Lupe just turned to my agent and said, ’Why the hell aren‘t you getting more work for Latina actors?’ She just tore into her. And she completely got away with it. My agent said, ‘Well, you’re right. I‘ll try to be more aware of that.’”
For a middle-aged Latina who stands a mere 4-feet-11 and started acting in her mid-30s, Ontiveros has done remarkably well, but it has entailed some compromise with an industry she considers hobbled when it comes to portraying Latinos. “Hollywood,” she told another journalist recently, “is chasing its tail.” When I ask her to elaborate, she shifts into the second person, as if studio heads have materialized in the room with us. “You just go around in circles! You‘re always saying, ’We‘re trying, we’re trying, 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. There‘s something here between the mouth here and the tail, in between here’” -- she brings the tips of her fingers to her solar plexus -- “‘that can function.’”
She has turned down roles she considers hateful and simplistic, but she has also played many -- such as the happy housekeeper in the Spielberg-produced Goonies -- she calls derogatory (“derogatory, because for a long time I was not seen beyond them”). And while she might disparage the writing, she does not resent the work. “I‘ve had a hell of a good time playing those maids,” she says. “Each one to me is very special. Her own heart and soul lingers with my heart and soul. No matter how much I resent the stupidity that is written into them, the audacity that the industry has when they portray us in such a nonsensical, idiotic, such -- oh my God! -- such a degrading manner, still, my humor survives in these maids. I’m very proud of them.
”And,“ she adds, ”blessed be God for those subservient roles, because if I would‘ve been a spoiled child, a beautiful T&A kind of woman, skinny and young and what have you, I don’t think I would have gotten the soul of this industry. I wouldn‘t have understood the basic foundation of what this business is about, which is humanity, and character. And if I would’ve put on my high airs and not taken them,“ she says, ”I wouldn‘t be where I am today. Most of all, I wouldn’t be in a postion to retire someday.“
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