The 1980s and 1990s brought new opportunities for Latino filmmaking and Latino film representation. These shifts took place because of the rising cadre of Latino film professionals entering the mainstream film industry, many of whom had gotten their start in Chicano and other Latino cinemas, as well as the industry's rising interest in the Latino audience. A substantial number of feature films directed by Latino filmmakers were distributed by the major studios in the 1980s; these films were by and large critically acclaimed and earned respectable box-office profits. They included Valdez's Zoot Suit (1981) and La Bamba (1987), Gregory Nava's
(b. 1949) El Norte (1983), Crossover Dreams (Leon Ichaso, 1985), Born in East L.A. (Cheech Marin, 1987), and Stand and Deliver (Ramón Menéndez, 1988). (Latina filmmakers, while they did exist, tended to produce short films outside the Hollywood system during this time period.)
The visibility of Latino-themed feature films led the news media to dub the 1980s the "Decade of the Hispanic" late in the decade. While the period did witness the breakthrough of Latino filmmaking in Hollywood, it did not necessarily amount to long-term change on the part of the studios, as filmmakers continued to struggle mightily to secure financing and distribution of Latino-themed feature-film projects. But the few films that did get made offered Latino actors and actresses some of their most interesting and well-developed roles ever, catapulting several to stardom. Actors and actresses who were showcased in Chicano and Latino films in the 1980s and 1990s included the Mexican Americans Edward James Olmos (b. 1947), Lupe Ontiveros (b. 1942), and Elpidia Carrillo (b. 1963). A number of Latino actors of a variety of nationalities also broke into the mainstream in this decade, playing both Latinos and non-Latinos; they included the Cuban actor Andy Garcia (b. 1956), the Puerto Rican Raul Julia (1940–1994), the Irish-Cuban Mercedes Ruehl (b. 1948), and Maria Conchita Alonso (b. 1957), a Venezuelan of Cuban descent.
With respect to Latino filmmaking, an even greater diversity has been seen in Latino-themed film projects since the 1990s, reflecting the divergent interests of the newest generation of Latino filmmakers. Successful films with Latino themes since the 1990s include American Me (1992), directed by Olmos; My Family/Mi Familia (1995) and Selena (1997), both directed by Nava; and Real Women Have Curves (2002), directed by the Colombian filmmaker Patricia Cordoso. Perhaps the most successful Latino filmmaker today is the Mexican-American Robert Rodriguez (b. 1968), who has established a busy and fruitful career working from his studios in Austin, Texas, on projects that include Latino themes and actors but also aim to appeal to a broad US and global audience. His films have included El Mariachi (1991), Desperado (1995), Sin City (2005), and the family-friendly Spy Kids series beginning in 2000.
The rising visibility and status of Latinos in the industry, combined with increasing desire on the part of film studios to court the Latino audience, has created a virtual "Latinowood" within the traditionally white Hollywood star system. Since the 1990s the roster of Latino actors with name recognition among non-Latinos and Latinos alike has grown exponentially, and these stars often have greater status and opportunity than Latino actors of previous eras. Contemporary Latino stars include Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, Jay Hernandez, Rosario Dawson, Benjamín Bratt, and Michelle Rodriguez. The most powerful and highest-paid Latina in Hollywood today is Nuyorican (New York–born Puerto Rican) multimedia performer Jennifer Lopez. Having found her first opportunities in film and television products helmed by Latinos and African Americans, including the sketch-comedy series In Living Color (1990–1994) and the films My Family/Mi Familia and Selena , Lopez has risen in status to headline her own film projects, often breaking through former ethnic barriers to play roles written for non-Latinas in such films as Out of Sight (1998), The Wedding Planner (2001), and Angel Eyes (2001).
Despite the stardom of a handful of Latinos, the majority of Latino actors continue to face particular challenges, however. A number of factors play into a Hollywood mindset that still puts Latinos at a disadvantage. These include the dearth of Latino film executives and talent agents, and a corresponding lack of Latino creative professionals who might create more complex and positive roles for Latinos to portray. As was documented by a 1999 Tomás Rivera Policy Institute study commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), most
Latino actors and actresses find it extremely difficult to secure talent management or find employment in film or television. In 1998 Latinos comprised only 4.3 percent of total SAG membership, and worked on average only 2.9 percent of actors' work days. Latino actors also were generally cast in supporting rather than leading roles, particularly in comparison to white and African American actors. In addition, Latino film stars still tend to be promoted in ways that echo former stereotypes. This includes an emphasis on a supposed, inherent sexiness and passion and the use in publicity of descriptors related to tropical climates, such as "heat" and "spice." Latino actors and actresses thus often still cannot escape age-old patterns of representation, despite their growing status and the wide diversity among them.
Focusing on all of these fronts, several advocacy groups continue to lobby for more positive and complex portrayals of Latinos in film and television and increased Latino employment and promotion in acting, production, and executive roles. These groups include the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Imagen (image) Foundation, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. The actors' group Nosotros (us), founded decades ago by the actor Ricardo Montalban, also serves to provide support to Latino actors and actresses in Los Angeles. In addition, a number of industry professionals have emerged as strong advocates for Latino opportunity in film, including the producer Moctesuma Esparza, writer-director Gregory Nava, and actor-producer Edward James Olmos, who are among the handful of Latinos who have the ability to spearhead large-scale feature films today.
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