Elizabeth Pena: Trailblazer on the big screen
CHICAGO — It’s no overstatement to say that we lost a trailblazer when Elizabeth Pena died earlier this month. To note that she was wonderful, but not exceptionally famous, isn’t a knock on her abilities. It is a testament to her undervalued contributions to the performing arts.
Pena broke a major barrier for Hispanic women in Hollywood: playing a woman, not a “Hispanic” woman. Formerly, only women who Anglicized their names — such as Jo Raquel Tajada aka Raquel Welch — pulled that off.
Though several advocacy organizations complain about a lack of Latino representation in Hollywood, Hispanics have been part of mainstream entertainment for as long as movies have been around. At the dawn of film, some actors changed their names to sound Latino in order to capitalize on the “Latin lover” trend in movies — Jacob Krantz morphed into Ricardo Cortez and went on to stardom in the 1930s.
I’ve never lived in a world without Desi Arnaz in “I Love Lucy” reruns, Rita Moreno in “West Side Story” or Freddie Prinze in “Chico and the Man.”
By the time I was 10, Latina actress Maria Conchita Alonso had played an immigrant in “Moscow on the Hudson,” and the Spanish-language “El Norte” — a film about illegal immigrants from Guatemala struggling in America — was being screened in American art-movie houses. Hispanic actors were playing Hispanic roles in movies such as “Zoot Suit,” and on the TV show “Fame.”
But men broke into non-ethnic roles first. The great Anthony Quinn in so many films, notably “Zorba the Greek,” Ricardo Montalban as the villain in “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan,” Edward James Olmos as Gaff in “Blade Runner” and Hector Elizondo as Arthur Willis in “The Flamingo Kid.”
The ladies stayed stuck for a long time. Obviously, the females in the casts of, say, “Born in East L.A.” or “Stand and Deliver” played to type beautifully. But, still, to type.
My first recollection of seeing a Hispanic actress play a non-Hispanic role — one in which she was just a normal, American female without an accent, a sassy attitude or scant attire — was Elizabeth Pena as Jezzie, Tim Robbins’ love interest in the 1990 thriller “Jacob’s Ladder.”
Pena, a Cuban-American, went on to play any number of down-to-earth, beautiful and, above all, smart women. She was demolition specialist Tania Johnson in “Rush Hour” early in her career, the steel-haired spy Mirage in “The Incredibles” and so many other supporting roles. She opened doors for the Hispanic actresses who today play interesting characters, and not cliched “Hispanics.”
I bristle that Pena was referred to as a “’Modern Family’ actress” in death notices. “Modern Family,” a popular TV show that doesn’t boast many Hispanic fans, was neither her shining moment nor most recent role.
The clips that ABC posted on a special page dedicated to Pena did nothing to illustrate what an authentic, vivid character she could be. What irony that Pena will be remembered — to those unfamiliar with her extensive work — as an accented stereotypical Latina mami (the Sofia Vergara character’s mom) on a show that glorifies the fiery, sexy Latina.
But it turns out Pena was in a bad place when she died.
It’s not difficult to imagine that the pressure to conform to Hollywood’s image of how a Hispanic woman should act, what a mid-50s woman should look like or what types of projects a Hispanic director should undertake was believed to be a major contributor to her death from complications of alcoholism. But she’ll be remembered fondly.
Esai Morales, a Hispanic actor who advocates for more Hispanics in TV and film, put it best:
“I get choked up when I think of the example Elizabeth gave, and I think of my own daughter and the influences out there that reduce women to hot chicks,” Morales told NBC News. “We all struggle with the temptation to just work hard to feed our family and extended family and not denigrate the image we need to see of ourselves.
“Elizabeth showed you don’t have to sell yourself short and you don’t have to sell yourself. She did not play her race; she brought an indefinable dimension that you can’t buy, sell or trade.”
Pena’s struggles and triumphs made a difference. May her pioneering ease the way for other stereotype-busting artists who wrestle with the demons of society’s expectations.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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