Lupe Ontiveros Proudly Portrayed Dozens Of Maids

Actress Lupe Ontiveros died Thursday at the age of 69. During her career, she said she played a maid in movies and TV shows 150 times.

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Finally this hour, we remember actress Lupe Ontiveros. She died of cancer last night in Los Angeles at the age of 69. Ontiveros appeared in over 100 movies and TV shows, ranging from "El Norte" to "Desperate Housewives" to "Selena." NPR's Neda Ulaby has her story.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Lupe Ontiveros played maids - dozens and dozens of maids. She played maids through the 1970s in shows like "Alice" and "Charlie's Angels" up until just a few years ago. In 2009, she told NPR most auditions meant having the same conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LUPE ONTIVEROS: You say, you want an accent? Oh, yeah, well, we prefer for you to have an accent. And the thicker and more wobbly it is, the more they like it. And this is what I'm against, really, truly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "REBA")

REBA MCENTIRE: (as Reba Hart) Take the rest of the day off with pay.

ONTIVEROS: (as Penny) I love to, but I don't work for you.

ULABY: That's Ontiveros playing a maid on a network sitcom a few years ago. She played yet another one in the 1997 Oscar-winning movie "As Good as It Gets," who makes the mistake of trying to cheer up Jack Nicholson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AS GOOD AS IT GETS")

ONTIVEROS: (as Nora) Even things like this happen for the best.

JACK NICHOLSON: (as Melvin Udall) Where did they teach you to talk like this? In some Panama City sailor want-to-hump-hump bar, or is this getaway day and your last shot at his whiskey?

ULABY: In spite of the stereotypes and indignities, Lupe Ontiveros made her maids memorable. She was a former social worker who started acting on a dare. She was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. Her parents owned two restaurants and a tortilla factory. As an actress, she sought out roles that showed a multidimensional world. In the acclaimed 1983 movie "El Norte," she played an illegal immigrant convincing a young man to visit his dying sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "EL NORTE")

ULABY: And in 2002's "Real Women Have Curves," she played a mother working unhappily with her daughter in an overheated L.A. sweatshop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES")

ONTIVEROS: (as Carmen Garcia) What are you doing?

AMERICA FERRERA: (as Ana Garcia) Oh, mama, come on. It's so hot. All the steam has me sweating like a pig.

ONTIVEROS: (as Carmen Garcia) Well, we're sweating too, but we're not taking our clothes off.

FERRERA: (as Ana Garcia) Why not? We're all women, mom. We all have the same things.

ONTIVEROS: (as Carmen Garcia) Look at you. You look awful.

FERRERA: (as Ana Garcia) Mama, I happen to like myself.

ULABY: The daughter was played by America Ferrera, who later starred in "Ugly Betty." Ontiveros told NPR she hoped the younger actresses' career could include a broader range of characters than the ones available to an earlier generation of Latino actresses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ONTIVEROS: I long to play a judge. I long to play a lesbian woman. I long to play a councilman, somebody with some chutzpah.

ULABY: Or even somebody not necessarily named Rosalita or Manuela. One of Lupe Ontiveros's favorite roles came in 2000 when she was offered a role in the movie "Chuck & Buck." It was originally imagined as a white woman named Beverly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ONTIVEROS: I said Beverly? Her name is Beverly? I'll do it. I don't care what the script is about because her name is Beverly. It wasn't Maria Guadalupe Conchita Esperanza, this Latino stereotype.

ULABY: The movie's writer, Mike White, said Ontiveros was so sick of stereotypes, he did not offer her the part of a maid in a later project. She was insulted, he said, and wondered why he did not want to work with her again.

MIKE WHITE: And I was like, you know, Lupe, of course, I would want to work with you again. I think you're a genius, but I just, you know, it's like I thought after all the conversations that we've had on the set of "Chuck and Buck," you wouldn't want to be offered a part of a maid. She was like, I want to work.

ULABY: Lupe Ontiveros did want to work. She claimed to play a maid more than 150 times, and she said she did it proudly. Every single one of them, she said, had identity, dignity and culture. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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