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ENCYCLOPEDIC EFFORT : Latinos in Hollywood Fill a Book

When Luis Reyes decided to write a book on the history of Latinos in Hollywood, he began shopping the idea around to various publishers, but they flat-out rejected his proposal. Their attitude, Reyes said, was that “Hispanics don’t read, and no one else cares.”

While stinging, the words of rejection reinforced Reyes’ own notion of why the book was so important in the first place, for although Latinos had been in Hollywood since its beginnings, “no one had documented our involvement,” he said.

Despite lacking a publisher, Reyes, a publicist whose campaigns have included “Hoosiers” and “American Me,” continued his research in his spare time, spending more than four years gathering information and eventually conducting more than 100 interviews.

No wonder Reyes felt as if he’d landed on “Fantasy Island” one recent evening when he looked out at a star-studded crowd gathered to celebrate the publication of “Hispanics in Hollywood: An Encyclopedia of Film and Television,” finally published by Garland Publishing, with Reyes sharing the authorship with Peter Rubie.

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Indeed, Mr. Roarke himself, Ricardo Montalban, presided over the evening, which was sponsored by the Directors Guild of America’s Latino Committee. Jimmy Smits, Rita Moreno, Ruben Blades, Cheech Marin, director Robert Rodriguez, producer David Valdes and the first Hispanic American assistant director, Francisco (Chico) Day, made themselves available to autograph copies.

“It’s high time somebody did this,” said Valdes, executive producer of “Unforgiven” and “In the Line of Fire.”

For Smits, it was a thrill just to stand in the same room with Latino actors who had influenced him, including Montalban, Moreno and Elena Verdugo (Nurse Consuelo on “Marcus Welby, M.D.”).

“It’s very important to have this kind of acknowledgment,” Smits said. “We need to hear more of ‘Yes, we can!’ ”

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Though they may not have achieved the stardom of Gilbert Roland or Cesar Romero, Reyes said, “there were a lot of people who appeared consistently in bit parts or who worked behind the scenes” who deserved attention.

These people and their work fill 525 pages of text, illustrated with photographs from Reyes’ personal collection. The encyclopedia, which costs $95, will be available only to libraries and research institutions, not through retail outlets, although it may be special-ordered.

The book contains a history of Latinos in Hollywood, an alphabetized listing of films and television shows featuring Latinos and biographies of performers, directors, producers and craftspeople.

“It was like detective work,” Reyes said. “Once I got into talking to somebody, they would give more leads. I wanted to get in as much as I could. The old-timers are passing away, and their history is passing away with them.”

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Said Rita Moreno, who was so impressed with Reyes’ tenacity that she wrote a foreword: “It’s important that this book’s in English and that it’s directed to people who don’t know who we are. We know who we are, but it’s important the English-speaking population know who we are.”

For inclusion, Reyes used the following criteria: The film or TV show must have Latino leading or supporting characters; the story must take place in Spain, Latin America or the United States; it must be a major Hollywood studio or independent U.S. production, or it must deal with Latino subject matter.

“I tried to open it up a bit,” he said. “I even included people who are identified with Latin roles who weren’t necessarily Latino themselves, like Carmen Miranda (who was Portuguese) or John Saxon.”

While Reyes chose to deal with Hollywood’s stereotypes, he tried not to dwell on them: “I wanted to stay focused on Hispanic people working and making a good living in Hollywood.”

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Among those profiled in the encyclopedia is Angelina Estrada, who worked as a child extra in such films as “Gunga Din” (1939) and “Tortilla Flat” (1942).

Despite some earlier doubts about pursuing acting, she eventually took the leap as an adult. In 1975, she appeared on “Chico and the Man” as Freddie Prinze’s Aunt Connie. Today she is a regular on Fox TV’s “Martin.”

Estrada, now 62, finds herself irritated by some of the demands made of her to be “more ethnic.”

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“So often when I go in for a reading, they say to me, ‘That was wonderful, now try it with an accent,’ ” Estrada said. “Why does every Hispanic have to have an accent? I was born and raised here! And it’s funny because I have to work on my accent--I have to go listen to how people with accents speak--because I don’t want to put on a phony one.”

Reyes hopes the book will appear on every film executive’s and casting director’s desk as a reminder of the Latino talent at their fingertips, but he also wants to ensure that their history won’t be forgotten.

“Now finally on ‘Star Trek’ we have a Latino,” he said, “but before that, ‘Star Trek’ was supposed to be the future and there were no Latinos. Now what does that say about us?”


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