Lupe Ontiveros

Real Women Have Curves

Lupe Ontiveros talks about Latino homophobia, AIDS and Making It as an Uncommon Beauty

by Larry Buhl

Lupe Ontiveros is spoiling me. We’re having lunch in a sushi restaurant in Whittier, California, and she keeps ordering more exotic rolls I’ve never heard of. I tell her I’m stuffed, plus I’m taking notes and making sure the recorder is working. I’m more interested in getting the story right. She’s more interested in having a full experience.

We’re near her home, only thirty miles from the usual star hangouts of Los Angeles, but it may as well be 3,000 miles. It’s a middle-class suburb east of L.A. Prosperous, but not ostentatious. It seems like half the people in the place know Lupe and they all like her. And it’s not just because they know her recurring role on Desperate Housewives, for which she was nominated for an Emmy, or for the many indie films she’s been in. They just like her. She has a booming laugh, and is quick with bawdy anecdotes (which can’t be printed here). And she has a special passion for promoting understanding of HIV and AIDS in the Latino community.

Her ease with everyone and her zest for taking a bite out of life, as well as kobe beef sushi, is enough to make a semi-reclusive reporter make a mental note: Learn from Lupe and take more chances.

Lupe is a character actor. In Hollywood-speak, that means she’s part of the other ninety-nine percent of working actors. You may recognize them by their face or their roles, but often not their names. Character actors aren’t on the front pages of tabloids. They usually don’t drive German luxury sedans. They don’t play the sexy, romantic lead. They aren’t married to Brad Pitt. Still, they can play juicy characters and have enduring careers if they’re assertive, hard-working, talented, and fortunate. And Lupe considers herself all of

those things.

Lupe once joked that she has played 150 maids over her four decades as an actress. It was an exaggeration but she was referring to the key issue facing Latino actors in film and TV: There just aren’t enough roles for American Latinos and the few good ones are often filled by actors outside the U.S. As she nudges a plate of sashimi at me, Ontiveros finds it amusing that I can’t name any “homegrown,” Latino actors or actresses. I struggle. I hadn’t prepped for that.

Penelope Cruz?

“She’s from Spain.”

Benicio Del Toro?

“Puerto Rico.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones?

“Oh hell no. She’s from Wales.” I probably should have known that. I keep thinking. She laughs. “See?” I assume I’m just having a brain freeze. I promise I will come up with a big name before lunch is through.

The problem for U.S.-born Latino actors is both cultural and political, she claims. “How would you feel? What if you were an actor and saw all of the parts played by British or Australian actors? Are these actors guest workers? Are they more important because they are actors or because they earn more money than in other professions? It’s illogical.”

She suggests that the dearth of Latinos onscreen is not unlike AIDS and HIV in the Latino community. As with non-maid roles for Latina actors, HIV/AIDS in the Latino communities is for the most part invisible.

“One time an organization asked me to walk for AIDS. I asked how much of that money would be going to the Latino community. They said they didn’t know. I said when you find out you let me know and then I’ll walk. I asked this because the Latino community is lagging in money to fight AIDS but they are getting infected just as fast as anyone else. Maybe faster.”

AIDS and denial in Latino America

Ontiveros says the overarching Latino attitude regarding HIV and AIDS is denial. While much of the U.S. has made great strides in learning about HIV/AIDS, the attitudes of many traditional Latino families are stunningly retro.

“First of all there is a major denial of homosexuality. It’s a taboo. You don’t talk about those things. They don’t exist. People say, ‘My son is not gay. My daughter is not gay.’ But you never know. The biggest macho Latino guys, they can be gay and they will lie about it. They will go to their grave before they admit it.”

I point out gay Latino celebrities—well, the one well-known Latino celebrity—could help turn around such entrenched beliefs. She scoffs. “Ricky Martin, okay. But what took him so long to admit what everyone else already figured out? Because that’s not the image that sells records. When are we going to get over it and accept the reality without stigma and condemnation?”

The situation is even worse in undocumented families in the U.S. “If they find out someone in the family has AIDS they immediately send them back to Mexico. Certainly Mexico isn’t offering any better medical care or help. [Traditional Latino families] don’t want to deal with it, whether they are illegal or legal. If someone dies of complications from AIDS, they cover it up. They say, ‘He died of pneumonia.’ Well he did, but there is more to it.”

Ontiveros, who’s been married to the same man for forty-five years, admits things are changing for gay and lesbian Latinos, but not fast enough in most cases. “My nephew in law school just came out to me I think because we created that atmosphere for him to feel comfortable. My kids are open and they would ask questions and I would explain things to them. They learned the word ‘gay’ early on, and that it was not a bad thing to be.”

The screen, big and small, can be used to promote understanding of sexual and racial issues, or be used to reinforce negative stereotypes. Too often it’s the latter, she laments. “Take the stereotypes which I’ve had to fight all my career, for being a female and being Latina. It automatically places me in a position for not the best roles. Playing the bumpkin. The uneducated, i