Latino legends helped pave the way in Hollywood, but the road is still rocky
Latinos have been a part of Hollywood since the silent movie era. But they continue to be underrepresented in front of and behind the cameras. USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report show that Latino actors get just 7% of film leads.
In the early days of cinema and to this day, Anglo actors played so-called Spanish roles, sometimes in brownface. USC professor Laura Isabel Serna says Latinos were often used as background extras, wrangling horses for Western pictures. Luis Reyes, author of a new book called Viva Hollywood, says Latino actors who did get speaking parts were typecast in cliched roles.
“You know, the stereotypes: Oh, you’re Latino? You’ll play the bandido,” Reyes says. “There was a guy that played a bandido so often he had his own costume. It was about earning a living. ‘I got black hair, I look dark. You wanted me to be a cantina girl? No problem.'”
Hollywood stars Ramon Novarro and his second cousin Dolores del Rio got their starts in silent pictures and were promoted as “Latin lovers.” Both came from influential aristocratic families in Mexico. Navarro’s family had moved to Los Angeles to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1913. He went from being an extra to starring in the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Among his hits is the 1931 film Mata Hari with Greta Garbo.
Dolores del Rio was also recruited to Hollywood to be a sex symbol. Her famous friends Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich reportedly regarded her as the most beautiful woman in Hollywood. Del Rio starred in silent films such as High Steppers, Pals First and Ramona. When talking pictures took over, she was also a success, after proving she could sing.
“She was seen as an exotic woman,” says Cynthia Prida Bravo, consul for cultural affairs for the Consulate General of Mexico. “She played the European, very sophisticated woman and she played the Indigenous woman. She was so sure of herself. That’s why we’re still celebrating her almost after a hundred years.”
Serna further explains del Rio’s appeal in Hollywood. “She’s exotic looking, but she’s not particularly dark. I think that works for the studios, as it continues to work for the studios today. So she’s portrayed as being very ‘acceptable.’ And she was very insistent that she didn’t want to play roles that she considered stereotypical.”
There were other tropes used then, and even now. For comedic effect, there was the “hot-tempered, fast-talking, spicy wildcat” Latina. Actress Lupe Vélez, known as Lupe “Tabasco” Vélez, starred in at least eight Mexican Spitfire movies in the 1930s and ’40s.
Then there were the sultry femme fatales not billed as Hispanic. Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino, whose dad was from Spain, and Raquel Welch, born Jo Raquel Tejada, whose father was Bolivian.
“Everybody changed their names in those days,” says Reyes. He adds that the studios may have anglicized names to appeal to white audiences, but that didn’t mean the actors were ashamed of their heritage. And some, like del Rio, returned to their roots. In the 1940s, she helped launch Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema. Among her most famous films were María Candelaria, the first Mexican film screened at the Cannes International Film Festival, and Las Abandonadas, for which she won an Ariel, Mexico’s equivalent of an Oscar.
But in Hollywood, it took years for the Academy Awards to give its first Oscar to a Latino actor. Puerto Rican José Ferrer got it for playing an adventurer, swordsman and poet in the 1950 film Cyrano de Bergerac. Two years later, Mexican American actor Anthony Quinn won his first Oscar for Viva Zapata!
Actor Edward James Olmos credits Oscar winners Ferrer and Quinn for paving the way for later generations to play serious, non-Latino roles.
Still, like those before him, Olmos says he was often cast in cliched roles, but he says that didn’t mean he played them “stereotypically.”
He says the head of casting at MGM asked him to change his name. So he did, from Eddie Olmos to Edward James Olmos.
“I am a Latino actor and I’m proud of it,” says Olmos. “I said no to more things than I said yes. My intention was to tell stories about me and my culture.”
The actor born in East LA starred in some of the most iconic Chicano films, including Zoot Suit, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Stand and Deliver and Selena. In 1997, he helped found the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival to showcase the work of Latino and Latinx creators. He also helped start a youth cinema project for children from fourth grade through college.
Before that, in 1962, Rita Moreno was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar for her role as Anita in the 1961 film West Side Story.
Moreno was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York and in Hollywood played a lot of what she called “Conchita Lolita” Latina roles or the generic ethnic.
“I never ever was able to do a part without assuming some kind of an accent,” she told NPR in 2011, adding that even for the Nuyorican musical West Side Story there were challenges. “We all had to wear one color makeup, very very dark. And I remember asking the makeup man in real annoyance, why can’t the makeup match our different skin tones because Hispanics are many different — some of us are very fair.”
Moreno says it took years to get another good role after her Oscar. But she persevered, acting on television and onstage. And now, at age 90, Rita Moreno continues to act in Hollywood. She was in last year’s West Side Story remake, where newcomer Ariana DeBose played Anita.
DeBose made history at this year’s Academy Awards, where she accepted her Oscar.
“You see a queer, openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina who found her strength in life through art, and that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said onstage.
“All these beautiful Latinx faces, we got great representation tonight, people,” he said, before reminding the audience of the legend that the Oscar statuette was modeled on Emilio “El Indio” Fernández in 1928.
For years, Leguizamo has railed about Hollywood’s limited opportunities for Latino actors and stories. He recently shared his outrage on social media when film producers cast white actor James Franco to play Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
“I grew up in an era where Latin people couldn’t play Latin people on film, where Charlton Heston played a Mexican, where Pacino played Cuban and Puerto Rican,” Leguizamo said on Instagram. “They told you to change your name. Stay out of the sun, that only white Latinos or white-passing Latinos will get jobs. I’ve been told so many times you can’t have two Latin people in the movie, otherwise, people think it’s a Latin movie, you know how, whatever. So no, no appropriating our stories? No, no more of that. I’m done with that.”
This story is part of our five-part Latinos in Hollywood series, which pays tribute to some of the legends and pioneers in the film industry and examines how some Latinx actors, film composers and directors are getting or creating more opportunities.