Black History Month in February gets attention, but Hispanic Heritage Month gets little, perhaps because it's oddly not a month but-since 1988-a 30-day period from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 that commemorates the time in 1821 when many Latin American countries declared their independence from Spain.
I asked two fine husband-and-wife actors, Tony Plana and Ada Maris, about movie depictions of Latinos-and we also talked about revolutions and Three Amigos. Here are excerpts.
Tony, you've fought against ethnic stereotyping both in your own acting and through your efforts as co-founder and executive artistic director of the East L.A. Classic Theatre.
Plana: It's interesting: You study at the Royal Academy In London, doing Shakespeare, trying to play professionally, and you're "Gang Member No. 2." But that classical training gave me an edge. I could work the environment, and people would say, "Hire that guy."
Maris: In Nurses, on NBC, I played an immigrant nurse, and constantly my speeches began with, "Ēn my village ..." so I learned to do it, and enjoy it, 'cause I could make anything funny with that accent.
Lemonade from lemons?
Plana: Immigrants with that accent sound funny, but we used to laugh because all these people from great colleges, educated to at least a middle class sensibility, were now playing street: You had all these guys going around "Eh, yo, wha's happenen?" [laughter].
Maris: I had spent my whole lifetime learning what I considered to be normal, American speech, watching Mary Tyler Moore. Then I get into the business and need to speak with an uneducated, immigrant accent. I had to teach myself how to speak that way because otherwise I was unemployable.
Tony, was your role as the widowed father on the television series Ugly Betty better?
Plana: Yes, that Latino family projected a loving picture of who we are, culturally, and why family is so central to Latin culture. I do think that Latinos are now able to play more regular characters, but many studio executives still don't believe that Hispanic MBAs exist, even though Latinos are very successful, the highest percentage of small business owners.
Ada, have you seen other types of stereotyping in that occasional role you have on One Life to Live?
Maris: I play the conservative Christian mother of a college freshman. A lot of scenes were written very specifically for another character to lecture me on why my viewpoint is misguided and mistaken. I had one scene to declare my viewpoint, and then this one character who's been on the show for 40 years was to lecture me. But, the funny thing was, when it came time for my speech, I was able to deliver it in a very human manner, and it came across as reasonable, useful, and heartfelt. When it came time for her part, she yelled "Cut." She was very upset that it wasn't going very well, that she didn't have material to work with.
How about playing Captain Erika Hernandez on Star Trek: Enterprise?
Maris: I had my own starship [laughter]. That was a tough role for me, because I'm used to playing girlfriends and mothers, and here I am on the deck of a starship and commanding all these people, saying things like "Take us to warp." I'm used to saying "Go to your room" if people talk back to me.
Tony, since you were born in Cuba, did you enjoy playing Cuban dictator Batista in the movie Fidel?
Plana: I've been attracted to movies about upheavals in other countries. When I read a script like that, it fascinates me.
Maris: Not every actor can fill those roles. He's often cast as some Latin-American politician up on a balcony.
Plana: I do it at breakfast every morning.
Maris: And we wonder why our kids are like that [laughter]. Lot of drama in our house.
Tony, after Castro came to power your dad, a banker, sent you and your mother out of Cuba in December 1960-and he stayed for another three months ...
Plana: This is the irony of the Cuban revolution: Che Guevara, a political philosopher who knew nothing about economics, took over the banking system. He executed a lot of people. My father wanted to make sure we were out of harm's way before he resigned. We were blessed: He was allowed to leave the country.
When you see college students wearing Che Guevara shirts, does that fry you?
Maris: Drives us crazy.
Plana: It's so ignorant. I like the one that looks like Che Guevara, but when you come closer it says "Cher."
OK, I have to ask you how you came to be in one of the funniest Westerns ever, Three Amigos?
Plana: I had done a film with Oliver Stone in Mexico called Salvador, and Stone asked me to be in his film about Vietnam, Platoon. He still hadn't paid me for my last week of work with him, and this was going to be 16 weeks in the Philippines, at scale pay. All of a sudden I got this offer for a lot more money with better lodging. I was developing a reputation as a dramatic actor, and this was my opportunity to do comedy.
Plana: That year, Platoon got the Oscar for Best Picture and $200 million at the theater. Three Amigos didn't go so well in the theaters, yet it's become a cult film. Marty Short said he had to hide that movie in his house because his children watch it night and day.
Maris: We meet more writers who tell us about it being their guilty pleasure.
Plana: I met Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. When Affleck realized I was Jefe in Three Amigos he said, "Matt, come here." Whenever we're apart for a long time and we meet again as friends, we do the whole "Plethora of Piñata" scene to each other.
Great scene: I've watched the movie and seen the scene on YouTube. People often ask you to say lines from it?
Plana: I use this line on my wife all the time: "Could it be that you are mad at something else, and are taking it out on me?"