Veteran actress Lupe Ontiveros, the El Paso-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, once estimated that she had played the role of a maid more than 150 times during her career.
That’s why the 4-foot-11 actress was so overjoyed more than a decade ago when director Miguel Arteta approached her backstage after a theatrical showcase and said he had a screenplay for her to consider.
“He said, ‘Look at the part of Beverly,’” Ontiveros recalled in a 2009 National Public Radio interview. “I said, ‘Beverly? You said Beverly? Her name is Beverly?’ And I said, ‘I’ll do it. I don’t care what the script is about, because her name is Beverly.’ It wasn’t Maria Guadalupe Conchita Esperanza, this Latino stereotype.”
Ontiveros’ role as the straight-talking theater house manager in the 2000 movie “Chuck & Buck,” a part she said was written for a white actress, was a breakthrough moment.
Her best-known roles include the former fan club president who kills pop star Selena and the tradition-bound mother in the 2002 film “Real Women Have Curves.”
Ontiveros, a longtime resident of Pico Rivera, died Thursday of liver cancer in a Whittier hospital, said her agent, Michael Greenwald. She was 69.
“Lupe Ontiveros was a gift,” actor Edward James Olmos told The Times on Friday. “She was part of the evolutionary process of the art form of Latino storytelling in the last 30-plus years. She was one of the true pioneers of the Latin artistic movement in theater, film and television.”
Olmos appeared with Ontiveros in the original 1978 Los Angeles production of Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit,” in which she played the mother. She took the part to Broadway in 1979 and played it in the 1981 movie version.
“Selena,” which starred Jennifer Lopez in the title role, also featured Olmos.
“Her performances were truly riveting because of the truths that she portrayed,” he said. As Selena’s killer, “she was so convincing and did such an incredible job that people were angry at her when she walked the streets.”
For her role as Carmen Garcia, the critical East Los Angeles mother who prefers that her ambitious young daughter forgo college and join her working in a dress factory in “Real Women Have Curves,” Ontiveros shared a Special Jury Prize for dramatic acting at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 with co-star America Ferrera.
The movie, which also won the festival’s Audience Award, “spoke to the people because of its honesty,” Ontiveros told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002. “It didn’t matter that it was about Latinos, because it was really about everyone.”
In his review of “Real Women Have Curves,” The Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote: “This is a wonderful role for an actress of the skill and stature of Ontiveros, whose innate warmth is crucial in maintaining Carmen’s humanity.
“The role of Carmen is major and allows us to see what Ontiveros has always been throughout all those maid roles.... America’s own Anna Magnani, an actress of such star personality, skill and talent that she intuitively selects the revealing gesture, and holds the pause or the glance or inflection just the right length of time.”
In 2005, Ontiveros was nominated for an Emmy Award for her guest star role as Juanita “Mama” Solis, the nosy mother-in-law of Eva Longoria’s character on"Desperate Housewives.”
Among Ontiveros’ movie credits are “El Norte” (1983),"The Goonies"(1985), “As Good As It Gets” (1997) and “Storytelling” (2001). Her TV work included being a regular on the 1993 series “Dudley” and on the 2002-03 series “Greetings from Tucson.”
She was born Guadalupe Moreno in El Paso on Sept. 17, 1942. Her parents owned a tortilla factory and two restaurants.
A graduate of Texas Woman’s University in Denton, she spent many years as a social worker in the Los Angeles area before answering an ad for movie extras in the early 1970s.
“It seemed like something I felt I knew I could do,” the mother of three sons, who soon began taking acting classes, told Back Stage West in 2002.
She found it difficult to overcome racial stereotypes when auditioning in Hollywood.
“I speak good English; I’m an educated person,” she told Latino Leaders magazine in 2003. “But whenever I interviewed — and I spoke English just like I’m speaking now — I wouldn’t get the role. They couldn’t see how a woman who looks like me — indigenous — could ever play somebody of stature, certainly not a professor or a judge. No! She has to be a maid; she had to clean my toilet.”
Yet she had been “proud to represent those hands that labor in this country,” she told the New York Times in 2002. “I’ve given every maid I’ve ever portrayed soul and heart.”
Ontiveros was a founding board member of the Latino Theater Company in downtown Los Angeles.
She used “her celebrity, creativity and boundless energy” to make a difference, working for such issues as HIV/AIDS prevention, domestic-violence prevention and disability rights, according to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, who was a longtime friend.
Ontiveros is survived by her husband of 46 years, Elias Ontiveros Jr.; her sons, Nicholas, Alejandro and Elias P. Ontiveros; and two grandchildren.