Latino Hollywood legends, from the silent film era to today Latinos have been part of Hollywood since the silent film era but are still underrepresented in front of and behind the camera.

Latino legends helped pave the way in Hollywood, but the road is still rocky

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Latinos have been part of Hollywood since the silent movie era. But today, studies show Latino actors get just 7% of film leads, while nearly 18% of the country is Hispanic. In the first of a five-part series on Latinos in Hollywood, NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us about a few silver screen legends.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: I'm standing here in Hollywood at the Spanish-style mansion that once belonged to Dolores del Rio. In the 1920s, she threw lavish parties with her friends, like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich. She came here as an immigrant from Mexico and became one of Hollywood's biggest stars, starting out in the silent films.

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DOLORES DEL RIO: (Singing in non-English language).

DEL BARCO: That's del Rio singing a waltz to publicize her 1928 film, "Ramona." She was called the most beautiful woman in Hollywood and was a hit in the talking pictures.

CYNTHIA PRIDA: She was seen as an exotic woman.

DEL BARCO: Cynthia Prida is the consul for cultural affairs for the consulate general of Mexico.

PRIDA: She played the European, very sophisticated woman, and she played the Indigenous woman. She was so sure of herself. That's why we're still celebrating her almost after a hundred years.

DEL BARCO: In the early days of cinema and to this day, Anglo actors played so-called Spanish roles, sometimes in brownface, while Latinos were used as background extras or cast in cliched roles.

LUIS REYES: You know, stereotypes - oh, you're Latino. You'll play the bandido.

DEL BARCO: Luis Reyes is author of a new book called "Viva Hollywood."

REYES: There was a guy that played a bandido so often he had his own costume. It was about earning a living. I got black hair. I look dark. You wanted me to be a cantina girl? No problem.

DEL BARCO: USC professor Laura Isabel Serna says it was different for Dolores del Rio.

LAURA ISABEL SERNA: She's exotic-looking, but she's not particularly dark. I think that works for the studios, as it continues to work for the studios today. So she's portrayed as being very acceptable, and she was very insistent that she didn't want to play roles that she considered stereotypical.

DEL BARCO: Del Rio's second cousin, Ramon Novarro, started in Hollywood even earlier in 1917. He went from being an extra to starring in the 1925 silent film "Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ."

SERNA: His last name is actually Samaniego, and he is urged to change it, right? But he takes up this role of the Latin lover.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MATA HARI")

RAMON NOVARRO: (As Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff) I love you as one adores sacred things.

DEL BARCO: That's Novarro in the 1931 film "Mata Hari." The studios also used another trope for comedic effect - the hot-tempered, fast-talking, spicy wildcat Latina.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH FLYERS")

LUPE VELEZ: (As Juanita) Hello? West Newton Police Station? (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Lupe Velez - here in the 1937 film "High Flyers" - was known as Lupe Tabasco Velez. She starred in no less than eight Mexican Spitfire movies. Then there were the sultry femme fatales not billed as Hispanic, like Raquel Welch, whose father was Bolivian, and Rita Hayworth, whose dad was from Spain. Here she is in the classic 1946 film, "Gilda."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GILDA")

RITA HAYWORTH: (As Gilda Mundson, singing) Put the blame on Mame, boys. Put the blame on Mame.

REYES: Rita Hayworth - she was Margarita Carmen Cansino.

DEL BARCO: Reyes says the studios may have Anglicized names to appeal to white audiences, but that didn't mean the actors were ashamed of their heritage. And some, like Dolores del Rio, returned to their roots. In the 1940s, she helped launch Mexico's golden age of cinema. But in Hollywood, it took years for the Academy Awards to give its first Oscar to a Latino actor. Puerto Rican Jose Ferrer got it for playing an adventurer, swordsman and poet in the 1950 film "Cyrano De Bergerac."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CYRANO DE BERGERAC")

JOSE FERRER: (As Cyrano de Bergerac) Know that I glory in this nose of mine for a great nose indicates a great man.

DEL BARCO: Actor Edward James Olmos credits Oscar winners Ferrer and Mexican American actor Anthony Quinn for paving the way for later generations to play serious non-Latino roles. But like those before him, Olmos says he was often cast in cliched roles.

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: It didn't mean that I played them stereotypically.

DEL BARCO: The head of casting at MGM asked him to change his name, so he did - from Eddie Olmos to Edward James Olmos.

OLMOS: I am a Latino actor, and I'm proud of it. I said no to more things than I said yes. My intention was to tell stories about me and my culture.

DEL BARCO: The actor, born in East LA, starred in some of the most iconic Chicano films - "Zoot Suit," "The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez," "Stand And Deliver" and "Selena."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELENA")

OLMOS: (As Abraham Quintanilla Jr) Our family has been here for centuries, and yet they treat us as if we just swam across the Rio Grande.

DEL BARCO: Before that, in 1962, Rita Moreno was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar.

(SOUNDBITE OF 34TH ACADEMY AWARDS)

RITA MORENO: I can't believe it.

DEL BARCO: Moreno, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, remembers playing a lot of what she called the Conchita Lolita Latina rules, or the generic ethnic.

MORENO: I never, ever was able to do a part without assuming some kind of accent.

DEL BARCO: ...Even for her Oscar-winning turn as Anita in the musical "West Side Story."

MORENO: We all had to wear one color makeup - very, very dark. 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 different - some of us are very fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

MORENO: (As Anita, singing) Life can be bright in America.

DEL BARCO: Now, at age 90, Rita Moreno is still acting in Hollywood. In fact, she has several new movies coming soon. She was in last year's "West Side Story" remake where newcomer Ariana DeBose played Anita.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

DEL BARCO: (As Anita, singing) You forget I'm in America.

DEL BARCO: DeBose made history at this year's Academy Awards, where she accepted her Oscar.

(SOUNDBITE OF 94TH ACADEMY AWARDS)

ARIANA DEBOSE: You see a queer - openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina who found her strength in life through art. And that's what I believe we're here to celebrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF 94TH ACADEMY AWARDS)

JOHN LEGUIZAMO: All these beautiful Latinx faces - we got great representation here tonight, people.

DEL BARCO: Actor John Leguizamo was all smiles at this year's Oscars ceremony, but for years, he's railed about Hollywood's limited opportunities for Latino actors and stories. He recently shared his outrage on social media when film producers cast white actor James Franco to play Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

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LEGUIZAMO: I grew up in an era where Latin people couldn't play Latin people on film, where Charlton Heston played a Mexican, were Pacino played Cuban and Puerto Rican. They told you to change your name, stay out of the sun, that only white Latinos or white-passing Latinos will get jobs. I mean, I've been told so many times you can't have two Latin people in the movie. Otherwise people think it's a Latin movie, and you know how - whatever. So appropriating our stories - no, no more of that. I'm done with that.

DEL BARCO: Out here on Hollywood Boulevard, you find the sidewalk stars of some Latino legends. But for many Latino actors, navigating the film industry still feels like one step forward, one step back and triple steps in the same spot. It's the Hollywood cha cha cha.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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