In the new drama “Windows on the World,” Edward James Olmos plays an undocumented busboy working at the restaurant that was destroyed on 9/11. The moving immigration story, which debuted for free this week on the Latino-focused streaming site Vix, is just the latest turn in a storied career that includes an Oscar nomination for Olmos’s work in “Stand and Deliver” (1988), making him one of the few American-born Latino actors ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Outspoken on the issue of representation in Hollywood, Olmos believes the industry doesn’t understand the distinct worldviews of Latinos born and raised in the United States vs. those from Latin America. Quarantining alone in Los Angeles, Olmos has been binge-watching, reading screenplays and promoting the virtual version of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. In two recent conversations, he spoke about Hollywood’s treatment of Latino actors, telling the stories of undocumented immigrants and why his most fulfilling enterprise at the moment involves teaching. Here are edited excerpts from our discussions.
In the history of the Academy Awards, only a handful of U.S.-born Latino actors have been nominated or have won. However, Latin American performers have been recognized more frequently. Why do you believe that’s been the case?
For American-born Latinos it’s been an opportunity thing. They don’t put us in the stories. They don’t use us to play those roles. I thought Jennifer Lopez should’ve been nominated for [the 1997 biopic] “Selena.” It’s one of her most stellar pieces of work. There haven’t been many opportunities for us to really garner that kind of accolade. I was very fortunate. I didn’t think I’d get nominated for “Stand and Deliver,” but I did. I understand today more than ever, 32 years later, what the power of that piece of work was. It’s one of the most seen films ever in the United States because of the usage in schools throughout America for the last 30 years.
Do you feel like the industry understands the difference between American-born Latinos and people from Latin America?
Not at all — they should know, because a lot of them are culturally from another place, too. They know damn well that if they’re Italians and they were born here, they’re different than the Italians born in Italy. And if they’re Jews living here, they’re different than the Jews living in Israel. If you’re born here, you’re a completely unique individual. You’ll speak with the rhythms of the dialect of your family, wherever they’re from, but it’s different. Your thought process is different.
Of all the labels used to refer to people in our community, which one do you identify yourself with?
I’m Latino 100 percent. I’m Chicano 100 percent. I’m not afraid of those words. A lot of my friends who are Latinos — Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans — they don’t want the word Latino used to refer to them. They just want to be actors. We want to be known as American actors. That’d be the correct way, but it isn’t. And I knew it would never be in my lifetime. I knew that we had to first be known as American Latinos, and carry that very strongly and proudly, for us to then be able to not have to use it anymore.
In “Selena,” where you played her father, Abraham Quintanilla, you deliver a poignant speech about this bicultural condition that really connects with many Mexican-Americans and Latinos. Growing up, did you feel like you existed in between two cultures?
That was one the greatest scenes I’ve ever gotten to do. People really appreciate it because it’s a very strong truth. I’ll never forget when I started to use the word Chicano, my father got angry. He’s from Mexico and he came here in 1945 legally and he married my mother, who was a Chicana. I was the first one of his family born in the United States of America. We weren’t Mexican to the Mexicans. We were Americans. We were from here, and yet when we would come back across the border, the guards would say, “You guys are Mexicans.”
Why did your father get upset with you for calling yourself a Chicano?
The word is interesting because it’s a term that for him was not conducive to understanding what we were. For him we were Mexican-American. We weren’t Chicano. “What the hell does that mean?” he’d said. “You are not a Chicano, you are Mexican-American.” I said, “Well, when we go to Mexico they don’t like us. When we come back they don’t want us. Neither one of them want us. So we are not Mexican-American, we are Chicano.” That was about 1964 or 1965 when we started to use it. Chicanismo hit hard. I love being Chicano. It’s a very empowering word.
In “Windows on the World,” directed by your son Michael D. Olmos, you play an undocumented father who survived 9/11 but gets caught up in the immigration system.
It’s a story that has never been told. It gives a voice to people who died that day and whom nobody really took into consideration. It hasn’t been told because nobody has cared enough about the undocumented workers who were working up in the Twin Towers. The movie allowed us to take a look at what a family would do to survive, and how love makes them withstand incredible turmoil. One of the co-writers, Robert Anderson, read an article that didn’t mention anything about anybody who worked at the Windows on the World restaurant. Curiosity took hold of him and he thought, “Wait a minute, Latinos were probably in that restaurant.” Then the investigation started. To this day, the names of the undocumented people who died on 9/11 don’t appear on the scrolls commemorating the deceased.
One way that you and your team at the Latino Film Institute are changing the narrative around Latinos in entertainment is the Youth Cinema Project, giving children from marginalized communities access to the industry in an educational setting.
It makes a difference when you provide this opportunity to young minds of color, not only Latinos. This is how we’re really going to be able to expand change. During this quarantine, I’ve been working a lot with the Youth Cinema Project. Because of the situation, our students weren’t able to finish their projects, so we get the scripts they wrote and have great young Latino actors from multiple television shows do a live read of them online [available on YouTube]. Our young writers, who are between the ages of 8 and 12, get to introduce the actors and then their stories come to life.