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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We continue our series Two Languages, Many Voices today, with the story of two generations of Latino actors in Hollywood. Rita Moreno began her career in the 1940s. Half a century later, John Leguizamo found that not much had changed for Hispanics in the movie industry, as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Rita Moreno is the only Latino actor to win an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar. At nearly 80 years old, she's reprising some of her most memorable characters on stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

In the 1961 movie, "West Side Story," Moreno portrayed feisty Anita, the sister of a gang member - and like Moreno, Puerto Rican.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

RITA MORENO: (Singing) Puerto Rico...

When I got the part, I though, dear God, because she says, (Singing) Island of tropic diseases. And I thought I can't say that. I can't say that about my beautiful little island. Island of tropic diseases? Whew.

BARCO: Moreno says there were other issues with "West Side Story." The director and choreographer wanted a big contrast between the warring gangs, the Sharks and the Jets.

MORENO: So the white kids, a lot of them had to have their hair bleached. They wore extra pale makeup. And we, on the other hand, had to wear - all had to wear one color makeup, very, very dark. Almost the color of mud and it felt like it. So we all had to have accents. And I remember asking the makeup man one day in real annoyance, why can't the makeup match our different skin tones? Because Hispanics are many - some of us are very fair.

BARCO: Still, Moreno says she's grateful for the role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. During the filming of "West Side Story," she created her own Puerto Rican character with an amusing accent: Googie Gomez.

MORENO: One day, I just sort of hiccupped her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES")

MORENO: (Singing) I had a dream, a dream about ju, baby.

And from then on, I just began to do her because she was so funny. She's still funny to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES")

MORENO: (Singing) I had a dream...

A lot of people asked me at the time: Were Latinos offended? I never got one response. They laughed their heads off because they know the character. The big hair, big attitude. She's a huge exaggeration.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES")

MORENO: (Singing) Things look swell. Things look great. Going to...

BARCO: She played Googie Gomez in "The Ritz" and earned a Tony Award. But between the awards, she only got to play what she called the Conchita-Lolita Latina roles or the generic ethnic.

MORENO: I played a Siamese girl from Thailand. I played an Arabian girl. I did a lot of American Indians. I never, ever was able to do a part without assuming some kind of accent.

BARCO: Moreno says it was frustrating and demoralizing to be typecast. But by the 1970s, she was finally able to do something different on television

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY")

MORENO: (as Carmela) Hey you, guys.

BARCO: On the children's show "The Electric Company," she co-starred with Bill Cosby and Morgan Freeman. Today, Moreno plays a Jewish mother on "Happily Divorced." And enjoys watching younger comedic actors, like Sofia Vergara, on "Modern Family."

MORENO: Yeah, she's hilarious.

BARCO: Moreno says Latinos today are rarely given the kind of meaty roles that land them big awards, but that it's a bit easier for them now than when she started out in Hollywood.

MORENO: It's not great but it's a whole lot better. As Ricardo Montalban said, the door is ajar.

JOHN LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, you got to kick your foot in there. And then kick the other foot in and then throw somebody in there quick. Yeah, that's the way you got to do it.

BARCO: Backstage at the Ricardo Montalban Theater in Hollywood, John Leguizamo is getting ready for his latest one-man show about life as a Latino actor.

LEGUIZAMO: It's much better than it's ever been. But I mean we're 15 percent of the population. Why aren't we even close to that in representation?

BARCO: Like Rita Moreno, who was born Rosita Dolores Alveiro, John Leguizamo was pressured by casting agents and managers to change his name.

LEGUIZAMO: And I didn't. I stuck with my name. And then gave them the - I flipped them the bird and I said, I'm going to write my Latin stories that ya'll don't tell, that I can't see anywhere.

BARCO: In a series of one-man shows he wrote himself, Leguizamo began portraying characters from his New York neighborhood and his life. He got the attention of Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONE-MAN SHOW, "GHETTO KLOWN")

LEGUIZAMO: (Foreign language spoken)

BARCO: In Leguizamo's latest show, "Ghetto Klown," the 47-year-old describes his rise from a wisecracking Puerto Rican/Columbian break-dancer to his on-screen roles, beginning with a small part on TV's "Miami Vice."

(SOUNDBITE OF ONE-MAN SHOW, "GHETTO KLOWN")

LEGUIZAMO: The Latin exploitation TV series of the '80s. And I become Calderon Junior, cocaine Colombian Mafia prince. And as you could see, I'm the palest Latin brother of the bunch.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEGUIZAMO: But I blame my grandfather, 'cause when he found out I was doing television he was like, mijito, nenito, only white Latinos make it to Telemundo, mijito.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARCO: And just like Rita Moreno before him, Leguizamo found himself auditioning for the most stereotypical TV and film roles.

LEGUIZAMO: It'd be me and all the same dudes. It'd be Benicio Del Toro, Benjamin Bratt, Esai Morales. And you'd go out there and Jimmy Smits and there'd be all gang leaders, drug dealers, janitors, murderers. And you're like, all these roles, really? Really? Don't we just contribute more? I mean I went to college, man. I'm an educated human being and I know a lots of hyper-educated Latin people.

BARCO: So Leguizamo took aim at the stereotypes. His short lived TV show, "House of Buggin," often satirized Hollywood depictions of Latinos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "HOUSE OF BUGGIN")

LEGUIZAMO: Who would win in a fight, the Crips and Bloods versus the Sharks of "West Side Story?" Pow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARCO: When he did get cast in movies, the former class clown ad-libbed to get attention. He ended up fighting, literally fighting with big stars Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Steven Segall and Patrick Swayze. Leguizamo says he got better opportunities, but still, he hit what he calls the Plexiglass ceiling of Hollywood, or Hollywouldn't.

LEGUIZAMO: The blocks were constant. And they were - I had to constantly overlook them, ignore them. You know, this great producer was like, John, you're so talented, too bad you're Puerto Rican, 'cause you'd be so much farther along.

BARCO: Eventually, Leguizamo had enough clout to create his own Latino characters, like the drag queen Chi Chi Rodriguez in the movie "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything. Julie Newmar."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING. JULIE NEWMAR")

LEGUIZAMO: (as Chi Chi Rodriquez) I'm the Latino Marilyn Monroe. I got more legs than a bucket of chicken.

BARCO: And other roles came his way, too: a Navy SEAL, a cartoon sloth, even a famous French painter in the musical "Moulin Rouge."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOULIN ROUGE")

LEGUIZAMO: (as Toulouse-Lautrec) How do you do? My name is Henri Marie Ramon Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa...

BARCO: Like Rita Moreno a generation before, Leguizamo's made it into Hollywood his way. And he's learned the best roles are the ones you create yourself.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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