Evelina Fernandez's role of Julie in the movie "American Me" not only manages to elude the stereotypes of Latinas in film, but exerts a considerable moral counterforce to the violence that grips the lives of the movie's young East Los Angeles Chicanos like a gravitational field.
That's because she knows the terrain. "When I visit Juvenile Hall, I look at the kids there and think that it could easily be me," she says. "It could've taken one situation one day, and I could've landed there. I'm an East L.A. girl, born and bred. I always like to emphasize that the community is not all about drive-by shootings and drugs."
Listening to her parents' musical duets when she was a child (her father is a truck driver who plays guitar), Fernandez doesn't remember a time when she didn't want to act. She went to Garfield High, East Los Angeles College and Cal State L.A., when she dropped out to join Luis Valdez's landmark stage production of his play "Zoot Suit," in which she began a lasting artistic collaboration with a then-obscure actor, Edward James Olmos (she's currently writing a screenplay about the late Latino journalist Reuben Salazar for Olmos' production company).
She later traveled the country with the Santa Barbara troupe El Teatro de la Esperanza, and then played in a number of productions for the Latino Lab (headed by her husband, Jose Luis Valenzuela). Currently her one-act play, "How Else Am I Supposed to Know I'm Still Alive," is running at the Japan American Cultural Center (Luis Valdez is director).
"It isn't only young Hispanic males who are stereotyped," she says. "I wrote this play because every time I went to read for a role, it was always as a gang member or a maid. I wanted to say, 'Hello, there's a human being here, with a mind and a heart, who talks and thinks and feels. It's not myself I feel sorry for. It's the people who don't know who we are."