Edward James Olmos on Hollywood's view of Latino actors
Edward James Olmos in Los Angeles on Aug. 27, 2018. Whether in his new movie "Windows on the World" or his work with children, the actor aims to give voice to the marginalized, something he thinks the film world should consider. Emily Berl/The New York Times.
by Carlos Aguilar
NEW YORK(NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In the new drama Windows on the World, Edward James Olmos plays an unauthorized busboy working at the restaurant that was destroyed on 9/11. The moving immigration story, which debuted for free this week on the Latino-focused streaming site Vix, is just the latest turn in a storied career that includes an Oscar nomination for Olmos work in Stand and Deliver (1988), making him one of the few American-born Latino actors ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Outspoken on the issue of representation in Hollywood, Olmos believes the industry doesnt understand the distinct worldviews of Latinos born and raised in the United States versus those from Latin America. Quarantining alone in Los Angeles, Olmos has been binge-watching, reading screenplays and promoting the virtual version of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. In two recent conversations, he spoke about Hollywoods treatment of Latino actors, telling the stories of unauthorized immigrants and why his most fulfilling enterprise at the moment involves teaching. Here are edited excerpts from our discussions.
Q: In the history of the Academy Awards, only a handful of U.S.-born Latino actors have been nominated or have won. However, Latin American performers have been recognized more frequently. Why do you believe thats been the case?
A: For American-born Latinos its been an opportunity thing. They dont put us in the stories. They dont use us to play those roles. I thought Jennifer Lopez shouldve been nominated for [the 1997 biopic] Selena. Its one of her most stellar pieces of work. There havent been many opportunities for us to really garner that kind of accolade. I was very fortunate. I didnt think Id get nominated for Stand and Deliver, but I did. I understand today more than ever, 32 years later, what the power of that piece of work was. Its one of the most seen films ever in the United States because of the usage in schools throughout America for the last 30 years.
Q: Do you feel like the industry understands the difference between American-born Latinos and people from Latin America?
A: Not at all they should know, because a lot of them are culturally from another place, too. They know damn well that if theyre Italians and they were born here, theyre different than the Italians born in Italy. And if theyre Jews living here, theyre different than the Jews living in Israel. If youre born here, youre a completely unique individual. Youll speak with the rhythms of the dialect of your family, wherever theyre from, but its different. Your thought process is different.
Q: Of all the labels used to refer to people in our community, which one do you identify yourself with?
A: Im Latino 100%. Im Chicano 100%. Im not afraid of those words. A lot of my friends who are Latinos Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans they dont want the word Latino used to refer to them. They just want to be actors. We want to be known as American actors. Thatd be the correct way, but it isnt. And I knew it would never be in my lifetime. I knew that we had to first be known as American Latinos, and carry that very strongly and proudly, for us to then be able to not have to use it anymore.
Q: In Selena, where you played her father, Abraham Quintanilla, you deliver a poignant speech about this bicultural condition that really connects with many Mexican Americans and Latinos. Growing up, did you feel like you existed in between two cultures?
A: That was one the greatest scenes Ive ever gotten to do. People really appreciate it because its a very strong truth. Ill never forget when I started to use the word Chicano, my father got angry. Hes from Mexico and he came here in 1945 legally and he married my mother, who was a Chicana. I was the first one of his family born in the United States of America. We werent Mexican to the Mexicans. We were Americans. We were from here, and yet when we would come back across the border, the guards would say, You guys are Mexicans.
Q: Why did your father get upset with you for calling yourself a Chicano?
A: The word is interesting because its a term that for him was not conducive to understanding what we were. For him we were Mexican American. We werent Chicano. What the hell does that mean? hed said. You are not a Chicano, you are Mexican American. I said, Well, when we go to Mexico they dont like us. When we come back they dont want us. Neither one of them want us. So we are not Mexican American, we are Chicano. That was about 1964 or 1965 when we started to use it. Chicanismo hit hard. I love being Chicano. Its a very empowering word.
Q: In Windows on the World, directed by your son Michael D. Olmos, you play an undocumented father who survived 9/11 but gets caught up in the immigration system.
A: Its a story that has never been told. It gives a voice to people who died that day and whom nobody really took into consideration. It hasnt been told because nobody has cared enough about the undocumented workers who were working up in the twin towers. The movie allowed us to take a look at what a family would do to survive, and how love makes them withstand incredible turmoil. One of the co-writers, Robert Anderson, read an article that didnt mention anything about anybody who worked at the Windows on the World restaurant. Curiosity took hold of him and he thought, Wait a minute, Latinos were probably in that restaurant. Then the investigation started. To this day, the names of the undocumented people who died on 9/11 dont appear on the scrolls commemorating the deceased.
Q: One way that you and your team at the Latino Film Institute are changing the narrative around Latinos in entertainment is the Youth Cinema Project, giving children from marginalized communities access to the industry in an educational setting.
A: It makes a difference when you provide this opportunity to young minds of color, not only Latinos. This is how were really going to be able to expand change. During this quarantine, Ive been working a lot with the Youth Cinema Project. Because of the situation, our students werent able to finish their projects, so we get the scripts they wrote and have great young Latino actors from multiple television shows do a live read of them online [available on YouTube]. Our young writers, who are between the ages of 8 and 12, get to introduce the actors and then their stories come to life.