Edward James Olmos: "I wish we didn’t need a Hispanic Heritage Month"

To usher in Hispanic Heritage month, we chatted with iconic actor Edward James Olmos. Olmos is currently working with Warner Bros Digital Distribution on a month-long ON DEMAND presentation of films made by and starring Latinos including Selena (Edward James Olmos, Jennifer Lopez), El Cantante (Marc Anthony), and Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro).

Best known for his Academy Award nominated performance as inspiring teacher Jaime Escalante in Stand & Deliver (now available for download on iTunes), Olmos shared his perspective on everything from the reason we need Hispanic Heritage Month, to the pending release of census data and the progression of Latinos in Hollywood.

Why do you think it’s important for Hispanics to have this time to celebrate our culture in the United States?

I wish we didn’t need a Hispanic Heritage Month. I mean we don’t have a Caucasian Heritage Month, do we? That’s how I’d like us to be, without the need to do this every year, to remind people that are not Latino that we’ve contributed. It should be an ongoing structure that inclusively allows all of us to feel good about ourselves and our participation in this country. I’m tired of it. I don’t think there’s a need for us to have to bring our art forms and our contributions to the forefront when the Caucasian culture doesn’t have to. We’ve been here longer than the Caucasian culture and the First Nations people have been here longer and contributed more to the advancement of this society than any other culture known. So it hurts me every time we do Hispanic Heritage Month to know that, ‘Well, it’s that time again. To remind me that we’re not equal.’ [laughs]

I’m grateful that we have it, don’t get me wrong because a lot of people fought dearly for it, and I’m grateful that we have at least one month in which we say thank you to Latinos, but it kind of makes me angry and that’s not a good feeling.

Do you think that the situation in Hollywood has improved for Latino actors?

Well, we don’t want a hyphen. We don’t want something to go in front of our profession. How many times have you ever heard people say, 'Ladies and Gentleman, this is the great Jewish-American actor Dustin Hoffman?' You never hear that.

It certainly has moved forward, but one of the things you have to take into consideration is that we are well over 55 million people. They’re going to tell us we’re around 46 or 47 [million] because they’re under representing us, and the Census—they really don’t get it. But we make up less than two percent of the images that are defined in any art form. In 2000 after the last Census, they said we’re 14% of the population. African Americans are 12% of the population and they have 17% of the images on the screen.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because when you put out a Latino film people don’t come to see it. more than 57% of the first opening weekend box office of $77 million for Fast and the Furious was Latino. You’re talking about approximately $40 million in one weekend from our culture.

Now imagine if we put out a movie and everybody went to that, went to go see this. We’d have at least $40 million in the box office right there the first weekend and that would make it a hit. Then you’d see two or three more of those being made almost immediately. That’s what happened with the African-American experience. So I really put this on us Latinos.

What do you think about SB 1070?

I feel that whatever law survives is going to be pushed and will be accepted in other states. It’s like English-only. When it passed in one state: Bingo! A lot of states took it on. The whole law cannot go through because of the unconstitutionality of it. We have to wait to see. As far as I’m concerned, they have enough laws already. You don’t need this law. There are laws already implemented and that are there that work fine if they’re enforced. We don’t need anymore.

It’s really complex. This is the deciding factor in the election in the year 2012. It’s the deciding factor on dividing the country. If you think Medicare and health issues are the cause of big divide, it’s going to be much worse with immigration reform.