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In the Game at Last

A new generation is boldly defying the old stereotype of the Hollywood Latina as maid or seductress. But rather than protest, they're letting their work do most of the talking.

March 16, 1997|Eric Gutierrez | Eric Gutierrez is an occasional contributor to Calendar

'For your consideration."

That one phrase, as brief and subtly ingratiating as the maitre d' at Indochine, filled the trade papers earlier this year once the conga line of little gold statuettes began dancing in Hollywood's collective conscience. In the Jan. 10 edition of the Hollywood Reporter, that phrase was bannered across the seductively serene features of Elizabeth Pena, touted for a best supporting actress Oscar nomination.

Pena, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and winner of a Bravo Award (from the National Council of La Raza) for her role in John Sayles' "Lone Star," was passed over by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Her rich, humane portrayal of Pilar, a Mexican American mother, schoolteacher and lover, was a standout performance in a three-dimensional role, a Latin woman playing a Latin woman who isn't a maid or the proverbial "hot tamale."

It hasn't been since the 1940s that so many actresses of Latin descent have been on the brink of major Hollywood stardom. They owe their rising profile to talent, years of hard work and an evolving zeitgeist within the Latino filmmaking community, if not in the rules of Hollywood itself.

"I think we're at the advent of a period where we will once again have bankable Latino stars," says Gilbert Avila, executive administrator of affirmative action at the Screen Actors Guild. "Young, talented performers like Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez who are breaking out in non-Latino-themed films have done their homework and are now ready to be co-stars and stars in big-budget films."

What explains the growing number of roles for forthrightly Latin actresses who aren't playing spitfires, domestics or even particularly ethnic roles? Is Hollywood's lack of imagination about what's sexy, profitable and what the public wants to see actually changing?

"We're what's changing," Pena says. "We're showing more self-respect in the way we handle roles and offers. I've seen actors fight to put flesh on roles, refusing to play a cartoon character."

"I've had arguments with casting directors and turned down roles that reinforce the stereotypes," says Constance Marie, the 28-year-old actress who ages 20 years playing Selena's mother in the Warner Bros. biopic opening Friday. "It's not easy, because I have to pay my rent, but if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

Salma Hayek, star of "Fools Rush In," agrees: "There's more of us who keep fighting. We're working because we're not letting what others assume about us define us. As long as we don't let the big Hollywood machine rule the way we think, what we achieve isn't limited by them."

With the opening of "Selena," a major studio project with Latinos in the key creative seats in front of and behind the camera, and the million-dollar payday for Jennifer Lopez as the slain tejano sensation, Latin actresses are more in demand than ever. Their bankability is unproven, but in Hollywood, as in politics, perception is reality.

But it is, ironically, Hollywood's perception that is perhaps the biggest obstacle to all that promise paying off.

Lopez, 26, who is already benefiting from the buzz surrounding "Selena," is an example of the industry's enduring Catch-22 facing young women of color.

Lopez's career had already been building steadily over the last few years with featured roles in big-budget studio products like "Money Train" and "Jack." When it came to casting the hotly contested role of Selena, the beloved young singer who was slain by an employee in March 1995, director Gregory Nava knew exactly what he wanted.

"I like Latino casts for artistic, not political, reasons," he explains. "Casting Jennifer gave me a head start as a director. She already had the heartbeat. Preview audiences love her for the same reason audiences loved Selena. It's because she's wonderful, her talent and humanity shine through--not because she's Latin."

Lopez's management declined requests for an interview with the actress for this article, wanting to avoid having her characterized as a Latina actress. It's not that Lopez doesn't want to be known as Latin--she hasn't changed her name or turned down the most high-profile Latin role in the biggest Latin-themed picture since "La Bamba." It's that she and her managers don't want her to be limited by her ethnicity. The fear is that she will be locked in Hollywood's perception as only Latin.

"She should absolutely be positioned as a leading lady and they should insist she do crossover projects, but she's playing Selena, for God's sake," says actress Rose Portillo, who starred in "Zoot Suit," the first Latino-themed film made by Latinos to send ripples through Hollywood.

"The problem is the belief that if she speaks out about being Latin as a Latin, she won't be considered a leading actress and get to compete in the big leagues."

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