december cover

Loving Your Life

In the early 1980s, there were just a handful of Latinos in Hollywood. Most of us had been in Zoot Suit. Many of us continued our friendship off the stage. We were like a family that included Lupe Ontiveros, Edward James Olmos, Tony Plana, Dyana Ortelli, Evelina Fernández, Sal López, Cris Franco, my husband, Enrique, and most all the other Latinos in the cast, who continue in the business to this day, either as actors, writers, directors and/or producers. We got together for birthdays and anniversaries, attended each other’s baby showers, celebrated our career successes or cried on each other’s shoulders about our disappointments.

In spite of the lack of good roles, most of the members of our core group made a good living, building up our resumes doing television, film, commercials and theater. However, we tired of only being allowed to audition for the same stereotypical roles.

We were a vocal group and we vowed to try to change things. We were always brainstorming, planning and organizing about what we could do to bring about change. We wanted the right to audition for the lead role of a lawyer, teacher, even secretary. But Hollywood wrote very few of those roles for Latinos at that time.

We all became quite resourceful and had to find a way not only to survive but to fight for what we felt was right. We lobbied the two actors’ guilds, attending en masse countless meetings to voice our opinions and propose solutions. Management listened and said they understood and promised to do something about it. They never did.

In 1988, we met with Mario Obledo, then president of LULAC (League of United Latino American Citizens), a Latino advocacy organization that occasionally lobbied Hollywood for better Latino representation. In the end we were told that although our dilemma was an important one, we needed to understand that LULAC had “more important things” to address such as health, education, economic attainment and civil rights. We understood all right. We were on our own.

It was 1992 and things hadn’t changed all that much. In the interim since Zoot Suit had closed, Luis Valdez had gone on to direct La Bamba, the highest grossing Latino-themed film in the history of Hollywood at the time. Now he was working with New Line Cinema to write and direct a movie about world-renown Mexican artist and activist, Frida Kahlo. Our group was thrilled, especially the Latinas, because finally, here was a positive role we could all audition for.

Well, we could have, but New Line Cinema, the production company, was not having any of that. After auditioning only two Latina actresses, Newline declared that they couldn’t find a “box office Latina” to play the role of Frida. We felt betrayed and excluded. Here was a role about one of the most vocal proponents of Mexican culture of her time and Latinas weren’t even being allowed to audition? Frida must have been rolling over in her grave. Instead, they decided Laura San Giacomo was the box office name they needed. Laura San Giacomo who? She’s known now, but at that time she was an actress with minimal credits. Well, that was the last straw.

“I don’t know about you, but I am protesting this, even if I have to do it alone!” The words of Dyana Ortelli, a fellow Zoot Suiter, echoed in the conference room where she had called a meeting that was attended by almost every single Latino actor in Hollywood.

She didn’t have to do it alone. The women coalesced and organized a protest in front of New Line Cinema. We raised the money, sent out press releases, booked the hotel to hold a press conference and made our picket signs. More than thirty national and international, Spanish- and English-language media, outlets covered the protest.

More than two hundred of us, including my two- and thirteen-year-old daughters, marched in front of New Line Cinema dressed up as Frida, uni-brow and all, chanting, “If Frida was alive today, would you let her audition?” We also had the support of actors like Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales (who played Bob Morales—Ritchie Valens’ brother—in La Bamba) and several others who showed up among the protesters.
In the end, New Line canceled the movie and no one got the role. In retrospect, we were glad the movie didn’t get made at that time because it cleared the way for Salma Hayek’s Oscar-winning Frida, released in 2005, which she produced and starred in as Frida Kahlo.

After this experience I realized we could stand up for what we believed and get results. New Line Cinema’s reason for hiring San Giacomo was that there was no “recognizable” Latino talent. We were the talent and we knew where to find it—it was us. We realized there needed to be a forum to highlight the Latino talent in Hollywood.

The impact Latin Heat was having on the industry was growing exponentially, positively affecting the talent that was being covered in our bi-monthly publication. Hollywood began to take notice. The magazine needed my full-time attention now.

My world as I had known it up to then, slowly began to disappear. I no longer had time to go on auditions and, most surprisingly, I didn’t want to go. I was happier to stay and prepare the next issue.

My newfound passion would eventually push aside all that I used to be to make way for all I would eventually become. I was driven as I hadn’t been since my folklórico days. This is where I belonged. It felt right.

As a dancer and actress, my priority had been me. With publishing I was treading unfamiliar waters and it meant I needed to acquire a whole new set of skills. My only prior publishing experience consisted of working as an assistant to an advertising direc- tor at a Spanish-language newspaper, but I needed to know more. A mentor of mine, Kirk Whisler, who heads the Latino Print Network, had been keeping tabs on the progress of Latin Heat, and with his recommendation, I received a scholarship to attend the Stanford Professional Publishing Course at Stanford University.

Never being one to shy away from hard work and the challenge of learning new things, I dove in. If my mother could immigrate with four of her children and raise six kids working two to three jobs at once—without the benefit of speaking English or having more than a fourth-grade education—I could surely handle a new career in publishing.

At the Stanford course, I met the former publisher of Vibe magazine. His new publishing company, Vanguard Media, was looking to get into the Latino market. I gave him my business plan and before I knew it, contracts were on the table. I was ecstatic. Finally, we were going to get the cash infusion that would allow us to print monthly. But I had to give up 80 percent ownership. I hesitated. All I could think was that I would be giving up control of the magazine. Although I would stay on as publisher, I felt the mission of the magazine would be compromised. More importantly, if I gave up 80 percent ownership, Latin Heat would no longer be Latino-owned, and that was important to my husband and me. We turned it down.

We continued without funding and focused on trying to effect change through the power of the written word on a shoestring budget. We were succeeding. We were becoming a voice for a sector of the entertainment community that had long been gagged. I mostly enjoyed the fact that our editorial content was stimulating dialog on a national level. We were gathering an impressive readership that consisted of high-profile entertainment professionals, both Latino and non-Latino.

We were being featured and quoted in local and national magazines, such as Latina, Vogue, Hispanic Business, Hollywood Reporter, Movie Maker Magazine, Hispanic and on local and national television and radio shows. I was invited to speak about Latinos in the industry on panels across the country at uni- versities, conferences and film festivals, even at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. This helped establish Latin Heat as a publi- cation with a strong voice and mission.

The positive response to Latin Heat validated our existence. Drawing on my past political and social consciousness awaken- ings ignited during high school, I was able to identify and convey the Latin Heat mission more clearly. It was about access and positive images.

On a personal level, being a publisher had given me more of a sense of validation, much like what I experienced when I dis- covered folklórico. The relationships established during my acting career helped Latin Heat gain access to the now rising Latino stars for interviews and event participation.

While my relationship with my computer and Hollywood grew stronger than ever, my relationship with my family was on a crash course. I immersed myself in the work, not realizing how much time I was taking away from my family. My focus shifted from my family to making sure the next issue was printed and distributed every other month.

Work could go 24/7. I felt like a wind-up toy that never unwound. Getting together with friends was a luxury. I spent most of my time in the office or in my car driving to and from Burbank, where our offices were located. I didn’t allow myself time to think; life was too busy for that.

I was riding a humongous, thirty-foot wave and I was determined to ride it to the end, but what that end would be, I never stopped to think. What I did know was, I had be tough and work hard to survive, even if I had to do it alone. My pride prevented me from reaching out for help. My self-doubt prevented me from stopping to think things through. I felt if I stopped I might find out that I didn’t have the necessary skills to pull this off!

I had always been proud of my multi-tasking skills, but they seemed to be collapsing under the weight of the overwhelming workload. I was trying to apply my mother’s winning formula of being resourceful, resilient and tough, but I wasn’t getting the results I needed. To make matters worse, I couldn’t do a good job at home and still do a kick ass job at work growing the business.The magazine began to take over my life as my family began to lose out. Yet, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see that it needed to be this way.

I tried being resourceful. I would rush home in hopes of being on time to read my daughter a bedtime story. I would get into bed with her, trying to make up in thirty minutes for being away all day. I hoped that by the end of the story she would be fast asleep and I could feel good that I had done my motherly duties for the day. However, almost invariably, as I was sneaking out of the room, she would open her eyes and say, “Mommy, where are you going”? I would lie back down with her and cud- dle some more, all the while thinking of all the things I needed to get done.

When I did get to bed, about 2:00 or 3:00 AM, I had dreams of budgets, office rentals, ad sales, hiring and managing employees. I would bolt up in the middle of the night, startled that I might have forgotten to do something and vowing to remember when I woke up. My first waking thoughts were always of the office and about the work ahead of me.

Latin Heat had always been high on content but low on funds. Making a profit was a luxury we didn’t have, no matter how resourceful we were. There were many times when my husband and I had to “invest” our personal monies to keep Latin Heat afloat, which created stress and tension in our marriage. My obsession with the magazine was pushing us apart.

Almost from the day we met, my husband and I spent most of our time together. We have always been best friends. We have the same goals, interests and family values, and we truly enjoy each other’s company. Our lifestyles as actors afforded us the luxury of spending more time together than the usual couple. So as that lifestyle diminished, the resentment began. We rarely saw each other. When we did, we often argued about my time away or finances. Good memories during this time were hard to come by, leaving room for more bittersweet ones. ...

Although Latin Heat was an intruder in my family life, I couldn’t leave it. I needed it and it needed me. I would often ask myself how I could be such a bad wife and mother? Other times I rebelled. Why didn’t I have the right to focus all the time I needed on this career? Why couldn’t my family understand that it was important? This situation made it impossible for me to savor the good times.

In 1997, the Hispanic Public Relations Association recognized me with the Premio Award. I was invited to the luncheon to pick up the award. I couldn’t bring myself to invite my husband to go with me. How could I tell him my neglect of my family had resulted in my receiving an award? It was my husband’s validation that mattered to me most. I needed my husband to reassure me that what I was doing was good and important. I needed it to fight my insecurity.

Enrique has always been supportive of whatever I wanted to do. He is not the typical macho man who stands in the way of what I want to do. He has never second-guessed what I did or how I did it. I did that quite well by myself. But I wanted him to tell me that taking time from the family and not finding a balance between family and career was all right. I wanted him to take on all the fam- ily obligations so I could focus on the magazine. The times he did reassure me, I found myself wondering if he really meant it, because deep down inside I knew what I was doing wasn’t right. In retrospect, I realize I was playing the victim, sabotaging myself, setting myself up for failure.

However, that needy person did not show up at Latin Heat. At work, I was a rock because I needed to be in charge. I needed to be in control. I had to be the tough one; work the hardest, get the job done. I mentored young men and women. I often sat with staff, answered questions for our readers or people who’d call the office randomly; I was taking care of their needs before my family’s. It made me feel good to be able to help. I wasn’t thinking straight. My mind was crashing under the strain of dealing with a business growth spurt that could not be financially sustained.

For the most part I kept the business financial problems to myself. My husband had his own career to concentrate on, I reasoned. I usually excluded him from any decisions at Latin Heat. It was only when crises at the magazine would arise that I would have to tell him that I needed his help. Finally, my world came crashing down. My inability to sustain financial stability for Latin Heat finally forced me to lay off most of the staff and close the office. I told no one, other than close family and friends. ...

I was able to keep Latin Heat moving forward. I was even able to find an investor and we began back in earnest. Although we no longer print on a regular basis, Latin Heat now lives on the internet, where more and more magazines are taking their editorial. We are also now producing for film and TV.

Returning home and dedicating more time to my family helped me move from the brink of divorce to rebuilding a relationship with my husband. It was hard and took several years but the effort worked. We joyfully celebrated our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary in 2012.

As for my youngest daughter, she tells me now that she remembered my being gone so much and that is why at bedtime she didn’t want me to leave her bed. I was glad that my decision also allowed me to guide her through the awkward teenage years. Spending her share of time in the Latin Heat offices while grow- ing up gave her an insight into all the work that we did. Now she is part of the Latin Heat team as an on-camera host and also works behind the scenes on production. She has decided she will pursue an acting career.

Where did I get the notion that a woman can do it all with no complications? Maybe it was that darn Enjoli TV commercial I grew up watching. I went like this “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you’re a man. Cuz I’m a Woman.”

I had seen that perfume commercial in the 1980s and bought into it. Why couldn’t I run a business, raise a family, make my husband happy, keep a spotless home and look like a million dollars all at the same time? There were women who could do it all—I had seen them in the movies and on TV! I wanted to be that superwoman. I found out that I couldn’t be and that I needed to make concessions.