John Leguizamo & Rita Moreno On Being Latino in Hollywood

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Such is the case for actors John Leguizamo and Rita Moreno. Though their careers launched decades apart, both experienced similar hurdles in Hollywood because of their Latino identities. As part of NPR’s 2 Languages, Many Voices series, the Colombian actor and Puerto Rican actress reflected on their acting experiences and on their current shows.

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The legendary 79-year-old won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the 1961 movie version of West Side Story, in which she played Anita, a feisty Latina. Moreno, who is the only Latina actress to ever win an Emmy, Oscar, and Tony, recalled what it was like when she got the part. “I thought, ‘Dear God,’ because she [Anita] sings, ‘Island of tropic diseases,’” Moreno said, “and I thought, ‘I can't say that about my beautiful little island. Island of tropic diseases? Whew!'"

Conflict with her character’s lines wasn’t the only issue Moreno ran up against during her time filming West Side Story; according to her, the director and choreographer wanted a contrast between the movie’s opposing gangs, so they made the Latino actors put on the same color makeup, which resembled the color of mud. “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 [tones]... some of us are very fair!”

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Moreno also felt demoralized to be typecast into just-ethnic roles. “I was never able to do a part without assuming some kind of accent,” she said. Now, Moreno has a solo show titled Life Without Makeup, which she is performing at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. “Things are a lot—not great, but better,” Moreno said about Latinos in Hollywood, quoting actor the late Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán.

For Colombian-born Leguizamo, being Latino in Hollywood brought pressure from casting agents to change his name. The 47-year-old actor/comedian stuck to his name. “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,’” he told NPR. Leguizamo did just that – he got the attention of Hollywood by portraying characters from his neighborhood in New York.

Then he found himself auditioning for the most stereotypical television/film roles,  “You'd go out there and [the roles were] all gang leaders, drug dealers, janitors, murderers,” he said. “And you're like, ‘All these roles? Really? Don't we contribute more?’ I mean, I went to college, man. I'm an educated human being, and I know a lot of hyper-educated Latin people.”

The blocks were constant,” Leguizamo told NPR, referring to his time navigating through Hollywood. “I had to ignore them.” Or just make his own opportunities, which he has done time and time again. Now, Leguizamo has a new one-man show titled Ghetto Klown.