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Breaking the Mold

For nearly a century, Hollywood has continued its habit of marginalizing Latina actresses. In the 20s the “Mexican Spitfire” (Lupe Velez) was in vogue; and in the 40s it was “The Brazilian Bombshell” (Carmen Miranda). With the 80s came a new crop of urban stereotypes: the welfare mother, the gangbanger, and the ever-present maid. It took outspoken Latinas like Rita Moreno, who refused to do another “spitfire” role after West Side Story, to correct Hollywood’s myopic vision. And most recently, Salma Hayek, who went from playing steamy roles to becoming the powerhouse producer of the Academy Award-winning film Frida and the hit TV show Ugly Betty on ABC.

Now, a new breed of actresses like Ruth Livier and Lidia Pires are taking their cue from them and breaking Hollywood’s Latina mold. Both Livier and Pires realize that if history has taught them anything, waiting for the role that will get them noticed may not be the best career move. Increasingly, if there is a vision and resolve, Latinas can create their own opportunities and that’s just what these two women are doing.

Livier knew from a very young age that she was going to work in Hollywood. She began acting at age 15 in Guadalajara and after graduating high school, she made the move to Los Angeles. Not long after that, she landed a role in a groundbreaking TV series for Showtime called Resurrection Blvd., about the three generations of the Santiago family who forged their legacy in boxing. Ruth’s portrayal of Yolanda Santiago, a law student, earned her a Best Actress ALMA Award nomination. Loosely based on creator/producer Dennis Leoni‘s family, there wasn’t a maid or gardener to be found. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled in 2003 after only three seasons, and a role of that caliber has not come her way since.

Unwilling to wait for another good role, Livier decided to write it herself. “Write what you know” is an old Hollywood adage and so Livier sat down and wrote Ylse (pronounced ee-l-say) an internet webseries which she also produces and stars in. Ylse centers around the adventures of a bilingual Latina working her way up the talk show circuit, hoping to one day reach the level of her idol Oprah. She utilizes narration throughout the episodes to comment on the action and to highlight “Ylse’s perspective” on everything from politics to padded bras.

In creating this webseries, Livier boldly wrote a character never before seen on either English or Spanish Language TV. Her explanation for creating the series is simple, “Latinas are still largely stereotyped in the English language media and still greatly objectified in the Spanish language media. Neither of these are a realistic representation of what a real Latina is.” The internet affords independent producers like Livier the ability to inexpensively produce and distribute their own shows, without the networks telling them what role they should write and who they should cast. Ylse, which can be seen at, has a rapidly increasing worldwide audience.

Lidia Pires’ own life story is fodder for an uncharted Hollywood story. Growing up the daughter of a United Nations diplomat, Pires considered herself a citizen of the world. She lived and studied in several countries, attending school in New York and studying art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro. She set her sights on acting early on but her parents were none too pleased with her choice and insisted she go to college and earn a degree. As an adult, she returned to her native Paraguay where she began working at an advertising agency, segueing into television production and eventually modeling and appearing in local commercials.

Moving to Los Angeles years later, she worked as a commercial producer; and worked in production on documentaries and film. Although making a good living, she yearned to embark on her earlier passion, acting. When most actresses are considering a change in careers because of the decrease in roles for women over 30, Lidia began her acting career knowing full well that the ingénue or young starlet roles would never be hers. Undeterred, she was happy to finally be doing what she was born to do. “I dedicated myself more to acting at an age when many are considered too old to start,” she says without skipping a beat.

However, there were other aspects of Hollywood Pires was to become painfully aware of. Having grown up abroad, she was not prepared for how Hollywood saw Latinas. “I didn’t see us as Latinas, just as persons. I didn’t grasp that it would be more difficult for a Latina to make it in Hollywood. That was a stumbling block for me; not being able to audition for a high powered attorney, a judge or doctor, even a nurse.”

That is when Pires went into survival mode and diversified. Drawing from her vast experience in production, she was able to pitch and produce her own hosting vehicle in a show she sold to Gems TV. Gems Spas ran for several seasons and she was again working behind the camera, but this time she was also the star of the show. She has also worked as a casting associate, script doctor, and as a PR executive. Being able to communicate in three languages (English, Spanish and Portuguese) proved to be a major plus, allowing her to be able to also work on translations of film scripts. Working as a casting associate, Pires has not been shy about making suggestions as to how a role not written for a Latino can be turned into one. “Writers have the power, and they can convert roles that are typically written for Anglos to be Latino,” Lidia explains. “We have been able to suggest that to writers and have been successful at times.”

Role models like Hayek and Moreno have played an important role in showing Livier and Pires what is possible. Additionally, Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn served as inspiration early on, with their strong convictions and ability to do what they thought was right for their careers. Meryl Streep was also a major influence on Livier, as well as actress Elizabeth Peña (with whom she got to work with on Resurrection Blvd.). Taking note of the impact a show like Ylse is making, Pires is a believer of the potential in utilizing technology to finally get a chance to do more significant Latina roles. “The tides are changing with the advent of digital and the internet, which makes it economically possible for minorities to create roles for themselves that do not fall into stereotypes,” Pires says.

That is precisely what Livier has done with her pioneering work on Ylse. She became the first person ever (not just the first Latina) to join the Writers Guild of America solely from writing a self-financed web series. “Writing my webseries has been a phenomenal experience. I find the process addicting; the more I do it, the more I want to do it,” Livier elucidates. “We get to tell our stories from our POV, shoot them, edit them and distribute them worldwide. My focus is to continue to create projects to give up-and-coming Latino talent material with which to shine.”

Latina actresses today have the opportunity to deconstruct the stereotypes of the past and create new, multidimensional characters for both Latino and non–Latino audiences. The crack in the Hollywood mold is increasingly widening and these two Latinas are among the women responsible for that change.

Bel Hernandez-Castillo is the publisher of