What a bad week for Americana–we lost Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut in space as I write about in Gay Sally Ride: ¿Y Qué? to cancer. Then Sherman Hemsley passed of “natural causes” in his El Paso, Texas home.
Ah si, George Jefferson of The Jeffersons, a ’70s and ’80s sitcom about an upwardly mobile black family immortalized by the show’s gospel-inspired song, “Movin’ On Up”:
These deaths have an eery connection with a third much-less talked about passing. Actress Lupe Ontiveros.
Hollywood’s iconic maid.
Ontiveros, who was born in El Paso lost her battle to liver cancer in the Los Angeles area, came to acting after attending college and a stint as a social worker. Her craft was developed both on screen and on stage, having acted on Broadway in Zoot Suit. She was a founding member of the Latino Theater Company. Her roles ranged from the crazed fan who killed tejano sensation Selena, to the plotting mother-in-law of Eva Longoria‘s character on Desperate Housewives, to the overbearing mother to America Ferrera’s character in Real Women Have Curves.
But Ontiveros is best known as a maid, cast again and again in a Hollywood that didn’t see her range or allow her to fulfill her dream of playing Dolores Huerta (a role American Ferrera landed in the forthcoming movie of the labor and civil rights icon) or the 17th Century Mexican savant nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Ontiveros is not a victim, having embraced her “breaks,” cashing in on being typecast to play a ‘chacha more than 150 times, but trying to bring dimension, what she called heart and soul, to each cleaning lady character. Ontiveros even turned philosophical, saying she was proud to represent people who bust hump to ensure our homes are clean, in order, welcoming, indeed ready for us to say to our guests mi casa es su casa.
Rita Hayworth, Desi Arnaz, and Martin Sheen to name a few Hispanic actors prove our Hollywood presence spanning decades. Yet, Latinos are glaringly absent as leading actors, studio execs, and directors as the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts has quantified in reports and tried to rectify with internships and apprenticeships that create a “pipeline” to the top for Hispanic talent. You will see them clustered as the credits roll on–gaffers, grips, and although there isn’t one given for them, probably the help.
I’m not hatin’, just observing that media are retro and stubborn bastions of power that beam messages that shape culture, perception, and opportunity. With that power comes responsibility to accurately represent a community–in all its dimensions.
Earlier this year, I wrote and spoke on radio about Eva Longoria sparking a controversy for peddling Devious Maids, a TV show that was canned by ABC but rescued for production by Lifetime. How could she?, thought many Latino advocates who see that with the community’s demographic boom and trillion dollar buying power, “our time is now.” As opposed to being typecast or “pigeon-holed”, we can achieve parity with the mainstream because our potential is matched today by credentials.
That Longoria is able to team up with a veteran TV producer and sell this show is a choice and luxury those that came before her didn’t have.
Perhaps we have come a long way, thanks to the struggles of those who blazed trails like Lupe Ontiveros.
Who will take us further?
Do we conform and stay here, happy with the scraps thrown from the adult table or content with the place we’ve been assigned?
Or should we host the dinner party?