Maybe it's the way she talks with her hands. Or the way her bright eyes look when she flashes an impish smile. Then there are the various inflections of her husky voice, an eyebrow lifting as she slings one-liners in English and Spanish.
For whatever reason, Lupe Ontiveros, actress and social worker, makes people laugh.
Along with the comic, Lupe has a serious side with a social conscience; these two facets of her personality are intertwined in her films and daily life.
She captured those qualities in a memorable performance as the roly-poly, middle-aged Nacha in the movie "El Norte." The highly acclaimed film traces a Guatemalan brother and sister's journey to the United States. Nacha befriends the immigrant Rosa, helping her find a job and later saving her from deportation.
Ontiveros also will appear as the lovable housekeeper in "The Goonies," a movie produced by Steven Spielberg and opening nationwide Friday. And this week, in programs promoting Latinos in the arts that are timed to coincide with her visibility in "Goonies," she is being featured in interviews on Spanish-language television.
Lives in Pico Rivera
A resident of Pico Rivera for 17 years, Ontiveros last month received an award for her achievements from the city's Arts and Culture Committee.
Off screen, Ontiveros is a social worker in Compton at the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled where she has worked full-time for 3 1/2 years. She finds nursing care for children who suffer from severe birth defects.
Last week, packed into a pink blouse with dark polka dots, a tight plum skirt, purple earrings and high heels, Ontiveros talked about her different worlds. The walls in her Compton office were decorated with photos of Latin personalities and theater posters of "El Norte" and "Zoot Suit," in which she also had a major role.
Fluttering her false eyelashes, Ontiveros thought about what makes her comical.
"I don't know why I'm funny," she said. "I'm still trying to find out why. Maybe it's because there's funny things rattling around in my mind and it shows through my eyes. I don't know. Maybe it's the way I look . . . Miss Piggy, Mexican-American."
Though the 4-foot-11, 135-pound Ontiveros pokes fun at herself and other Latinos, she makes one thing clear: "There is humor in knocking ourselves, but only we can do it."
The daughter of prosperous Mexican parents who owned tortilla factories in El Paso, Ontiveros grew up on both sides of the border, living a secure and comfortable life, but witnessing the misfortunes of others.
Life on the Streets
She recalled going into the "deepest and ugliest parts of Juarez" to recruit employees among the poor and humble.
"Nacha comes out of somebody from there," she said, "This is where I got el humor Mexicano , where I heard the dirty jokes. I managed to learn a lot about life on the streets, in spite of my being sheltered. My father still calls me ' mi hija santa ' (my holy daughter). Nothing could be further from the truth."
Her social consciousness, she said, was acquired from her mother, who packed bags of groceries and sacks of fruit, nuts and candy for the employees.
"It was my first concept of what anything having to do with giving meant," she said.
Ontiveros, who attended Texas Women's University in Denton, originally considered becoming a nurse. Her family includes a doctor, a midwife and a medical technician.
Instead, she became a social worker, remaining "in a helping profession" and working as supervisor for the Azteca Headstart program in East Los Angeles from 1972 to 1978.
"I got into the (acting) business by accident," she said. "I'm not going to lie to you and say I was creative and had dreams of Shakespeare."
Although she hedged at first on giving her age, Ontiveros said she was 32 when she first worked as an extra in 1973, appearing as a "fuzzy figure" behind Hope Lange in the TV movie "I Love You . . . Goodbye."
Persevering, she landed bit parts in the films "The Big Fix," "California Suite" and "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie," and the television programs "Charlie's Angels," "The White Shadow," "Hill Street Blues," 'AKA Pablo" and "Jessie."
Appeared in 'Zoot Suit'
In 1979, she played the mother in the Mark Taper Forum and Broadway productions of Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit," also appearing in the film version in 1981.
But, it was "El Norte," released in 1984, that allowed her to demonstrate her range as a comedic and dramatic performer.
Her bilingualism has enabled her to reach Latin and Anglo audiences, she said. And "El Norte," in which Spielberg spotted her, will "establish me as an actress in the eyes of the industry as well as my own people. They become emotional and personalize it when they talk about it."
Ontiveros, who continues studying the art, became interested in acting after taking a drama class for adults at Hollywood High School in 1973.
At the end of the term, she won the acting competition judged by agents and decided to pursue it as a career.
"The agents gave me extravagant descriptions like 'fine moments, beautiful this, beautiful that.' I threw away the bad comments--why waste my time?--and called the agents that gave me the good ones. They gave me a thousand and one reasons why they couldn't represent me. It was all B.S."
So Ontiveros represented herself.
"I pounded the streets in Hollywood. Once, a man came up to me and offered me $50. I thought he was an agent, but then it dawned on me it wasn't my talent he wanted."
Told to Change Name
When she signed with an agent, the agent wanted her to change her name.
"She said it was too ethnic. Foreign. I told her, 'I am what I am and if they don't like it, it's too bad.' "
But, she said, the agent asked her, 'Do you want to be Lupe the actress or Lupe the politician?'
"Why can't I be both?" Ontiveros answered.
"Don't try to take that away from me," the actress said as she recalled the incident. "Behind the name is a face and an attitude that is pleasant in an unpleasant industry full of rejection, criticism, discrimination and deprecation.
"But, I've never carried a chip on my shoulder. I don't have a bone to pick with people. I don't make it personal."
"I'm proud of my credits because I worked for them," she said, "but I don't think I'm better or worse than any other actress in Hollywood. What makes them so good? And, am I only as good as the limitations placed upon me by the credits I have or those placed upon me because I'm a minority and the roles aren't there?"
Still, she prefers to use her sense of humor to get ahead.
'People Remember You'
"If you are hilarious or witty, people will always remember you," she said. "When you make them laugh and feel good, they will remember you with a smile rather than as a distasteful experience."
And to her, acting is simply another form of fulfillment.
"I get the same feeling from acting that I get from making tortillas for my children or menudo at Christmas time. It's all part of giving, just another avenue for self-expression."
And, she said, her job as a social worker is equally rewarding.
"When I help someone," she said, "I walk away with a satisfying feeling that that person is going to be all right, that I did my job well."
Last Thursday, a visitor to Ontiveros' office at the social service agency saw the fiercely protective Nacha recreated in a real-life situation.
Ontiveros was trying to find a home for a 10-year-old boy, and her voice grew tender.
"The baby has cerebral palsy and is blind," she said during a telephone call, explaining the child's condition to officials of a center that provides care for disabled children.
"You say you have space for how many? I'll call the mother and tell her we have placement."
Mother of 3
Ontiveros, the mother of Nicholas, 19; Alex, 12, and Elias, 10, has her own difficulties juggling two careers, motherhood and marriage.
"There is no time to consider much," she said, adding she memorizes lines when she's home or driving on the freeway. "It's just survival. I have never been permitted the luxury of sitting around the pool thinking about how the role is going to be."
Nor has her acting career been easy for her husband of 20 years, Elias, an auto parts salesman.
"He is in total disbelief that I've managed to get as far as I have. I think he finds it confusing," she said. "I think it's threatening in many ways--to think that I am no longer the person he married, although I am. It's just that I've taken the bull by the horns and taken some ambition for myself, a right every person has, whether they're male or female, Hispanic or not."
Ontiveros also wishes other Latinos would pursue their creative abilities.
"There's talent there, but it needs polish," she said. "Our people are dying for self-recognition. What we need is the support and reassurance that self-expression is an OK thing. But I know people are capable, if only they would know how beautiful it feels to let go and fly."
Ontiveros plans to soar, although she remains a realist.
"I want to become a better actress, to have an opportunity to play significant roles," she said. "I would like to someday become a director. But, basically, I don't dream that far ahead."