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Bit parts and scene stealers: Author shares legacy of Chicano, Chicana actors

In his new book, "Chicano Chicana Americana," Anthony Macías profiles some great Chicano and Chicana actors from the late 1930s on who made their mark in American film, television and theater and redefined what it means to be American in the process.

The book focuses on Katy Jurado, Robert Beltran and Lupe Ontiveros, but Macías' conversation with The Show began with Anthony Quinn, an actor from the 1940s and 50s whose face you would might recognize from parts in everything from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "Zorba the Greek".

Full interview

ANTHONY MACÍAS: He was born in Mexico during the Mexican revolution and raised as a child in El Paso in poverty. And then they moved to California. He actually worked as a farm worker as a young child and then he had many other jobs, very working class.

He became, of the four of these actors that I profile in my book, the four featured artists, he became the the biggest star. He won two Supporting Academy Awards and he was nominated for two best Actor Academy Awards. He currently has an IMDB filmography list of credits that's, you know, well over 100 films.

So tell us a little bit about trying to root out these particular actors and the goal that you had in doing that. Like why did you pick people who are sort of, you know, playing bit parts, sometimes character actors sometimes, but they were in the film industry at a time in which there were not a lot of Chicano and Chicana actors at the time, right?

MACÍAS: That's correct, definitely. I mean, there are some academic books on Latinos in the film industry, Hispanic Hollywood. And so I wanted to, to weigh in on that historiography or that literature, but bring my broader take on American culture, which is my Ph.D. is in American culture and I'm trained as a cultural historian and I teach ethnic studies and especially Chicano/Chicana studies.

So, yeah, I've, I've always been interested in representation, stereotypes, but I try to bring something different to the literature with this notion of pluralism. And just really making the case for Mexican Americans and, and ethnic Mexicans means sort of Mexicans from Mexico and Mexican Americans. But really, I'm trying to make the case for Mexican Americans, Chicanos, Chicanos, they go by many names, as worthy subjects of study.

And with this pluralism notion, I really tried to make the case that their import, that this stuff matters. These bit part actors that steal their scenes and manage to carve out some kind of success. I try to convey to a general audience, the the cultural studies notion that that representation matters, that how you see people and how you perceive them, impacts the way that, that you treat them and and their chances for upper mobility in the American dream.

All these things came up in my book. Meritocracy. All the way back to Abraham Lincoln. Equality of opportunities. So I think these actors were raised on those notions and tried to fight for in this realm of popular culture.

Let's get into the, the acting itself here. Like what kinds of roles did many of these actors play? Were they rife with stereotypes that they were either trying to do better or, or stamp out?

MACÍAS: Yes, let me try to focus in, let me start with Anthony Quinn. I mean, he's larger than life. There's a 75 foot mural of him in downtown Los Angeles. There's a statue of him in Ciudad Juarez, you know, across from El Paso.

So he, you know, he said casting agents thought he was too dark or too exotic. So he actually his first role and many times he played Native Americans, which of course took roles away from working, you know, American Indian actors to play those parts.

So he had looked over, he says early on, I always tried to give Mexicans and Indians, you know, in these movies, these characters, you know, play them with dignity and bring that to it. So he did that, I think he succeeded. And so he eventually became known for really playing all ethnicities. He, you know, obviously, later on he became famous for playing "Zorba the Greek"

But I mean, he's played Basque Spanish, Italian, continued to play Native Americans off and on, he's played Asian. And so I talk a little bit about, I mean, people talk about red face and white actors play native Americans, but a lot of Mexican actors get cast because they look mestizo, that is mixed race with Indian blood from Mexico. So he, you know, that raised the question. It's still red faced, but they're Mexican.

And he took pride in his Indian heritage on his mother's side. I think when it was the, despite the Irish last name, his grandfather was Irish, his father was half Irish. And then he played Arab actors and roles, most famously in "Lawrence of Arabia."

I raised the question is that, what do you call that? Is that brown face? He's already brown. He's really this chameleon, you know, actor that played these protein parts. He had another quote where he says an actor is a snake that sheds its skin. And so he really tried to get into the skin and wear the clothes of these character actors.

That's so interesting. So, I mean, taking someone like that, right? And then the broader list of actors that you've profiled in this book, right? Like you talk about them sort of subtly changing the mainstream throughout their careers. How do you think they did that?

MACÍAS: I mean, I'm trained as a historian. So the professors when we were coming up said, well, does your evidence support your argument? What are your sources? So I try to present it of evidence, you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, you know. That's, that's where the pluralism comes in. It's kind of an old-fashioned concept, I guess.

But to me, it's very all American and I wanted to bring it back because the more I studied the history of this idea, pluralism means ethnic groups in our case. And under pluralism in our system, you know, e pluribus unum, that's out of many, one.

But pluralism is, it's not quite the reverse out of one many, but that's, that's the balance and that's an all American, not struggle but, you know, dynamic dialectic where under pluralism, the ethnic or racial groups, they're not minorities in the sense of what we would think of now. But they, they maintain their cultural traditions and their heritage and their, what we would call identity, you know, but they speak English, you know, they're raised here.

They're often quite patriotic, like some of my actors in my study art. And so they're not separatists, like in the 1960s kind of nationalism, but they're not fully assimilated and, and in large part in Chicano studies, we talk about that's the Chicano condition to be betwixt and between. ...

Yeah, you're not from here. No, you're from their generation like me. But when you go to Mexico, they call you ... which means you've been bleached of your culture. You know, you're Americanized, whitewashed.

Katy Jurado and Anthony Quinn, they were of that early generation where they were forcing all of it to integrate, to accept them on their own terms. And then the other two, Beltran and Ontiveros, you could argue had it easier because of the early generations that paved the way.

But I mean, Lupe Ontiveros, for example, she didn't have it much easier. She faced stereotypes even worse than Anthony Quinn would, I would argue, as a woman, she said she had three strikes against her. She was a woman, she was a Latina, right, Mexican woman, and then she was middle aged by the time she tried to start acting, you know, and in her terms, in her own words, you know, she looked Indigenous so they always cast her as a maid.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.