Hollywood’s Latinos, Then and Now

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Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer

Six years ago, two relatively unknown actresses came to the launching party for a book called “Hispanics in Hollywood.” The two women, Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek, mingled among the many guests invited to celebrate the occasion.

What a difference six years make. Today, Lopez and Hayek need no introduction--they have major studios, producers, directors and other stars attached to each of their pictures. In fact, they are now competing over who will star inthe first Hollywood movie about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a hot topic of discussion around town.

The ascent of Lopez and Hayek shows how things have changed for Latinos in Hollywood, according to the book’s co-author Luis Reyes. The book, a comprehensive encyclopedia of Latino talent in Hollywood over the past 70 years, has been updated and reissued this month. In a recent interview, Reyes expressed guarded optimism about the prospects for Latinos in Hollywood; he notes they have made great gains but that they still have a long way to go before becoming fully incorporated into mainstream American film and television roles.


“We’ve made tremendous strides,” said Reyes, who co-wrote the book with author and literary agent Peter Rubie. “The talent is out there. We have gone through transitions and cycles. But we still haven’t had the successes of African Americans--you don’t see that kind of variety of leading players in the Latino community.”

In the new edition, Reyes added at least 100 new names including Hayek, Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz and teen heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. (who is listed after his father, comedian and actor Freddie Prinze).

In addition, Reyes updated the biographies of actors such as Antonio Banderas, John Leguizamo and Andy Garcia--all of whom have seen their stars rise over the past six years. The book contains more than 7,500 entries, including descriptions of Latino-themed movies and TV shows and talent biographies. The book’s publisher, Lone Eagle Publishing, is considering putting a database on the Internet through, the Internet company that owns Lone Eagle. The first edition sold 10,000 copies, Reyes said.

Reyes said between the first and second editions, he’s seen “a burst of activity” in terms of the casting of Latino actors and Latino-themed projects. But he has not seen the same kind of explosion of Latin talent in film and television as there has been in pop music.

He says that while Latino actors are still limited by ethnic barriers, some are getting cast in roles that could go to actors of any race, for example Jennifer Lopez in “Out of Sight,” or this season, Jessica Alba in James Cameron’s “Dark Angel.”

In the book, Reyes also discusses the definition of Latino--a group he says that is often misunderstood. Latinos, he says, are not a race, but rather a group defined by language and country of origin. It was sometimes challenging to decide who was Latino and who was not, considering many Latinos have mixed racial heritage. For instance, Freddie Prinze Jr.’s father was half Hungarian and half Puerto Rican--the late comic actor described himself as a HungaRican--and his mother is not Hispanic.



Beyond the new talent, Reyes hopes the book highlights the fact that Latinos have always had a strong presence in Hollywood in front of and behind the camera.

“Latinos are prevalent in the movies,” said the New York-born Reyes, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. “Latinos are a part of the story of Hollywood.”

Seven years ago, when Reyes launched his research project and pitched it to publishing houses, there was not much interest. Undaunted, he worked as a publicist during the day and continued to compile information for his book. He feared that much of this history would be lost if somebody didn’t put it together.

“People were dying off and nobody was keeping track of this stuff,” he said. He recalled one afternoon, driving up Pacific Coast Highway on his way to Malibu, when he stopped at an antique sale. As he dug through the piles of discarded memorabilia, he found a photo album of Raquel Torres, a Mexican-born actress who starred in “White Shadows in the South Seas,” MGM’s first fully synchronized feature with dialogue and music in 1928.

“She had died by herself in a bungalow in Malibu,” Reyes noted. “I paid $5 for her photo album.”

Over the years, he collected more than 10,000 movie stills, posters and movie cards of Latinos in Hollywood. Sometimes, he met with resistance from the stars’ publicists who feared their clients would be pigeonholed. And nobody wanted to disclose the dirtiest of all Hollywood secrets--date of birth.


“They kept saying ‘Well, Hispanics in Hollywood? That must be a very small book,’ ” he recalled, laughing. “Well that’s because they had never done the research. It’s been a fruitful journey [compiling the book] and now people know we have been here a long time.”

Indeed, the presence of Latinos in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera, reaches into the beginnings of Hollywood. Reyes said he found many anecdotes digging through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ library and by interviewing surviving family members of stars as well as the stars themselves. For example, Gilbert Roland, a handsome man who starred in many pictures in the ‘30s as a Latin lover, also taught Rudolph Valentino how to bullfight.

Reyes said Latinos in Hollywood have always been able to blend into the mainstream. For instance, the woman who sang “La Marseilles” in one of “Casablanca’s” most memorable and moving scenes is Latina. Corrina Mura was born in San Antonio, Texas, to Mexican American parents.

Of course there are more famous examples, such as Rita Hayworth, nee Rita Cansino. The daughter of a noted Spanish dancer and an Irish beauty, Hayworth was discovered dancing at cabarets in Tijuana. There is Raquel Welch, whose father was Bolivian, and who recently has been playing up her Latin roots, starring in Gregory Nava’s pilot “American Family.”

These actors might have changed their surnames (just like Cary Grant/Archie Leach or Kirk Douglas/Issur Danielowitz) but they never denied their heritage, Reyes said.

“Everybody changed their name in those days,” he said. “All ethnic people in Hollywood felt a certain amount of spoken discrimination,” he said. “Everybody just wanted to fit into the mainstream culture.”


To be sure, Latinos have had to deal with stereotyping and discrimination, said Reyes. Many times Latinos would come to Hollywood--like Mexican star Dolores del Rio and Katy Jurado in the 1930s through the 1950s--and find they were only offered the “exotic” or “Indian” roles.

In westerns, however, there was more co-existence and blending between the Anglo characters and their Latino counterparts, said Reyes. For instance, in 1954, Jurado played Spencer Tracy’s Indian wife in “Broken Arrow,” for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She was also cast opposite Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”

“Racial attitudes of the time didn’t allow mixed marriages between blacks and Anglos, but in westerns there has always been a mixture of the cultures between Anglos and Hispanics,” said Reyes, who is still a publicist. “It was acceptable to a certain extent.”

In the book, Reyes also points out that from the 1920s through the early ‘40s, Latin was “hot” (sound familiar?). Like some actors, Jacob Krantz actually changed his name to Ricardo Cortez to capitalize on the Latin lover-boy mania spawned by Valentino and which continued later with Roland, Fernando Lamas and others.

“He was known as the Jewish Latin lover,” said Reyes. “He had the dark looks that people associated with a Latin lover so he figured he could make it as a Latin lover. And he did.”

Unlike African American actors, who from the earliest days of Hollywood were completely shut out of leading roles and were never partnered in marriage or relationships with whites, Latinos were sometimes cast as romantic interests.


The situation for Latinos continued to be a mixed bag as the years passed. From the 1950s through the 1980s there continued to be stereotypical images of Latinos ranging from drug dealers to gangsters to the usual hookers and maids. But there were also some major high points, such as Rita Moreno’s 1961 Oscar for her role as Anita in “West Side Story.” Other actors such as Raul Julia and Edward James Olmos were able to break through the stereotypes to play complex roles and leading characters in the 1980s.

Today, though there are still few television shows starring Latinos, at least two series on cable, Nickelodeon’s “The Brothers Garcia,” and Showtime’s “Resurrection Blvd.” are on the air, said Reyes.

As the Latino population in the U.S. continues to grow, the number of Latino stars will continue to rise, predicted Reyes, who admits he might have missed some folks. Indeed, some notable Hollywood insiders who are not listed include Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Sleepy Hollow”) and Argentine-born art director Eugenio Zanetti (“What Dreams May Come”), both of whom have been nominated for an Academy Award for their respective work.

“It captures mostly everyone but not everyone,” said Reyes. “There are a lot more people working than we realize.”