When I think of actress Lupe Ontiveros, who passed away from liver cancer at 69 Thursday night, what stays with me most is her strength.
Her women tended to be strong and resilient, no-nonsense types, whether they were running a theater company as she did in "Chuck & Buck," dealing with a rebellious daughter in "Real Women Have Curves," or picking up after some well-heeled white family, as she did in"The Goonies."There was a "I have seen it all" quality that danced in her eyes, more bemused by the frailties of the human race than bitter about them. When her patience ran out, at least on screen, she was a force to be reckoned with.
Ontiveros came to acting by accident. After moving to California as a young wife, she was considering nursing school when she happened across an ad for "extras." The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history. She worked constantly, moving between film, TV and the stage, until she couldn't.
PHOTOS: Notable deaths from classic TV
Earlier this year she was defying the disease that would fell her, finishing up work on a couple of films, and her presence was felt in the final episodes of ABC's"Desperate Housewives."Though her character "Mama" Solis had died a few seasons earlier, she turned up in flashbacks that reminded viewers how persistent a mother-in-law can be in plotting ways to take down a much disliked daughter-in-law, in this case Eva Longoria's Gaby.
The role would earn Ontiveros an Emmy nomination.
The actress' first official credit was as a maid in an episode of"Charlie's Angels"in 1976. She played a maid so often — roughly 150 times over her long career — that she was asked to narrate the 2005 documentary "Maid in America." If you listen to it now, it is classic Ontiveros — a voice filled with compassion and empathy, but proud and strong.
Ontiveros embraced her Latin heritage, but refused to be solely defined by it. The child of immigrant parents, she was born in El Paso and grew up watching their struggle to build a better life for the family. She was quiet in her activism, yet never shy about calling for characters that didn't play to ethnic stereotypes. It is the reason she took the part in "Chuck & Buck" sight unseen, because nothing about it was tied to being Latina. It just required a tough woman, and that she could do.
Even when the parts she took on did feed the stereotype, she never did. Her resistance came through in how she played the maids of the movie and TV world — real people, with dignity and honor. The actress brought a human face to the people sometimes overlooked, the men and women who do the hard work of cleaning up, parking cars, bussing tables, watching children.
Her favorite role, she has said, was her turn as a seamstress who helps a newly arrived immigrant girl in filmmaker Gregory Nava's 1983 "El Norte" about immigrants going "north" to escape unbearable poverty and political strife. The story itself as much as the role made her love the film.
When a part came along that would give her room to breathe life into it, she took full advantage. As America Ferrera's overbearing mom, and a sweatshop worker, in "Real Women Have Curves," she had a way of brooking no disagreements. It was a steamroller effect that made you pity anyone who went against her wishes — especially her daughter.
PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2012
Ontiveros was far more chilling as the obsessive fan who murdered the young Tejano singer in the 1997 film "Selena," also directed by Nava. It is always fascinating to watch actors as they find and define various characters. In "Selena," there is a heaviness she brings, an emotional weight that bore down on her Yolanda Saldivar in every scene. You can see a lifetime of repressed anger from being overlooked radiating off the screen.
Whether she was playing the light or dark side of humanity, the sheer force of Ontiveros' personality could always be felt. Even cast as a maid, she did not fade into the background. The words she was given to say might be deferential, her eyes never were.
Ontiveros wasn't a great beauty, but there was great character in her face. As the years went on, it was a face that seemed weathered by real life, real experiences, and she wore it beautifully.