The talented, pioneering, iconic Latina actress Lupe Ontiveros died July 26, 2012 at the age of 69. She was a longtime advocate for LGBT, HIV/AIDS, labor, women's education and health issues, as well as an outspoken advocate against typecasting in the entertainment industry.
Ontiveros, who built her career on playing immigrant characters, told NPR in 2009 that she had played a maid more than 150 times, including on the sitcom "Reba," "Who's The Boss" and in films like As Good As it Gets, The Goonies, and Charlie's Angels (and if you count her stage performances, the number increases to 300). Fortunately the world got to witness her talent in more serious roles in Real Women Have Curves and Chuck & Buck, as well as in A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story, where she played the mother of murdered transgender teen Gwen Araujo.
In the same interview, she expressed her mixed feelings about playing a maid on the screen, saying "I long to play a judge. I long to play a lesbian woman. I long to play a councilman, someone with some chutzpah." She went on to explain:
“You’ve got maids and you’ve got maids,” she says. “You got maids that have longevity beyond what you ever conceived of in your wildest dreams. I’ll give you an example — The Goonies. Those that got hooked — I have a whole following of 30-year-olds who got hooked. Oh my gosh, I’m a heroine to them.”
That’s because at the end of The Goonies, Rosalita discovers jewels that enable the family she works for to keep their home. Ontiveros says she gets so many immigrant parts because of her indigenous looks. But she has mixed feelings about playing characters that reinforce the Latina stereotype.
She says that when she goes to auditions, she knows what they want.
“‘You want an accent?’ And they’d say, ‘Yes, we prefer for you to have an accent.’ And the thicker and more waddly it is, the more they like it. This is what I’m against, really, truly,” she says.
For many young Latinos who were sons and daughters of domestic workers Ontiveros was a familiar name long before she became a household name for playing Selena Quintanilla’s murderer Yolanda Saldivar in “Selena.”
For me, seeing Ontiveros on screen was meaningful because it was a sign that our parents’ work was recognized by Hollywood. Even when Ontiveros played roles in which her character was talked down to or humiliated it was still meaningful because she played the human part—those were real stories many of us had heard before from our moms, aunts and neighbors.
For her passionate and trailblazing work across a variety of social issues, Lupe Ontiveros will truly be missed.
Check out this video by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) honoring Lupe Ontiveros: