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'Frida and Diego': A Personal Stirring

August 17, 1992

In response to the Counterpunch "Frida's Story: Artistic Choice or Cultural Catastrophe?" (Aug. 10): The controversy over "Frida and Diego" continues to stir deep within me.

When I first heard of the project, I knew that as an actor and as a Chicana, I would be overlooked. I had worked with Luis Valdez in "Zoot Suit" (I played Della in L.A., New York and the film) and hoped I would receive, at least, a courtesy call. But I was not surprised by its absence. I've been around, working in and out of this industry for 15 years.

Of course, Luis needed a name. And it's not his fault that I or any number of my colleagues do not possess the name that he could take to the bank. I wanted to be angry with Luis. I was. But that was too easy. He is not responsible for the system here.

To be perfectly honest, my first reaction was racist. "Oh, of course. They hired an Italian." My daily reality is that I can plead all I want but that I am not granted the privilege of reading for "Italian" roles. My Italian and Italian-American friends do not suffer the reverse situation.

I am a trained actor, but in order to play Roxane in "Cyrano" or Kate in "Other People's Money," I had to go to Minneapolis, Minn.

Something happened when I did those plays. I saw myself as an actor, not a Chicana-actor. It scared me and freed me and has filled me with ambivalent emotions. I don't want anyone telling me I can't be in a play by Anton Chekhov because I'm not Russian. Yet, when auditioning for "Hispanic" roles, how many times have I been asked about my background and been glad someone was being careful? But still my stomach turned.

"What's your nationality?" "Chicano," I say. Blank stares. "Mexican," I reply to the confused silence. "Really?," they question with a twinkle in their eye, "but you look Italian."

Well, I'm not and why should it matter? In the best of worlds, art belongs to the world, and an artist's ethnicity only enriches, and never restricts, a creative undertaking.

I am deeply concerned with the nurturing, preservation and evolution of Chicano culture. As an actor, I don't want to be denied access to roles that speak to my heart through the pulse that is my culture, that is my heart. At the same time, I am a creature, human, with an imagination and emotions capable of resonating with those of other cultures.

The difficulty Luis has had with funding and casting is a very sad commentary on what little progress has been made since Delores Del Rio packed her bags and went back to Mexico. But Luis and I and some associated with the film are Chicano. We can't pack our bags and go home. We are home.

Those of us not in Luis' shoes were foolish to think he might be able to rise above the established system's injustices and inadequacies overnight. He, on the other hand, was foolish to assume we would not feel betrayed somehow.

ROSE PORTILLO

Los Angeles

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