Lupe Ontiveros – A Remembrance
By Jesús Treviño
On July 26, 2012, acclaimed actress Lupe Ontiveros passed away, the victim of cancer. She left behind a career that spanned more than thirty-five years of performing on stage, in motion pictures and on television.
I first met Lupe Ontiveros when she was acting in the Mark Taper production of “Zoot Suit” in 1978. Having been a member of the Teatro Campesino, and friends with Luis and Daniel Valdez, I had an opportunity to meet and become friends with many of the “Zoot Suit” cast members. Lupe’s performance, as the mother of Della, Henry Leyva’s girlfriend, drew my attention. She was stunning and real, an honest and positive portrayal of the iconic Mexican American mom.
The following year I started casting for my own film, the American Playhouse drama “Seguín.” I couldn’t help but remember her. As it turned out, the cast of “Seguín,” like that of “Zoot Suit,” was a veritable whos-who of up-and-coming Latino actors of the time. It included A Martinez, Rose Portillo, Henry Darrow, Danny De La Paz, Alma Martinez, Edward James Olmos, Pepe Serna, Enrique Castillo, Leon Singer. Lupe Ontiveros played the role of Antonia Flores, mother to Manuel Flores (Pepe Serna) close friend of Juan Seguín.
We shot the film in the parched desert of Bracketville, Texas, where John Wayne had created a life-size replica of the original Alamo. That is where I got to know Lupe better. I discovered that Lupe was a dedicated, dependable and inventive actress who was game to do what it took to make “Seguín” the best film possible. She carried this passion to achieve the highest quality possible throughout her career. In spite of our limited resources, the dusty, wind-swept locations, a screenplay that, due to my inexperience was a work-in-progress, and grueling 110 degree temperatures, she never complained. When the filming was over, I knew that I had made a life-long friend and someone with whom I would collaborate in the years that followed.
Lupe was game to collaborate on both high budget and low budget film projects.
In 1982, we worked together on a Rainbow Movie of the Week, “Jesse,” in which she played the mother of a teenage migrant farm hand with aspirations of attending college. Though a modest role, much of the drama revolved around the young male lead, she nonetheless focused each screen moment with intensity, ever attentive and ready to step in when I needed her.
Later, in 1978, I cast her in the CBS Afterschool Special “Gangs,” where she gave a commanding performance as the troubled but loving mother of a wayward Mexican American boy on the verge of joining a gang. In a touching kitchen scene with her son, she managed to personify the quiet angst of every mother who has ever had a son in jeopardy. The Directors Guild Award for best Daytime Drama that I garnered that year was, I am certain, due in part to performances like the one that Lupe delivered for me.
By now, Lupe had matured as an actress. She was beginning to get roles and the recognition that would lead to her outstanding performances in such motion pictures as “Goonies,” “El Norte,” “Selena,” “Real Women Have Curves” and such television shows as “Southland,” “Reba,” “Desperate Housewives” and, more recently, “Rob.”
Throughout her career Lupe never lost sight of her roots. She was master of ceremonies for many worthwhile causes, including a fundraiser at the Los Angeles Theater Center for AB 540, a state bill that would allow undocumented students to pay local fees for college entrance rather than out of state fees. She supported the literary arts, performing gratis at fundraisers for Houston-based Arte Público Press. She understood that literacy and education are vital to our community. She became a de facto ambassador of United States Latino cinema to the world, serving as a juror at the International Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, and as a representative to the San Sabastian Film Festival in San Sabastian, Spain. Most significantly, she gave of herself to her most cherished cause, the hearing impaired.
Lupe understood the importance of grooming a new generation of Latino talent in the motion picture and television industry. Because of this, she lent her acting talents to numerous low budget and independent films by struggling Latino filmmakers.
One such film was “The Trouble with Toñia,” a comedy written and directed by Juan Garza. He recalls, “We shot our little film over two weekends. Lupe not only showed up on time and prepared, she also brought her own hair and makeup crew and boy they all knew how to have a good time. They’d be joking and listening to Lupe’s “vivacious” war stories and follow it with laughter that rocked the house. That was the Lupe we knew, a consummate professional whose energy and spirit always made our work days fly by. I’ll be forever grateful to have known and worked with Lupe. She was a real treasure.”
Another effort by a young filmmaker who later would go on to more ambitious projects, was the PBS drama “La Carpa,” written and directed by Carlos Avila. He remembers that, “Lupe had a spirit that could fill a stadium. Her generosity toward new filmmakers was equally abundant. On my first project out of film school, the low budget American Playhouse film. “La Carpa,” her creativity was in overdrive. When she worked, she added details and verbal asides that gave layers to a scene you I never imagined. For a director, Lupe was your ace in the hole. She made you look good and she never let you down.”
Yet another filmmaker, Enrique Berumen, recalls Lupe agreeing to work on his low budget film short. “In 1999, I wrote a spoof on a Latina actress who only got to play ‘maids” in Hollywood in spite of her talent. Who else would fit this role? La Lupe! I sent her the script but I never thought she’d agree to work with on a lower than low-budget short. Did she ever! We had wonderful rewriting and rehearsal sessions; she recommended actors for supporting roles; she had the crew in stitches during breaks; and she showcased her innate talent of becoming the character on the written page. She was always a generous professional y una gran comadre. El cielo heredó una estrella más. Shine on, Lupe.”
My own final collaboration with Lupe was in 2004 on an independent comedy I directed and produced titled “In Search of Azltán.” Unlike other projects where I could offer her a salary worthy of her now accomplished and in-demand acting career, my comedy was self-financed. It was a labor of love spoof about finding the historic ruins of an ancient Aztec civilization which featured the Culture Clash comedy trio of Richard Montoya, Herbert Siquenza, and Ric Salinas.
Lupe understood the project was coming out of my pocket and, without a moment’s hesitation, agreed to play the role of Tonanztin (the Virgin of Guadalupe) for the minimal fee I could provide. Nonetheless, she brought to her performance the same professionalism and high standards which she applied to the multi-million dollar productions which now courted her talents.
Lupe is truly a role model for all Latinos and Latinas in the entertainment industry. She achieved the highest respect and accomplishment in the highly competitive fields of both motion pictures and television, but never forgot her roots. She will truly be missed by all who knew her.