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Finally Adding Up:
Hollywood + Hispanics = Mainstream
By MIKE McDANIEL
September 2, 2002
Hispanic actress Rita Moreno won a best-supporting-actress Oscar for 1961's West Side Story.
PHOTO: Associated Press
It has taken a century, but Hollywood is starting to recognize Hispanics as people capable of starring, directing, producing and writing for film and television.
As Luis Reyes sees it, "Hispanic Americans are creating and defining their own images rather than allowing themselves to be defined by someone else."
The film and TV publicist, co-author with Peter Rubie of the book Hispanics in Hollywood: A Celebration of 100 Years in Film and Television, believes Latino culture in the United States is rapidly becoming part of the mainstream.
Tonight, and every Monday in September, Turner Classic Movies is paying tribute to Hispanics in cinema with a 25-film festival. The films will be preceded with short breaks in which Reyes and actors Rita Moreno, Maria Conchita Alonzo and Ricardo Montalbán will recite fond -- and some not so fond -- memories from their careers.
Montalbán, for example, remembers the 1940s and '50s, when he was under contract with MGM. Then, being Mexican had its drawbacks.
"For MGM musicals, they wanted me to be a romantic lead," the 81-year-old actor recalled in an interview. "In Neptune's Daughter (1949), with Esther Williams, I was an Argentinian. In Two Weeks With Love (1950), with Jane Powell, I was a Cuban. My last picture with MGM, Latin Lovers (1953), with Lana Turner, I was a Brazilian.
"At MGM, Cuban, Brazilian and Argentinian sounded good. Hollywood, for some reason, has been so unkind to Mexico, particularly in the past. But the image they brought to the screen of a Mexican was always as a bandit or a peon leaning against a cactus, taking a siesta under a hat. Or the gigolo.
"It was a very unflattering picture of Mexico, which has a great history and great culture. It also is made up of decent men who want their children to have a better future. That was never mentioned on the screen."
He is grateful for the work he was able to do in movies, and said he had cordial relationships with such studio heads as Louis B. Mayer and Dore Schary.
Under Schary's leadership, Montalbán did play a couple of Mexican roles: a prizefighter in love with June Allyson in Right Cross (1950), and Border Incident (1949), with George Murphy, "which was way ahead of its time, about the illegal entry and the people risking their lives to work in this country."
Despite such successes, the story of Latinos in cinema is one of incremental change.
"I talked to producers and directors about the lack of opportunities, and they said they don't do it out of meanness, that they don't know enough of Mexico," Montalbán remembered. " `We need colorful characters,' they said. `A bandit is colorful. The peon sleeping against a cactus is colorful. An architect, a doctor, a bank employee -- these are not colorful.' That was the answer I always got.
"So we struggled. Even today, we struggle."
Turner Classic Movies' 25-film salute is being presented during Hispanic Heritage Month, which officially begins Sept. 15. That date is independence day for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico achieved independence Sept. 16, and Chile on Sept. 18.
Montalbán never felt pressured to be a Latino standard-bearer, but he became one in 1969 when he and a small group of actors formed Nosotros, which sought better roles for Hispanics and an end to the portrayal of stereotypes.
"I felt I was insignificant but nevertheless was an ambassador for Mexico," he said. "People who met me judged me as a Mexican. And I felt I had a tremendous debt to my country."
He paid part of that debt in the late 1960s, when he had a conversation with the president of Frito-Lay and simply asked, "Why don't you make the Frito Bandito into Frito Amigo?"
He paid another part when he became a nationwide spokesperson for Chrysler -- one of the biggest Hispanic images in TV ads at that time. Remember "rich Corinthian leather"?
Today he is best remembered for his work on the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan and as the star of the TV series Fantasy Island. He appeared in the recently released movie Spy Kids II.
He declares his health "excellent," although he still experiences pain from a 1993 spinal-cord injury. He gets around by either walker or wheelchair.
His wife, Georgiana (sister to the late Loretta Young), remains "my Rock of Gibraltar. She is the most marvelous thing that's ever happened to me."
Montalbán remains vigilant in the struggle for recognition that Hispanics still endure.
"My drive to improve the Latino image is not done with a clenched fist," he said, "but with an open hand of understanding and friendship. Judge us by our ability. If we don't have the ability, don't hire us. But give us the opportunity to compete for the part."