Last April, in Luis Valdez's "I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges" at the San Diego Repertory Theater, Mexican-born actor Leon Singer played the role of a Mexican actor who can't get parts in Hollywood.
"Stinking Badges" was an angry play. It took its title from one of the few lines a Mexican actor got to deliver in the classic "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," as a way of illustrating the paucity of dignified roles for Latinos in American society as a whole.
Singer's role seemed a fitting reflection of this reality. Despite decades of work in Mexican television and film, Singer was so sure he would never make a living on an American stage that he switched to the restaurant business when he and his family moved to San Diego six years ago.
Since that play, however, life has ceased to imitate art in a way that has taken the 55-year-old Singer totally by surprise.
The play, and Singer's performance in it, have already led to a part for him in a pilot for a new television series by Valdez called "Fort Figueroa" and a role as a cook in the upcoming television miniseries "Lonesome Dove," based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling novel by Larry McMurtry and starring Robert Duvall and Anjelica Huston.
As Singer sat and talked in El Tecolote, one of the two successful Mexican restaurants that he owns and runs, he seemed relaxed and open in a royal blue shirt hanging loosely over white pants. In contrast, his son, Ricardo, who doubles as his restaurant manager, paced back and forth to the table as if handling anxiety for both of them.
They had just heard that morning that "Lonesome Dove" was starting ahead of schedule, Singer explained, and Ricardo was waiting to drive his father to the airport so he could catch a plane to the shoot in Del Rio, Tex.
"I never thought of working in Hollywood," Singer said. "How can a guy be working in San Diego in two restaurants and work in Hollywood? It's been extremely surprising--like playing the lottery without a ticket."
But his current whirl of success does not invalidate the message Valdez was trying to bring home in " . . . Stinking Badges," Singer said.
"It doesn't mean that Luis Valdez is wrong in his play. It means that I have been extremely lucky and I know that I am a good actor," Singer said with a smile that seemed to say his inherited Old World manners had just butted against his New World pride. "At least I'm not bad."
He also pointed out that he may not be discriminated against as much as other Latino actors because he is Mexican not by blood but by upbringing and marriage. His wife is a full-blooded Mexican, but Singer received his non-Latino name, Leon (originally Leonardo) Singer, from his Austrian Jewish father and Polish Jewish mother, who immigrated to Mexico before he was born.
Still, it is clear that his loyalty to his country of birth is strong.
"I am Mexican," Singer said. "I love my country."
Singer stressed that the opportunities now opening to him matter, in part, because they suggest a microcosm of the opportunities opening to American Latinos as a whole. Things have changed since Antonio Reyna, also from Mexico City, moved to Hollywood and changed his name from Antonio to Anthony and translated Reyna to the English Queen, which he further modified to Quinn.
"Something is starting. Obviously there's something in the air," Singer said. " 'Badges' has been a success. Now you have these films, 'Stand and Deliver,' 'The Milagro Beanfield War,' 'La Bamba.' There are two factors to be considered here. One is the constant push of the Latins to be recognized in this society. The other factor is that those who are not Latins are starting to recognize the economic importance of the Latin community.
"Sometime, I hope not too far from now, you will see Hispanic actors having leading roles in TV, films. Right now there aren't many Hispanic bankers or Hispanic tycoons, politicians. You need them in real life to put them on TV. But it will happen. Something is happening. I feel that it's moving, it's going."
They are certainly moving and going for Singer. And, as he is first to acknowledge, definitely for the better.
Ask Singer why he decided to leave his native Mexico City, and the reasons just start flowing. Call it crowding, pollution, the devaluation of the peso, or one soap opera job too many. It all added up to Singer saying to his family, "Let's go see what's happening somewhere else."
Not expecting that he would ever be able to learn English well enough to act in America, he turned his efforts to a taco shop in San Diego that, with the help of his mother-in-law's cooking he was able to transform into one, then two "El Tecolotes."
The restaurants are still thriving, but now with his career under way, he said he is eager to "take a rest from the restaurants," which he hopes to turn over to Ricardo.
Ricardo, at this point, stopped pacing, and looked from his watch to his father. Singer smiled, expansively, and stood up, still giving the impression of having all the time in the world.
On the way out, he reflected again on the character he played in "Stinking Badges" and the parallels that stage part had with the part he is now playing in life.
"I myself thought that this character was crazy, that he'd never make it, but here I am, if not making it, at least doing something."
Still, it is not enough.
"Don't forget that so far I've been a Mexican priest, a Mexican cook, a Mexican gardener. So I haven't done anything not Mexican. I don't feel discriminated against-- yet. But I don't take for granted that this will be it. If things keep on in the same way, then I'm going to say, like Luis Valdez, 'What's going on?'
"I'm also confident in myself that it's not just discrimination, it's how good and bad you are. I'm confident in myself. So let's wait and see."