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Lupe Ontiveros (1942-2012): An appreciation

July 27, 2012

Lupe Ontiveros belongs to that honored, yet often underappreciated, vanishing breed of character actors that have populated Hollywood films since the silent era.

Moviegoers have seen Ontiveros more times than they might imagine. The Mexican American actress played in so many films and TV programs that even she lost count. For many Mexican Americans, she was also our Katy Jurado, our Rita Moreno.

If her roles were mainly those of the Mexican maid, then we all have our favorite moments when she often brought a sense of recognition, of humor that made those roles just as memorable as those of the lead actors.

And yet, those roles often led to bigger parts as mothers, tías, and in some cases, killers. Her Selena role as Yolanda Saldívar, the woman convicted of killing the Tejana music star, was so convincing that fans of the slain singer still stopped her and asked, “Why did you do it?” Ontiveros would sardonically reply, “Somebody had to do it.” And when that wouldn’t work, she’d add, “They paid me enough money.”

Born Guadalupe Moreno in El Paso, she grew up in a middle class Mexican American home. She studied at Texas Woman’s University, married and moved to California and was the mother of three children. Two were born with hearing impairments, and one is actually deaf. With her degree, she was a social worker for almost 20 years, an advocate for prevention of domestic violence, AIDS awareness and education, and children’s rights and services.

Then she read a newspaper ad and learned they were looking for extras of a certain age for a film. By her own estimation, she was cast in the role of a maid over 150 times. And she often quoted African American actress Hattie McDaniel, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind: “It’s better to play a maid than be one.”

Ontiveros welcomed the opportunity to bring dignity and respect to minor roles and give a face to those characters that were often the only ones Latina actresses could find in the film industry.

My favorite performance is her role as La Nacha in Gregory Nava’s El Norte. In the film, she shows the young Guatemalan immigrant how to wash and dry clothes in a Beverly Hills household. It is both heartbreaking and hilarious how the young woman finds it impossible to use a washing machine and dryer and ultimately resorts to the old fashion way of washing and drying clothes. She worked with Nava again in Mi Familia/My Family and the aforementioned Selena.

Another favorite was her role as the scheming and evil Doña Rosa in the screen version of Tomás Rivera’s classic novel …And The Earth Did Not Swallow Him directed by San Antonio’s Severo Pérez.

To many, Ontiveros’ role as the Spanish-speaking maid in The Goonies was a star turn for the actress. The DVD release of the Richard Donner film (which was produced by Steven Spielberg) even features Ontiveros in the voice-over commentaries.

On the stage, she played the role of the mother in Luis Valdez’s play and film, Zoot Suit. She was part of the original cast that went to Broadway.

The acting honors came from many parts of the film industry. Her role in Chuck and Buck allowed Ontiveros to play a tough theater director not defined by her being Latina. As the mother in Real Women Have Curves she won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance (she shared the prize with America Ferrera). She also had a meaty part in the Oscar-winning As Good as It Gets. On primetime television she received an Emmy nomination for her recurring role of Juanita Solis on Desperate Housewives.

Her own production company produced Universal Signs about and for the deaf community.

Ontiveros was working until the end. This year alone she appeared on TV’s Rob in a recurring role as Abuelita; reprised her role on Desperate Housewives, and guest starred on Common Law. She had just finished work on On the Run and was filming Aztec Warrior. Ontiveros was also attached to indie film Land of the Free (in preproduction) on human trafficking as Lissette, a role she had been passionate to do. However, it was never to be.

Ontiveros was once asked to name the roles she dreamed of playing. She lit up:
“A judge, a lesbian, Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz, a politician.” It will fall on the next generation of Latina actors to attain those roles and expand the image of Latinos both in front and behind the cameras. Ontiveros often single-handedly stepped up to the challenge in a business that often relegated Latinos to stereotypes. She did play “150 maids” with class, but she did much more: she raised the bar for Latina actors and will be sorely missed. — Gregg Barrios

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